A is for Albatross as Airbus struggles with the A400 project

April 18, 2009
Airbus A400 EADS mock up

Airbus A400 EADS mock up

Der Spiegel continues to be the window into the complex world of EADS and its giant subsidiary Airbus. In a major interview with Airbus CEO Thomas Enders, Der Spiegel throws light on the corporate challenges facing the organization and its leadership.

The double whammy

Der Spiegel was in particularly robust mood in its interview with Thomas Enders recently [March 2009]. The two-part report opened with a series of fierce questions challenging the company’s long-term viability. Ender’s truculence comes through, even in translation and from the printed page. The second part of the interview concentrated on a single project, the A400M and that made the story appear all the more damaging

Technological innovation is notoriously risky, and there must surely be additional risk factors emerging as a consequence of the financial turbulence of the last year. The A400M is becoming known as its albatross. The plane, still yet to fly, is a military transport plane promising payload deliveries over extended distances under extreme conditions. Delays and production mishaps have plagued the project (even in comparison with the more publicised woes of the company’s other high-technology efforts).

Der Speigel as rotweiler

Der Speigel runs excellent and probing articles. One can’t help admire its success in its interviews with Germany’s business leaders. [In style it reminds me of the aggressiveness of England’s Newsnight programme and its chief Rotweiler Jeremy Paxman]. In the issue carrying the Thomas Enders interview, there were similarly tough questions asked of Robin Goudsblom, a Lidl senior manager, over the company’s personnel scandal;and of Nikolaus von Bomhard, CEO of reinsurance giant Munich Re, over banker bonuses.

Enders comes clean

Under fire, Thomas Enders is remarkably direct. He was first reminded of a recent wager.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Enders, on December 31 you won a bottle of champagne. You had wagered that Airbus would manage to complete 12 of your super-jumbo jets by the end of the year. That bottle could cost your company millions because, in the heat of the race against the clock, quality and safety may have fallen by the wayside.
Thomas Enders: No, we haven’t made any compromises here. Our customers are generally very satisfied with the A380. But, as you know, it is an extremely complex aircraft, which now unfortunately — like every new model during the introduction phase, I might add — has some teething problems here and there

Then he faced equally direct questioning on a range of general topics such as Government subsidies. These did not result in subsequent wider headlines, perhaps because they were ‘nothing new’ either in question or reply.

Part two of the report gave a focus to the entire interview in the plight of the A400M. The level of openness from Enders deserves attention from students of leadership:

SPIEGEL: Your biggest worry is currently the planned A400M military transport aircraft, which has been in the news for months. Which countries could cancel as buyers in the future?

[Enders denied the specific charge of cancellations and accepted accusation that the company had to shoulder some blame]

Enders: EADS should never have signed this contract. Our American competitors would never have accepted such conditions. We’ve made big mistakes, and errors have also been made on the customer side. We should now rectify these together.

Enders went on to deal frankly with equally tough questions on ‘[r]ivalries and power struggles between the Germans and the French’, consolidation of the European headquarters in Toulouse [‘maybe a good idea’], and the loss of a major American military contract.

Leadership notes

I was struck by the tone of the interview and by the fascinating technical insights provided into corporate and production management.

How important is the interview to EADS? This is one of the questions open to reflection and debate. I suggest that Der Spiegel is a media leader in news of the Airbus adventures from a European perspective. Its interviews are guaranteed widespread subsequent coverage. A typical example is the report in Aerospace [30 March 2009]. Even The Economist draws on the Spiegel interview, although its piece shows evidence of its own deeper research [bonus points to the Economist for that].

The interview has to be taken seriously by the company leadership. A faulty performance (and it is a performance) would become part of a subsequent narrative developed in the media.

How well did Enders do? You could assess the interview for strengths and weaknesses. A misguided remark might become a hostage to fortune for the company in the future. On the other hand, the impact is mediated by several communities deeply concerned with the future of the company and whose judgments go to make up the ’conventional wisdom of the dominant elite’ . Enders has the responsibility to defend his position without being too defensive, and avoid easy-to-refute claims. Which in this case involved a painful level of openness. If he appeared a bit testy at times, that might be a permissible weakness rather than a fatal one.

Despite tough times, the corporate leadership of EADS seems to have stabilized under the urbane Louis Gallois, and his Airbus CEO, the former paratrooper Thomas Ender.

To go more deeply

We have followed this story in earlier posts. The Economist article on Airbus can be found in its April 11th -17th, 2009 issue.


Thomas Enders Parachutes into Airbus Leadership

November 23, 2007

thomas-enders.jpg
Former Paratrooper Thomas Enders has hit the floor running as leader of Airbus. His new boss at EADS, Louis Gallois, may be happy to leave the German in the limelight

In the wake of recent restructuring at EADS, Thomas Enders, former co-CEO, took on an apparently lesser job as operational chief of the major manufacturing operation of Airbus. The other former co-CEO was Louis Gallois, who assumed sole leadership at EADS.

In a speech to workers at Hamburg [Thursday November 22nd 2007] Enders returned to a familiar theme, the vulnerability of the European company to the continued weakness of the American dollar.

The BBC has been presenting the story as Airbus fearing ‘weak-dollar death’

“The dollar’s rapid decline is life-threatening for Airbus [and]has gone beyond the pain barrier”

Airbus is already shedding about 10,000 jobs and selling plants as part of its Power8 restructuring plan after delays to its A380 superjumbo drove the planemaker into a loss last year. The dollar has hit new record lows against the euro this week.

Enders has taking a higher profile since taking over a new role as head of Airbus. The new structure has less of a feeling of realpolitik about it, even if the whole company had suffered for years through the tensions of Franco-German co-ownership, with minor additional support-roles from the Governments of Spain and the United Kingdom.

Background

Two stories have repeatedly surfaced in press reports. The one story examines possible malpractices within the company. The other is the competitive struggles with arch-rival Boeing for global dominance in civilian and military aircraft markets. We have followed the ebb and flow of events in earlier posts.

The situation has been brilliantly updated by the Speigel team of Dinah Deckstein and Armin Mahler in an extended interview with Enders at Airbus Headquarters in Toulouse, France.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Enders, you are the fifth CEO of Airbus in the space of only two years. As a former paratrooper, how does it feel being in the ejection seat?
Enders: When you’re going into a difficult mission as a paratrooper, you know that success is not guaranteed. The same applies in my job. As the former co-CEO of parent company EADS, I don’t exactly see Airbus as unknown terrain. In other words, I knew what to expect.

Pulling no punches, the journalists probe the potential financial irregularities, the company’s restructuring plans and production difficulties, and the possible difficulties of the relationships between Enders and Gallois. Some of the questioning produced the routine company line. The on-going enquiry was brushed aside. But some answers were more revealing. Enders spoke frankly of the political difficulties that had plagued EADS, and Airbus specifically. This was also indicated in the tardy response of production difficulties of the mighty A380. He also confronted the problems of under-investment for innovation in competitive technology, warning that the decline in the dollar plases the company in an increasingly tough situation.

SPIEGEL: The delivery of the first A380 on Monday of this week marks the preliminary end of an almost two-year cliffhanger. To complete the jet on time, employees had to be transferred to the Toulouse assembly plant from all across Europe. How much longer to you plan to produce the jet using this costly individualized approach?
Enders: The first wave of 25 planes, including the five test aircraft, will in fact be produced in what is essentially manual labor. For the second wave, a modern, harmonized IT system will be used which does, in fact, make industrial series production possible.
SPIEGEL: Your other big problem is the A350, the model that’s competing with the 787. It had to be completely revised, in response to pressure from customers. How could this happen?
Enders: It’s very simple: We had underestimated Boeing. We hope that will never happen to us again.
SPIEGEL: … Boeing seems to be playing with a better hand. Many of your plants lack the know-how to produce the new plastic fuselages in sufficient quantities and at the necessary level of quality.
Enders: Nonsense! Our plants in Stade, Nantes and Illescas in Spain have long been in command of this technology and are not in any way inferior to Boeing in this regard. But we cannot come up with the needed investment money to convert all Airbus operations to carbon fiber production. That’s why we plan to sell some of our plants to new owners.

SPIEGEL: Is there growing political pressure to award the contract to the last remaining domestic contender?
Enders: Of course, when you are dealing with national politicians there are preferences for national solutions. This is no different in Germany than in France or Great Britain. But you won’t be seeing a feel-good or cozy compromise designed to satisfy political interests, which could leave us with some big problems in the medium term.

The Gallois Enders game

Reading between the lines, Enders appears as a non-nonsense leader, more likely to demonstrate toughness, where Louis Gallois would instinctively display a more conciliatory style. This makes the German’s activities in Toulouse all the more interesting to follow. Gallois will be as comfortable out of the limelight, as Enders is in it.

SPIEGEL: Do you confront the employees with uncomfortable truths, if need be?
Enders: I happen to be someone who doesn’t beat about the bush. I like to get to the point. You will not see me changing my style now and tiptoeing around. The important issue is that people realize that I am a hands-on manager — not someone who’s interested in politics, but someone who has the company’s interests at heart

The tough and tender combination of Enders and Gallois may yet turn out to be a formidable team at EADS.

To go more deeply

As well as the informative text, Spiegel has some superb graphics.

Our earlier posts can be followed through the Airbus categories. These include The financial investigation called by Nicholas Sarcozy, and also

the corporate restructuring.


The positions change on the EADS chess board

July 16, 2007

A major restructuring is announced at EADS, the parent of the high-profile Airbus organization. The complex double helix of German and French bonds has been split apart. The reconsituted entity is a more recognizable structure. Will it provide for more effective corporate governance and strategy, as it faces severe internal and external challenges?

The announcement on the EADS website was calm, hardly signifying any major changes. It all read as if everything was well-planned.

EADS shareholders have decided – together with the EADS management team – to modify the company’s current management and leadership structure. Guiding principles of the modification are efficiency, cohesiveness and simplification of EADS management and leadership structure, towards governance best practices and in the respect of balance between the French and the German shareholders. The German Government has been consulted as well.

Under the simplified management structure, EADS will be led by a single Chairman and a single CEO.

Rüdiger Grube will assume the position of sole Chairman of the Board of Directors of EADS. In this role, he will be responsible for overseeing the Group’s strategic development and dealings with its Shareholders. In particular, he will chair the newly created EADS strategic committee.

Louis Gallois will assume the position of sole CEO of EADS. In this role, he will be responsible for leading the management team in the execution of the Group’s strategy and managing the company’s interaction with public shareholders.

Thomas Enders will assume the position of CEO of Airbus in the Toulouse headquarters of the company, reporting to the CEO of EADS. He will be supported by Fabrice Brégier as COO of Airbus.

According to the BBC,

The French joint chief executive Louis Gallois will take sole charge at EADS while his German co-head Tom Enders gets the top job at Airbus.

EADS’ complex structure has been blamed for many of its recent problems.

“We need to be a normal company,” Mr Enders said.

Previously, EADS had two chairmen and two chief executives: one French and one German. Daimler executive Ruediger Grube will become sole chairman of EADS, a post he previously held jointly with France’s Arnaud Lagardere.

The implied abnormality by Enders was the double-harnesses imposed on EADS by the influences exerted by two co-chairman, and two co-CEOs This was the heritage of the company’s formation, and reflected the ‘least worse’ way of maintaining cooperation between the company’s two main national interests in France and Germany. No alternative better could be found than the structure which permitted one French and one German chairman, one French and one German CEO on the main board.

But let’s see what can be concluded beyond the formal statement:

One or two commentators suggested that the changes were not particularly unexpected. I will be charitable and suggest that those commentators must have been holding back on the outcome for some reason or other. The details are far from expected.

In ealier posts I had chronicled the various problems at EADS and its the troubles that have piled up for its major subsidiary, Airbus. The recent press reports had led me to conclude that attempts to resolve the complicated dual-management structure appear to be centering on co-chief executive Tom Enders.

Mr Enders is a controversial figure in France after he publicly criticized political interference from Paris and suggested the possibility of sensitive asset disposals. However, Daimler, the core German industrial shareholder in EADS, is determined that Mr Enders should not be sacrificed in any final deal.

Let me put a few pieces on the chessboard. Louis Gallois, head of Airbus, is widely admired, and believed to be needed to stick it at Airbus, and see though Power 8, the strategic plan to streamline the business. This is a production and commercial imperative. He is co-CEO of EADS with Tom Enders at present.

Arnaud Lagardère of the media group of the same name is French Co-chairman of EADS. His German co-chair is Rudiger Grube.

Nicholas Sarcozy and Angela Merkel are also in play, with special concerns for their national interests (and for their own political positions). EADS Shareholder DaimlerChrysler has signaled willingness to increase its holding, a positive gesture to Sarcozy who would like to reduce the holding of the French Government. DaimlerChryser’s bid is linked to their interests in keeping Tom Enders in play.

The rumors in the French press

Rumors suggest the game will involve taking Enders off the board. This has been denied emphatically by the company.

So what is ‘behind the headlines?

The company statement seems to have airbrushed out Arnaud Lagardere, the earstwhile Co-chair of EADS. Strange. So the German Rudi Grube takes over as Chair of the EADS main board. But Lagardere remains a powerful figure and shareholder. It has been suggested that he has escaped scrutiny over earlier share scandals, and is ‘protected by Sacozy, who in turn is aware of a rather soft-ride from M Lagardere in his recent election campaign. And there is the possibility that the media figure will be in line to return as sole Chair of EADS in the future, in an agreement in which the Chair will rotate from German to French holders every five years.

Another ‘solution’ left Louis Gallois as CEO of EADS and Tom Enders in charge of the subsidiary Airbus. This grants Gallois his (alleged) wish to avoid being left to sort out Airbus while answering to Tom Enders. On the other hand, the one figure widely regarded as key to implementing the Power8 plan at Airbus is Gallois, now expected to play a more political role.

The changes are sufficiently complex to warrant a working party investigating them.


Boeing, theater of dreams and Airbus nightmare

July 8, 2007

250px-boeing_787_crop.jpg

Boeing launches its much-awaited Dreamliner 787. For Airbus is must seem more like a nightmare. In this fantasy battle, their champion, the Airbus 380, appears to be as potent as Superman in Kryptonite underpants. Can the European aero-dream still turn out all right in the end?

In Seattle they build planes. And, at the moment they are also very much in the Hollywood territory of selling dreams. The fantasy object is the new Dreamliner. High-tech, high-flying, the i-phone of the skies, the flying apple of the mind’s eye.

Meanwhile, some six thousand miles to the East (well within the 8000 mile range of the Dreamliner), Airbus executives put a brave face on for the ceremonies.

The power of the dream

Who can doubt the power of the dream? Who knows what happens if we stop believing, as James Barrie reminds us in Peter Pan, and Terry Pratchett points out in The Hogfather.

The selling of the dream has been a signal success, with press release claims that the 787 is already the fastest-selling commercial airplane in history with over 600 orders valued at more $100 billion at current list prices.

Even those us immune to the romance of the tale know that the 787 is the next giant leap of a line of aircraft of great consequence in the history of civil aviation. The 707 was a first. The 747, affectionately known as the first Jumbo jet. Now the 787, the star in the theater of aero-dreams.

Airbus versus Boeing

From the American side of the Atlantic the battle is a no-contest. Here’s the view of Lance Winslow, a not totally unbiased correspondent assessing the Dreamliner against its most direct competitor the Airbus A-350

Is the A350 really that spectacular? Hard to say, but one thing is for certain it is certainly no match for the robust, daring and dashing Dreamliner of today. Airbus’s attempt to compete with the Free Market Boeing Company has once again earned itself a distant second place or last place in the battle for the sky. The A-350 will use the same fuselage as the A330, but the wings will be made of composite. This is hardly a reciprocal response to Boeing’s cutting edge technology and advancements in design. But we have come to expect mediocrity from Airbus. When flying do you really want to ride in a bus while traveling at 30,000 feet in the Air? Think about it.

The Free-Market Boeing versus EU-subsidized EADS is important issue which will continue to be brought into the debate. The article also gets to another the key factors in the argument, the technical merits of the competing products.

Meanwhile in Europe …

In Europe, the financial press is more preoccupied with the boardroom battles within EADS, the corporate parent of Airbus. The Financial Times suggests that the efforts to restructure its complicated dual-management structure appear to be centering on co-chief executive Tom Enders.

Mr Enders is a controversial figure in France after he publicly criticized political interference from Paris and suggested the possibility of sensitive asset disposals. However, Daimler, the core German industrial shareholder in EADS, is determined that Mr Enders should not be sacrificed in any final deal.

We will continue to follow the twists and turns of this board-room battle. My point here is that persistent stories of corporate infighting may be indicating that the overall position is highly unsatisfactory. Boeing, we may presume, is doing very nicely. So nicely, that there are few rumors of boardroom clashes. In contrast, EADS leadership is forced to attend to the battles over its international border disputes.

The Chequer Board

What if anything can EADS, and more specifically the larger part of the outfit which is Airbus, do to break out of its nightmare? Incidentally, a deadline is approaching (July 16th) which dragged the New French President into the battle.

Let me put a few pieces on the chessboard. Louis Gallois, head of Airbus, is widely admired, and believed to be needed to stick it at Airbus, and see though Power 8, the strategic plan to streamline the business. This is a production and commercial imperative. He is co-CEO of EADS with Tom Enders at present.

Arnaud Lagardère of the media group of the same name is French Co-chairman of EADS . His German co-chair is Rudiger Grube.

Nicholas Sarcozy and Angela Merkel are also in play, with special concerns for their national interests (and for their own political positions). EADS Shareholder DaimlerChrysler has signaled willingness to increase its holding, a positive gesture to Sarcozy who would like to reduce the holding of the French Government. DaimlerChryser’s bid is linked to their interests in keeping Tom Enders in play.

The rumors in the French press

Rumors suggest the game will involve taking Enders off the board. This has been denied emphatically by the company.

The current form of the EADS/Airbus nightmare will be shared more widely in Toulouse after this month’s summit meeting.


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