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Airbus confirmed the departure of planemaking chief Fabrice Bregier as part of a series of board moves on Friday to clear the air over succession plans following weeks of speculation surrounding Europe’s largest aerospace firm.
The move gives rival Chief Executive Tom Enders a free hand for the rest of what will now be his last term as CEO, ending in April 2019, but also casts him as a caretaker as Airbus looks for fresh blood to lead it out of a growing corruption scandal.
Confirming details reported by Reuters on Thursday, Airbus said Bregier would be replaced in February as president of the main planemaking division by fellow Frenchman Guillaume Faury, the 49-year-old chief of Airbus Helicopters who has also worked in automobiles.
German-born Enders, who had earlier this year voiced interest in staying beyond 2019, will now step down at the end of his current term, saying in a statement it was time for “fresh minds for the 2020s.”
Shares in Airbus remained broadly flat.
“Fabrice … was very popular with airlines for his rapid response and attention to details. Airbus has a big pool of talent … and will power on with new leadership,” Peter Bellew, chief operations officer at Ryanair and former CEO of Malaysia Airlines, told Reuters.
Airbus officials sought to dampen speculation that Enders had a hand in his deputy’s departure and presented the move as the work of an independent board.
But analysts said the push for a fresh start had curtailed the ambitions of both executives, ending a longstanding but troubled partnership at the helm of Airbus. Even so, many saw Enders as a clear winner.
Enders in 2014 froze payments to middlemen and later shared an audit revealing misleading filings with UK authorities, but has seen his authority challenged as the discovery triggered UK and French fraud investigations and a backlash in France.
“It means two things: that despite his wishes, Enders could be replaced, and it would not automatically be Bregier,” a senior source with close links to the company said.
The overhaul is not directly connected to investigations, but both men appear to have suffered collateral damage from the probes, which made their differences clearer, one source said.
The company said the board had acted to secure an orderly succession at the world’s second-largest planemaker.
During 2018, the board will look both inside and outside for a successor to 58-year-old Enders “in good time” for confirmation at the 2019 annual shareholder meeting, it said.
The shake-up came after Bregier, a 56-year-old who has long been seen as the natural heir to Enders, told the board he did not intend to be part of the selection process for 2019 and would therefore step down in February to “pursue other interests” – widely viewed as code for not being shortlisted.
Enders said he would work to ensure a smooth transition.
However, both scarcely tried to mask tensions as Bregier recalled changes of title – a pointed reminder of a bitter feud with Enders – while Enders said he agreed with Bregier’s decision “and frankly, I would not have done differently.”
Some sources said Bregier had sought support from the French government and Airbus‘s French chairman, prompting the board to show its muscle. But the selection process will remain under scrutiny from investors worried about any return to past efforts by shareholders France or Germany to tilt appointments.