Airbus faces possible leadership change amid CEO exit report

Berlin -Airbus faces the prospect of having to find a new leader after CEO Tom Enders reportedly decided not to stand for a third term, sparking a leadership contest just as the planemaker grapples with a bribery probe and slack demand for its biggest airliner.

Enders won’t renew his mandate when it expires in May 2019, French newspaper Le Figaro reported, without saying where it got the information. The company board will endorse his decision at a meeting on Thursday and formalise his move early next year, the newspaper said.

Rainer Ohler, a spokesperson for Toulouse, France-based Airbus, called the report “pure media speculation” and said no decision had been made. Enders said his future in the post would ideally be determined in joint consultations with the board.

“The decision about my future as CEO of Airbus is not taken by the French press or the French government or any government,” he said in an emailed statement. “My current mandate runs until April 2019 and this is the timeframe I work against.”

Enders’ leadership at one of Europe’s premiere manufacturers has been strained by a bribery investigation spanning several markets, and the CEO himself has cautioned employees that the outcome might be painful for the company.

Enders, who is German, rose through the ranks at Airbus and oversaw the commercial plane-making unit before becoming head of the entire operation, the typical springboard to assume the company’s top job.

Political baggage

Airbus shares fell 0.8% to €86.50 as of 09:11 in Paris. The shares have advanced 38% this year.

Running Airbus comes with political baggage, as both the French and the German governments own stakes in the company and closely watch a finely tuned balance of power.

This means that the nationality of the CEO and the head of the commercial-plane units typically alternate between a Frenchman and a German. That would make chief operating officer Fabrice Bregier, who also heads commercial aircraft, the next logical choice to take over from Enders.

Bregier, too, may leave the company if he doesn’t get the top job, Figaro said. He may depart next year and be replaced by a German, Les Echos reported separately, citing unidentified people familiar with the deliberations. The board will discuss the matter at its meeting on Thursday, Les Echos said. Airbus dismissed the reports on Bregier’s future as “pure speculation.”

Enders has attempted to turn Airbus into what he called a normal company that’s not tied to the political whims of its biggest shareholders. This push followed his unsuccessful attempt to combine Airbus with UK arms company BAE Systems, a plan that was blocked amid German government opposition.

His commercial forays have been more successful. Under his watch, Airbus launched an upgrade version of the A320 single-aisle aircraft, turning the so-called neo into the fastest-selling jet in commercial aviation history. He also oversaw the launch of the A350 wide-body.

The A380 double-decker, which was hatched before Enders took over, has been a commercial flop, struggling for years to win a broad base of customers.

Airbus has already seen an overhaul of its senior management ranks. Marwan Lahoud, its head of strategy, departed last year, while John Leahy, the head of sales and a fixture at the company for decades, announced his decision to retire a few weeks ago.

Airbus picked an external candidate, Eric Schulz from Rolls-Royce, to succeed Leahy, highlighting how the company is keen to inject fresh blood into the company.

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