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ANALYSIS: New Airbus commercial boss Faury is strong choice for role

For close watchers of Airbus Helicopters, Guilluame Faury's rise to the top job at Airbus commercial will come as little surprise.

But, as anyone who was at Faury's first major engagement with the media as head of the helicopter business will tell you, it was not an auspicious start.

Faury had been selected to succeed the garrulous Lutz Bertling – a man prone to speaking off the cuff – in March 2013, with that year's Paris air show the scene for his press debut.

The new chief of what was then still Eurocopter seemed ill at ease, prickly in response to questions and unwilling to engage with reporters.

To some extent, he was being judged against his predecessor, but the overall impression was one of a cold technocrat, perhaps a touch arrogant, with little in the way of personality to warm to.

Deepening the generally hostile atmosphere, Faury used the event to quietly announce another delay to service entry the then EC175 – the company's newest commercial platform which was already six months behind schedule.

There was a sense that the media's favourite – for all his undoubted faults, Bertling generated good quotes – had been replaced by someone who saw no value in talking to the press and was prone to treat every question as a hostile act.

Perhaps it was his engineering background that made him more at home with parts than people.

Faury came to Airbus Helicopters from car maker Peugeot where had held the post of executive vice-president for research and development since 2010.

Prior to that, however, he was very much one of the rotary family: during a 10-year stint at Eurocopter he performed numerous roles including chief engineer on the EC225 programme, head of the heavy helicopter flight-test department, ending as executive vice-president for research and development.

Although Bertling had grown the operation into a €6 billion ($7 billion) per year turnover business, dominating the civil helicopter market, issues were bubbling to the surface.

Engineering resources which should have been devoted to bringing the EC175 to market, were instead diverted to help Eurocopter dig itself out of a commercial and reputational hole caused by the effective grounding of the EC225 Super Puma in certain regions.

That was caused by a pair of ditchings in the North Sea in 2012 following the failure of a gearbox component. The issue – along with Eurocopter's inadequate response to it – did a great deal of harm to the company in the vital oil and gas market.

On top of that, development execution on the EC175 was clearly proving harder than anticipated. And in the background there were a number of ambitious programmes in the works, all featuring highly advanced systems.

Faury's initial approach is probably best defined as cautious: service entry of the EC175 was delayed to focus on maturity; fixes for the EC225 were implemented to allow a return to flight, as well as building bridges to an angry operator community; and the more out-there proposals for the X4 were reined in, with the programme morphing into the more conventional H160.

More crucially, Faury has led a deep transformation of the business, the most obvious aspect of which was its January 2014 name change to Airbus Helicopters.

But, aside from its closer brand alignment with its big brother in Toulouse, the helicopter business has taken other cues from the fixed-wing operation. Development and testing operations have been dramatically overhauled to drive maturity into programmes much earlier in their gestation; the industrial model has changed too, mimicking how Airbus builds airliners – allowing a much faster final assembly process; and customer support has been radically reshaped.

Airbus Helicopters is also now more aligned with other parts of the Airbus group, participating in a number of cross-business initiatives such as the development of electric-powered air taxis, for instance.

Financially the manufacturer has held its own, actually increasing its share of the civil and parapublic segment and maintaining turnover above €6 billion, despite a market that has flatlined over the past two years, notably in the oil and gas sector. Profits have fallen, however, although much of that is to do with the wider market.

Military sales have also been maintained, with key orders for the H225M secured from Kuwait and Singapore. Although a deal with Poland for the same model was sadly lost, domestic politics were the driver in that case. Support for defence customers has also been bolstered, repairing a number of relationships strained by poor aircraft availability.

Faury would also argue that the manufacturer's safety culture has improved on his watch. While he has made great strides towards that goal, yet another incident involving the Super Puma, and Airbus Helicopters' response to it, has taken a great deal of the shine off. In a case where 13 lives are lost and the aircraft manufacturer cannot identify what caused the crash, playing the victim sticks in the craw.

Aside from that black mark, he has displayed a relatively sure-footed approach to the helicopter business, with few missteps, leading to a leaner, sharper operation.

It is easy to claim clarity after the event, but there has been something about Faury's performance that suggested he would be considered for one of Airbus's top jobs. And, thankfully, underneath the initially prickly exterior lurks a warm human being with a sharp, engaging mind with a dry wit.

A public relations executive from one of the big oil and gas helicopter operators tells a story of being seated next to Faury at a dinner and asking a question that required a relatively complex engineering answer.

He could have fudged the issue or given a patronising response, but instead took the time to sketch out a diagram on the back of a napkin that laid out the solution in crystal clear terms.

That is Faury in a nutshell: his engineering background means he strives for clarity and attention to detail, but he is also willing and able to translate that to the shop floor.

The transformation of the helicopter business seems almost complete, but the real proof of that will only come in 2019 when the H160 enters service. By that time, of course, Faury will have bigger concerns on his mind.

But will his education at Airbus Helicopters allow him, for instance, to solve the intractable problem of the A380's production rate or to cope with ultra-demanding airline customers? That remains to be seen.

It is worth noting, however, that in his spare time Faury competes in triathlons – a sport notorious for its extreme physical and mental demands. Viewed through that prism, perhaps the top job will be the perfect challenge.

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