PARIS (Reuters) - A management reshuffle at Airbus (AIR.PA) this week marks another step towards focusing Europe’s biggest aerospace company on industrial performance rather than the political interests of key shareholders France and Germany, industry sources said.
But Tuesday’s announcement also includes a nod towards national sensitivities, while not letting these dominate the choice of industrial leadership as Airbus prepares to crank up production to meet an 8-year waiting list, they said.
The Airbus Group (AIR.PA) jetmaking subsidiary’s appointment of British aerospace veteran Tom Williams as chief operating officer, with a seat on the group executive committee, marks the first time a Briton has reached that level.
It is the first time, too, that someone without a French or German passport has occupied the no.2 slot at the Airbus subsidiary, a post formerly reserved for the main shareholder countries under a power-sharing scheme only recently abandoned.
People familiar with the company said Williams, 62, is the ultimate safe pair of hands and the obvious industrial successor to Gunter Butschek, who has resigned.
Airbus has said it no longer matters what nationality its executives are, in contrast to in-fighting that marred the first decade after it was founded as EADS in 2000.
But analysts say Airbus remains conscious of national sensitivities and changes announced to staff by Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier, “in agreement with (group CEO) Tom Enders,” reflect this without dropping the message that the once politically tarnished group has become a “normal” company.
A miscue last week by the finance director Harald Wilhelm over the future of the A380, mentioning scenarios including cancellation, raised political eyebrows and prompted some analysts to ask whether Airbus divisions were resurfacing.
The company strongly denied this.
The pre-planned management changes elevate a trio of French, German and British industrial heavyweights as Airbus faces its biggest challenge: changing to a new version of A320 without slowing production and ramping up the A350 at a record rate.
Williams, Frenchman Didier Evrard who has completed the A350 development and German procurement chief Klaus Richter will have key roles as the main battle with Boeing (BA.N) shifts towards supply chain and production strategies.
The reshuffle also confirms the increasing importance of Airbus chief of staff Marc Fontaine, 48, a close aide to Bregier who joins the Toulouse management team with an expanded role.
Richter’s appointment to the main group executive board reflects a recent increased focus on supplier risks, but also offsets any disappointment Airbus’s vocal German contingent may have about losing the no.2 role, industry sources said.
Richter becomes the chief Airbus representative for Germany, a politically sensitive role with 20,000 jobs involved.
Richter, who used to run BMW’s (BMWG.DE) supply chain, has outlined greater use of standardised carmaking strategies as Airbus shifts towards ‘series’ output at higher volumes, albeit far below those of the auto industry.
His new position reflects this. “A procurement executive-board member is common in automotive; it is unheard of in aerospace,” a senior aerospace industry source said.
Airbus declined further comment on the changes.
“The big long-term challenge is volume. It is conceivable that a decade out Airbus could be delivering close to 100 aircraft a month,” Sash Tusa, aerospace analyst at Edison Investment Research, said. Airbus currently delivers 40-50 aircraft a month.
“Automotives will be something they are keen to look at.”
At Boeing, group supplier management falls under the broad responsibility of Chief Technology Officer John Tracy, a spokesman said, but there is no ‘chief procurement officer’.
Boeing pioneered the use in aerospace of “Lean” production techniques imported from Toyota in the 1990s, but U.S. aerospace executives trained in auto firms remain a relatively rare sight.
Suppliers say Boeing recently, however, began searching for auto industry talent.
“The auto industry is 10-15 years ahead of aerospace in visibility and understanding the supplier and supplier’s supplier,” but is not a catch-all solution for jetmakers, Kevin Michaels, vice president at consultancy ICF International, said.
(This story adds dropped reference to group executive committee in paragraph 3)
Reporting by Tim Hepher. Editing by Jane Merriman