Listening back to our interview with Bruno Even, the new chief executive of Airbus Helicopters, there is a strange rhythmic noise captured on the recording.
It comes and goes, but every now and again there is a sound like rain pattering on a window.
And then I realise: periodically throughout the interview Even was drumming his fingers on the table and it is this percussive rat-a-tat-tat that has been picked up.
Nerves did not seem to be the cause – he gave no sign of discomfort in his answers – if anything it appeared to be a sign that he was thinking deeply or was passionate about his response.
The second thing that is apparent is Even's relative candour, albeit within the constraints of what CEOs typically can or will say to the press.
For instance, Even admits there is little prospect of the H225 returning to oil and gas operations in the North Sea, at least in the short or medium term.
While that may simply be an acknowledgement of market reality, his predecessor, Guillaume Faury, never appeared ready to say that in public.
But Even has much to thank his predecessor for. He arrived at Airbus Helicopters on 1 April, following a three-year stint heading Safran Helicopter Engines, to find the Franco-German manufacturer in reasonably robust health, particularly considering the awful market conditions afflicting the rotorcraft sector, notably on the civil side.
Under Faury's stewardship, Airbus Helicopters had rebranded, reshaped its range, launched a new programme – the medium-twin H160 – and embarked on a broad transformation of both its industrial model and the way it does business.
Nothing left for Even to do then? Far from it, he thinks. He notes the continued "challenging" market, which, even if the picture looks rosier than it did 12 or 18 months ago, is still not that of a sector buoyed with optimism.
That situation means that competitors are "very aggressive" he says and customers are "more and more demanding" while "requiring excellence from the OEM", all of which means the ongoing transformation must continue, he adds.
As market leader in the civil and parapublic space, Even also thinks Airbus Helicopters must preserve that position, despite the difficult context.
"At the same time, we are still optimistic about the mid- and long-term in the helicopter market," he says.
"So yes, today we are facing a difficult market – it has been declining since two or four years – but I'm really convinced it's an opportunity for Airbus Helicopters, as long as we are launching the right transformation.
"So, the first challenge that I see is in terms of transformation – continue to deliver the level of excellence that our customers and the market require."
That transformation – and it's a word that features frequently over the course of our hour-long interview – encompasses many things: people, processes, and the way the company interacts with its customers.
While modestly declining to list his triumphs at the helm of Safran Helicopter Engines ("it is always difficult to speak about your own achievements"), Even believes that one of his notable feats, was, yes, transformation: turning the propulsion specialist from being "product-orientated to customer-orientated".
"To move from customer satisfaction to customer loyalty – it is probably one of my legacies [at Safran] and it's something I would like to work on at Airbus Helicopters," he says.
"As with all industries, when you are a world leader in a difficult market environment it is your responsibility with your team to launch some major transformation initiatives, not for the pleasure to transform, but because you have this responsibility to your company, to your employees, to become more competitive and to keep the capacity to continue to invest for the future and to ensure the sustainability of your company.
"But it is also for the benefit of our customers – it is our responsibility to transform, to provide value and to answer to what they expect."
That desire has been shaped, not least, by the conversations Even has had with key operators since taking on the role.
"When it comes to our customers they tell me that yes, Airbus Helicopters has an historic role and a strong position in the market. We have a competitive product, we have a strong product, but we still have work to do when it comes to customer orientation, when it comes to providing the best service."
Clients are aware that the company had already changed under the previous management and is "walking in the right direction", he notes, but "the message is 'please continue – you are not at the end of the journey'."
Of course, the other key body that a successful chief executive must consult is an organisation's workforce. What they crave, says Even, is clarity on the direction of travel and the company's ultimate strategic goals.
"It's my management style: I'm convinced that one of our key roles as managers is to put into perspective where we want to go and our mission for the company. As long as we are clear on where we want to go, it's extremely powerful."
Priorities, he says, will be to maintain its position in the market, investment in technology and infrastructure "to be in a position to capture new opportunities" – both geographical and from emerging segments such as urban air mobility – and providing more value to customers.
"We have some areas where we need to reinforce our actions: around customers, to develop customer loyalty; around innovation – it's clearly in our DNA but we need to continue to invest; and in emerging or fast-growing markets – China India, globally Southeast Asia – where we have already had some success, but where we need to reinforce our position to capture the opportunity we see for the future."
Nonetheless, Even believes that the current turnover splits in the business – between new platform sales and support, and between civil and military – are nicely balanced, which, coupled with its sizeable international footprint, have delivered a "business model which is resilient".
Ultimately though, a manufacturer of anything lives and dies by its core product. Even thinks the range as it is – spanning the H125 light-single at one end, to the heavy-twin H225 and NH90, via the NH Industries consortium, at the other – is a particular strength.
MEND THE GAP
The immediate priority, however, is to achieve certification for the H160 medium-twin and ensure a smooth service entry for the platform in 2020, which should help address an obvious gap in its range.
"Today we have strong expectations for the H160 as it will address a segment where we are quite weak compared with the competition," notes Even.
Elsewhere, Airbus Helicopters is investing to improve the reliability of its most recent arrival, the H175 super-medium, and in the background working on potential upgrades for its other rotorcraft.
While inevitably Even declines to be drawn on which platforms are first in line for any enhancement, he lists the 4t-class H145 light-twin as an example where, despite, or perhaps because of, the helicopter's obvious sales success, the airframer has a "responsibility" to maintain "the competitiveness of the product for the mid- and long term".
Asked specifically if that means the H145, the latest version of which only arrived in 2014, is being considered for another upgrade, Even offers a non-committal answer: "It is fair to say that, as we are working on all our product range, because I consider our first priority, in addition to the H160, is to ensure that not only today but for the mid-term [our helicopters] will still be as competitive as [they are] today.
"But H145 for sure is one of the key pillars of our product range so you can imagine it is one of our priorities."
Equally, the light-single line-up could be an area of focus as Airbus Helicopters addresses the future of its H125 and H130.
"I will not share with you more detail but it's our responsibility to think what could be the next step for our light-single range. The H125 is one of our key pillars," says Even. Although offering no more detail, the sense is that an upgrade would be more likely than a clean-sheet development.
While not addressing the H125 specifically, Even seems unconvinced that the time is right for any new programme launch.
Airbus Helicopters continues to work on new technologies that would underpin either a modernisation or an all-new aircraft, he says, "but I don't see from the market a need for a new helicopter in the next two or three years.
"When you launch a new helicopter it is not because you are pleased to launch a new programme, it is to ensure you are providing value and answering to the expectations of the market."
Instead, it will invest in the existing range, he says, while working behind the scenes on "technological bricks" – autonomy, electric propulsion, digital connectivity – that will be sufficiently mature to employ on any new programme the market demands.
At least some of those advances had seemed destined for the X6, seen as a successor to the H225 and which was due to arrive in the early 2020s. However, that development effort was effectively frozen by the previous chief executive earlier this year. That means Airbus Helicopters' offering in the heavy segment will be confined for the foreseeable future to the H215 and the H225.
The latter has led a double life over the past two years: on the one hand, civil demand for new examples has shrunk dramatically – driven by safety concerns and a decimated oil and gas market – while military sales have been brisk.
In addition, a large pool of commercial H225s has been returned to lessors or financial institutions, notably from operator CHC Helicopter as part of its Chapter 11 restructuring.
While acknowledging the challenges in the civil market, Even believes the company has been "quite successful" in "repurposing" the unwanted Super Pumas, selling 21 ex-CHC units to Ukraine's interior ministry.
"Today it is more than 40 [H225s] where we have found opportunities to repurpose them for new missions," he points out.
"When I look at the market now since two, three, four years, the civil market for the heavies, for all the industry, is quite tough. But I’m still convinced that as it is for the military market, the H225 is a very competitive offer also for the civil market."
Even insists that the H225 has maintained a presence in the oil and gas segment "in Vietnam, in China, in Brazil", but admits that offshore overcapacity and the ramifications from the "sad accident" in Norway in 2016, in which 13 died, mean the type has yet to make a full return.
He argues, however, that with the regulator-approved safety barriers Airbus Helicopters has put in place on the type "I don’t see any reason to have the H225 flying in oil and gas, not only in China, Vietnam and Brazil, but in other regions."
All of this sounds similar to the line his predecessor maintained – a robust, Canute-esque defence of the product. But Even seems sufficiently savvy to realise that if you are faced with significant workforce opposition to a helicopter's reintroduction, it may be better to take a more emollient approach and admit defeat.
"It is true that for the North Sea there is a specific context that I respect, a specific emotion related to the past years, and I respect totally that situation.
"So, from that perspective, probably I don't see the H225 flying in this region, in the North Sea, in oil and gas in particular. At the end, I will follow what the market and our customers are asking for."
Although it is true that Airbus Helicopters has no full-scale development programmes on the go, it does have a pair of demonstrators that are scheduled to make their maiden sorties over the next two years.
First to fly later this year will be City Airbus: an electrically powered vertical take-off and landing urban air mobility vehicle – neatly encapsulating a number of current industry buzzwords – being built at the manufacturer's Donauwörth, Germany site. That will be followed in 2020 by the Racer high-speed compound rotorcraft being developed under the EU's Clean Sky 2 programme.
Assuming that the airframer can master the technology in both cases, then the next significant hurdle is to prove a market for the platforms, plus, in the case of City Airbus, to gain regulatory acceptance for a new form of transport.
Although high-speed vertical lift has proved itself in the military domain, there has yet to be a similar breakthrough in the commercial space.
Even points out that the question is not whether Airbus Helicopters can successfully validate the Racer's architecture – he's unsurprisingly confident on that front – but "is there a solution which meets both the need for speed and the need for competitiveness?"
Describing it as a "good compromise", he feels that the proposed pusher-prop configuration, as well as the use of 'cruise mode' technology on the aircraft's twin SHE Aneto engines, will allow the Racer to meet those sometimes opposing targets.
"But like any demonstrator we need first to mature the technology, demonstrate and then come to a programme [launch] if we can show that we can answer the market requirements. We are not yet at this stage."
The picture for City Airbus and the dozens of similar platforms being worked on elsewhere is more nuanced, stresses Even. While convinced of the basic need for urban air mobility solutions – overcoming the "difficulty to move from point a to point b" in crowded cities – he reels off a list of potential obstacles to their uptake: technology, new certification standards, air traffic management and social acceptance.
"We have all these questions, but at the same time, considering the opportunity that this business could bring, we consider as Airbus, that we cannot miss out.
"It is our responsibility based on all our expertise… that we need to invest in order to be ready, to position ourselves – not only at platform level but at service level," he says.
Very early on in the interview, I ask Even why he coveted the top job at Airbus Helicopters. Although it might seem a little odd to introduce that at the end of the piece, his response serves as a neat coda, a summation of his character, if you like.
"When you are working in the helicopter market for so many years, Airbus Helicopters was always one of our key customers – a world leader in segment – when you have the opportunity to join that company, and in particular as chief executive, you have to say you don't hesitate.
"You don't hesitate when you are proposed to take on this responsibility and I didn’t," he says.
Source: Flight International