ONE OF THE FEW people to emerge smiling from the Franco-German summit in Nuremberg on 9 December was Siegfried Sobotta, co-president of Eurocopter and chairman and chief executive of Eurocopter Deutscheland (ECD).
During the summit, Germany gave no firm commitment to the joint Helios 2/Horus satellite programme; the European Future Large Aircraft was not even discussed; and no new clues were forthcoming as to how Germany will find the money to fund the next Eurofighter phase. Sobotta and his French counterpart Jean-Francois Bigay, however, emerged clutching some unexpectedly firm commitments to the Tiger and NH90 defence-helicopter programmes, with the French and Germans both firming up their orders.
For Sobotta, who studied law before joining the Daimler-Benz trainee programme in February 1969, this was welcome news indeed. After being involved in the management of numerous projects in Daimler's automotive business, he became head of the cross-country vehicle division in 1981, moving on to the bus and coach division in 1987, where he supervised the division's restructuring.
Since 1992, when Eurocopter was formed from the merger of the helicopter divisions of Aerospatiale and the former MBB (now Daimler-Benz Aerospace), Sobotta has been co-president of the Paris- based company alongside Bigay. In that role, he has had to preside over drastic cutbacks, while watching the French and German governments raise serious doubts over the futures of the NH-90 and Tiger.
In 1996, France was suggesting dramatic cuts in helicopter procurements as part of a savings drive, while the cash-strapped German Government announced a year's delay in the production-investment phase for the Tiger.
In fact, the French have cut NH90 numbers - from an original 220, to 160 - and delayed entry into service substantially, with a 2007 in-service date for the naval variant, and 2011 for the transport version. Sobotta says that this came as no surprise, and that the French workshare in the programme may be cut as a result. This will be negotiated with the Dutch and Italians as soon as these countries also confirm their offtakes.
"We've known since mid-1996 that there is a reduction [in the French NH90 requirement], and also a delay to deliveries," he says. Germany, on the other hand, has now confirmed its commitment to buying 243 helicopters, with delivery beginning 2003, which Sobotta says is "positive" for Eurocopter.
The Tiger now seems to be in an even better position, with the original quantities - 215 helicopters for France and 212 for Germany - now confirmed, after years of contradictory speculation. Each country has committed to buying an initial batch of 80 Tigers, including ten of the anti-armour variant.
"We didn't expect to have a fixed order as early as this, so I think the Franco-German summit was a good one," says Sobotta.
The Tiger production-investment contract is now expected by mid-year - over a year late, as the documents were ready to be signed at the end of 1995. Yet Sobotta insists that as long as the contract is signed by July, the company can still meet the required German in-service date of 2001.
It has not been an easy few years for the helicopter industry, and Eurocopter is still not profitable. The past year has shown signs of improvement, however, with the company winning contracts worth DM9.3 billion ($6.1 billion), which it describes as "balsam on the wounds of the last three years".
One of Sobotta's and Bigay's key tasks in the coming year will be to streamline Eurocopter management in a move to drive costs down. "Our aim is quite clearly to have an integrated company as soon as possible. This means we should streamline our organisational structure as if we were one company," says Sobotta. At the moment, there is much doubling up of responsibility between the two, each company having its own heads of civil and military helicopters, and so on.
"We don't have a standalone European corporate law, so we have to maintain a company under French law and a company under German law. We also have to maintain the national identity on both sides, because this is very important for our prime customers in Bonn or Paris," he adds.
Sobotta says that it is also essential to safeguard employment and technical competence in the partner companies, with neither dominating and reducing the other to the role of supplier.
This will inevitably lead to new job cuts, in a company which has already reduced its workforce from 4,000 at the end of 1991 to about 2,990 at the end of 1996. Sobotta says that restructuring is unlikely to lead to further cuts in development and production staff, bearing in mind the volume of current contracts for such products as the EC135, but management and administrative staff will be hit.
Eurocopter provides one of the few examples of even partial European aerospace integration. Yet according to Sobotta, there appear to be no plans for further moves towards a single European helicopter industry.
Co-operation with Agusta, of Italy, remains limited to the NH90 programme, in which the Eurocopter partners hold 66.4% against Agusta's 26.9%. GKN Westland is, for the moment, sitting pretty with its recent McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache contract, its share of the EH101 programme and its backlog of Lynx work.
Meanwhile, Eurocopter has its partnerships with Kawasaki on the BK117, and with China's CATIC and Singapore Aerospace on the EC120, and Sobotta also maintains hope for co-operation with Mil of Russia in the Euromil venture.