Airbus shakes up management as corruption clouds gather

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus announced a major shakeup of top management on Friday as it seeks to move on from a corruption probe.

The firm said German chief executive Tom Enders would not seek reappointment when his current term ends in April 2019. And its chief operating officer and head of its commercial aircraft unit, Fabrice Bregier, will step down in February next year to be replaced by the head of the helicopters unit, fellow Frenchman Guillaume Faury.

“The board of directors of Airbus SE has decided on a series of executive changes that ensure an orderly succession in the executive leadership of Airbus,” the company said in a statement.

The firm has been weakened recently by major corruption investigations in Britain and France, as well as Germany and Austria, that have cast a pall over one of Europe’s most successful and best-known companies.

Airbus warned in October that the investigations in France and Britain into possibly irregular payments via middlemen could have a “material impact” on its profits and businesses. The group is profitable largely thanks to its hugely popular A320 shorthaul plane, but faces challenges with its A380, the world’s largest civilian airliner, as well as a long-delayed and over-budget military plane, the A400M.

The departures at the top of the company follow other changes sanctioned by its supervisory board that show shareholders are keen to inject new blood into the senior management team.

Last month, commercial director John Leahy, who sold more than 16,000 aircraft in nearly 33 years at Airbus, announced he would retire in January and would be replaced by Eric Schulz, an executive from engine maker Rolls-Royce.

Enders, 59, told the Handelsblatt newspaper in October that he wanted to stay on in his job but added: “Rest assured: if I am no longer part of the solution, then I hope I will realise that myself and draw my own conclusions.”

Faury, the favourite

Airbus is under investigation by French prosecutors and Britain’s Serious Fraud Office for suspected corruption in its UK-based civil aviation arm.

The probes were opened last year after Airbus raised suspicions itself over irregular transactions. French investigators raided Airbus’ offices in the Paris suburbs in November. The group is also the target of inquiries in Austria and Germany over the sale of Eurofighter military jets to Austria in 2003.

Airbus’ board of directors said it will assess both internal and external candidates to replace Enders next year, in good time for confirmation at the 2019 annual shareholders meeting. As the new head of the commercial aircraft division, Guillaume Faury will be the favourite to step into Enders’ shoes.

German economy ministry spokeswoman Beate Baron declined to be drawn on whether there is an agreement that top job should be held alternately by German and French nationals. She described Enders as “a longtime and very experienced executive”, adding that his decision to quit had been a “personal” one.

Speaking in Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out the French state taking a larger role in the management of Airbus, which has seen its state shareholders drop their influence over the last decade.

Macron also declined to comment on the corruption investigations, but he added: “We have to be watchful about our strategic interests and that its governance is exemplary.”

Chairman of the Airbus supervisory board, Denis Ranque, said in a statement: “We are confident we have taken the right decisions to ensure Airbus’ long term stability and future success.

“We fully support Tom Enders to lead Airbus through this generational handover with our full support.”

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