"Major Tom" brought to earth as Merkel says 'Nein'

Thu Oct 11, 2012 2:22am EDT
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By Jason Neely

LONDON (Reuters) - Tom Enders was flying high six weeks ago; newly elevated to the top job at Europe's EADS, his secret merger deal to create the world's biggest aerospace group and rid himself of burdensome government meddling was preparing for launch.

But when "Major Tom", a pugnacious paratroop officer in the German army reserve, took off to go hang-gliding in late August, things began to go wrong. A painful crash that left his arms strapped up, robot-style, kept him only briefly from work; but it prevented him flying with Chancellor Angela Merkel on a trip to China where he might have hoped to win her as an ally.

In the end, it seems unlikely even the most persuasive of her countrymen would have stopped Merkel shooting down the plan to merge with British defense contractor BAE Systems, which the firms pulled on Wednesday after governments failed to agree.

But the tale of Enders' untimely fall to earth will stand as an image of how his daring bid to break the Airbus manufacturer free of political interference was brought down by exactly the kind of diplomatic turbulence he had hoped to put behind him.

Within a couple of weeks of his accident, word of the $45-billion merger talks leaked, triggering a regulatory deadline in Britain to wrap up a deal by Wednesday; an ill-tempered free-for-all broke out among ministers in Paris, Berlin and London as well as corporate and institutional shareholders, many of them suspicious that Enders had been keeping them in the dark.

Yet although the 53-year-old launched the idea with BAE Chief Executive Ian King in total secrecy in May, shortly before succeeding Frenchman Louis Gallois as CEO of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. on June 1, the straight-talking Enders had never hidden his disdain for a corporate structure designed to protect national interests after a messy marriage 12 years ago.

A particularly vocal public row a couple of years ago when Enders demanded more government backing up front for EADS' new military transport aircraft, the A400M, had won him few friends in politics, not least among his fellow Germans. And he kept on the offensive over the past year about those state holdings.

These clipped EADS' wings, he argued, when it needed to fly free to compete, notably with American arch-rival Boeing.   Continued...

Tom Enders, the new CEO of EADS, poses ahead of the annual general meeting in Amsterdam May 31, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Vreeker/United Photos