French engineer Brégier would like to see Airbus speed up how it makes decisions like establishing a new plant in the U.S.
PARIS — The night before he announced his company’s plans to open a $600 million assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., early this month, Fabrice Brégier, the chief executive of Airbus, was to meet a small group of local politicians for an elegant celebration dinner. But first, he had another important matter to attend to.
En route from France, Brégier had missed all but the last minutes of the European Cup soccer final on television. So, with a scrum of local news crews camped outside his hotel in the sultry Alabama heat, he sat down in his air-conditioned room to watch a recording of the game, relishing all four of Spain’s goals against Italy before making his way to the dining room.
“I try to watch as many games as possible,” Brégier said. “But if there is a business priority, I give the priority to business.”
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One priority will be establishing a major manufacturing beachhead on the home turf of Boeing, his company’s rival. But the 51-year-old Frenchman — who made his debut appearance as the head of Airbus at the Farnborough Air Show near London last week — faces a host of other strategic and industrial challenges over the next five years.
Analysts want reassurance that the European plane-maker will be able to manage not only an ambitious increase in the production of the Airbus A320 family of 150-seat jets but also to avoid any major delays to its widebody jet, the A350-XWB, which is due in 2014.
Airbus also faces costly modifications to a wing component on its twin-deck A380 superjumbo after dozens of hairline cracks were found early this year.
“From a strategic point of view, this is really the start of a whole new phase for the company,” Nick Cunningham, an aerospace analyst at Agency Partners, a research firm in London, said of Airbus’ expansion in the United States. “But from an operational standpoint, it is a big added complication.”
Complexity, however, comes with the territory at Airbus, which started in the late 1960s as a consortium of national aircraft companies in Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
In 2000, it became a unified subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defense and Space — a publicly traded corporation, but one in which European governments, particularly those of France and Germany, continue to exert influence through indirect shareholdings. Airbus already operates assembly lines in three countries: China, France and Germany.
“We have a unique business model, and I do not deny that it’s more complex” than Boeing’s, Brégier said. “All big groups are always overwhelmed by bureaucracy, by complex processes. But on top of that, we have this transnational setup.”
A case in point: Getting the green light from the EADS board for the Alabama assembly line took more than nine months. If it is to maintain its status as the world’s largest commercial jet-maker, Brégier said, Airbus will need to find ways step up the pace.
“I want Airbus to gain agility,” he said. “It is possible. Can’t we think simple? Can’t we take decisions in less time, and can’t we implement them faster?”
It is his competitive nature, Brégier said, that is behind his passion for sports — and it is also what keeps him always looking over his shoulder at his company’s rivals.
“If you don’t have this mindset, you can’t overcome the difficulties,” he said.
Still, it is a mindset that has sometimes rankled others since Brégier, a series of posts in the aerospace industry, joined Airbus in 2006 as its chief operating officer in Toulouse, a sleepy provincial town in southwestern France.
“He is always looking at things from a slightly different angle than other people — a sharper angle,” said one former executive. “And he is obsessed with results: People have to deliver.”
When they do not, Brégier makes it known. “He can be very disagreeable, even cruel, when an interlocutor displeases him,” said another manager, who, like many people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity to preserve a professional relationship.
Asked about his drive and his acid tongue, Brégier nodded. “I can be tough sometimes, even scary,” he said, conceding that he has never tried to be popular. “You don’t get close to 3 billion euros in savings just being nice with everybody.”
The savings he mentioned, worth about $3.7 billion, refer to the biggest challenge of his career so far: the painful restructuring of Airbus that followed the disclosure, in 2006, of major manufacturing problems with the A380. His very hands-on overhaul of the company’s operations resulted in the slashing of about 2.7 billion euros in operating costs and 10,000 jobs between 2007 and 2011.
Even his critics acknowledge his talent. A graduate of two of France’s most prestigious engineering schools — the École Polytechnique and the École des Mines — Brégier spent two decades, until 2003, as a member of the French Corps of Mines, an exclusive club of top engineers from which many of the top French business and political leaders have emerged.
His rise through the ranks of the aerospace industry has been remarkable for its speed. Upon graduation, he held several posts in the nuclear and aluminum industries and served as a consultant to a handful of French ministries in the 1980s before taking his first job as a manager at Matra Defense, an obscure missile company founded by Jean-Luc Lagardere, one of the modern godfathers of French aviation, who died in 2003.
It was there that Lagardere took him under his wing, giving him a series of promotions until, in 2001, Brégier became chief executive of MBDA, a leading missile manufacturer in which EADS owns a large stake.
Two years later, he was asked to take the top job at another EADS division, Eurocopter. Under his leadership, the helicopter maker made its own industrial foray into the U.S., establishing an assembly line in 2004 in Columbus, Miss., for its UH-72 Lakota and AS350 AStar choppers. Eurocopter’s U.S. market share has since doubled to about 50 percent.
Investors and analysts give Brégier high marks for his work together with Thomas Enders — his predecessor, who is the now chief executive of EADS — in righting Airbus’ listing ship. Today, Airbus is EADS’ biggest profit center, generating about one-third of the group’s 1 billion euros in net income in 2011 and about 60 percent of its 49 billion euros in revenue.
Colleagues said Brégier and Enders had established a strong rapport over the past five years, and the two are expected to continue to work in close tandem now that Enders has assumed responsibility for the larger group. Until now Enders — a straight-talking former paratrooper from Germany — has embraced the role of the public face of Airbus, accompanying European leaders on overseas trade missions and sometimes even leaping onto nightclub dance floors with customers if it might help seal a big aircraft order.
Brégier, by contrast, is hardly the disco type.
“He is very discreet in his work — not someone who likes to put himself in the spotlight,” said Jean-Francois Knepper, co-president of Airbus’ European workers committee.
Brégier acknowledged that, in an industry historically populated with outsize personalities, he stands out for his reserve. But he is reluctant to take the contrasts too far.
“People tend to say that I am introverted, that I am a kind of monk just working in the plants,” Brégier said. “I don’t think this is true.”