September 24, 2014 / 6:09 PM / in 3 years

Airbus Group appoints new boss for UK operation

TOULOUSE, France, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Airbus Group announced a new boss for its UK operations on Wednesday, bringing in a former executive from French defence and avionics firm Thales to oversee one of its core European manufacturing centres and defence markets.

Paul Kahn, 48, was most recently the chief executive of Thales Canada and has also worked for Ford and the UK Ministry of Defence, where he reviewed procurement processes.

He will start the new role on Oct. 1, Airbus Group said.

He will replace one of the aerospace industry’s best known negotiators, Robin Southwell, 54, who told Reuters he had been considering stepping down for some time to embark on a career in private equity and pursue other interests.

Airbus Group employs 17,000 people in the UK where it builds the wings of its passenger jets, including the A380 superjumbo, and supplies defence platforms such as refuelling tankers.

Known for an outspoken but charismatic style, Southwell recently described a UK government defence discussion document as “less of a white paper and more like a white flag”. Former civil servant Kahn is unlikely to display the same chutzpah.

But he betrayed a glint of steel when a newspaper asked him in 2011 how Thales managed to compete with Canadian conglomerate Bombardier while also being a partner.

“We have to be very close to them where they are our customer, and we have to try to kill them in the marketplace where they’re our competitor,” he told the Financial Post.

At Airbus, Kahn will have to contend with a gloomy outlook for defence spending and uncertainty over Britain’s role in Europe as it prepares for a possible referendum on European Union membership planned in 2017 by Britain’s Conservative Party if it regains power in elections to be held next year.

The announcement comes two days after Southwell made headlines with a speech to the opposition Labour Party’s annual conference, urging Britons not to turn their back on Europe.

Southwell was previously credited with shaping a crucial deal to keep the Airbus A400M military transporter in the UK, even after the Royal Air Force had made an internal decision to axe the country’s role in Europe’s largest defence project.

He cut his teeth running the asset management arm at what is now BAE Systems, charged with finding homes for hundreds of BAe 146 jets for which the company had financial liabilities. The exposure contributed to a 1 billon pound charge, regarded at the time as the largest ever corporate writedown.

“We had the world’s largest airline on our hands; we just didn’t know it,” Southwell told Reuters.

More recently, he has faced press criticism of his personal business dealings after the collapse of a business jet service.

In an interview, Southwell said the timing of his departure had nothing to do with the weak defence spending environment, or Airbus Group’s recent defence portfolio restructuring, and reiterated he had “done nothing wrong” in his business activity. (Reporting by Tim Hepher; editing by Geert De Clercq)

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