Less than a year into the job running Airbus, Guillaume Faury is poised to accomplish a sweeping legal settlement of bribery allegations that dogged his predecessor for years and led to a management exodus.
While the price tag is high — Airbus said Tuesday it is setting aside $3.6 billion euros, or $3.97 billion — the accord with authorities in the United Kingdom, France and the United States lets Faury clear away a major distraction for himself as well as investors.
Timing has been on Faury’s side. The company just came out the clear winner in the perennial duopoly battle with Boeing, which is deeply mired in crisis stemming from the grounding of its 737 MAX workhorse for almost a year. That has made Airbus’ own issues pale by comparison, from production snags to persistent engine problems. Now even one of the largest fines for corporate corruption in recent memory is a blessing of sorts for Faury.
“Perhaps Airbus can steal a march on Boeing while Boeing is preoccupied,” said Sandy Morris, a research analyst at Jefferies International.
Airbus shares closed up 1%.
A final accord could be announced this week, though the timing may slip into February, said sources, who asked not to be named discussing private negotiations.
The allegations under discussion involve the use of intermediaries in securing jet orders, a practice Airbus employed as it tried to reach parity with its U.S. rival. The episode is poised to trigger one of the largest fines for corporate corruption in recent years. It remains subject to approval by courts and authorities in the countries involved, Airbus said in a statement.
The European planemaker said that for legal reasons, it can’t comment on the details of the discussions. The U.K. Serious Fraud Office (SFO) declined to comment, as did the U.S. Department of Justice and representatives at the office of France’s financial prosecutor, the Parquet National Financier.
Responding to the probes has also taxed the executive team under Faury, who took over from former Airbus chief Tom Enders a month after the Boeing MAX was idled, according to Norbert Kretlow, an analyst at Commerzbank.
“For the stock market, relief of uncertainty is important,” Kretlow said. “It’s been hanging over Faury’s leadership so far.”
Boeing’s crisis with the 737 MAX obscured a multitude of issues plaguing Airbus: The Toulouse, France-based company was forced to shutter its marquee A380 double-decker program because of a lack of demand. Production in Hamburg, Germany, of the A320 series narrowbody— the world’s most popular commercial jet — has been slowed by challenges outfitting cabins for the larger versions of the model.
To top it off, Airbus has been on the losing end of a World Trade Organization dispute with Boeing. In the latest development, the U.S. imposed levies on European Union products in retaliation for government aid to Airbus that was deemed illegal by the trade body.
Nevertheless, after less than a year in the job, Faury has started to gain traction. A new extra-long-range version of the A320 has been well-received by airline customers and headed off one potential avenue for a Boeing counterpunch. Boeing results due this week could unmask more woes at the Chicago-based company and detail the financial hit.
With Airbus’ earnings due Feb. 13, Faury needs to show he’s made progress on the production issues that have soaked up precious time while pushing deliveries for new A320 orders out to 2024.
“The number one focus of the results coming up is going to be the 2020 outlook,” said Benjamin Heelan, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Executing on those issues in Hamburg is their number one focus and the number one priority investors have.”
The U.K. part of the settlement is set to surpass the record 500 million pound ($651 million) fine paid by jet-engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings, The Financial Times reported earlier.
Airbus said it hasn’t previously booked any earnings provision for anticipated costs of the settlement. The company has enough cash to withstand the financial impact, Jefferies analyst Morris said in a note.
Airbus’ corruption saga has lasted almost four years. The company reported itself to authorities in 2016 after then-CEO Enders launched an internal probe. The SFO opened its investigation that year, working with its French counterpart. They were joined late in 2018 by the Department of Justice.
The fallout reached deep into the ranks of top Airbus management. Last year, the company canceled publication of a book it had commissioned on its 50-year history, because a chapter that addressed the bribery episode could have interfered with the cases.
One focus of the U.K. inquiry was the Airbus failure to disclose its use of third parties to the country’s Export Finance agency, which arranges credit guarantees for overseas sales. The decision to cooperate allowed Airbus to keep receiving government-backed loans, but it also forced Enders to clean house before retiring last year.
Airbus’ sales staff weathered a major shake-up. Kiran Rao, who had already been announced as the replacement to longtime sales chief John Leahy, was sidelined and has since left the company. After an outsider, former Rolls-Royce executive Eric Schulz, didn’t work out, Airbus went with Christian Scherer, who led its regional aircraft business, for the top sales role for jets such as the A320neo narrowbody, the world’s best-selling plane family.
Fabrice Bregier, Enders’ longtime second-in-command and a candidate to become CEO, was also forced out. Guillaume Faury, who had earlier headed Airbus’ helicopters unit, replaced him and became CEO of the group in April.
Progress toward a settlement has been slowed by numerous issues, including the availability of judges in France and the U.K., holiday scheduling and procedural differences, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), an admission of guilt in the U.K., marks the most significant settlement by the SFO since it changed leadership 17 months ago. Conservative politicians, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, have questioned whether it’s worth keeping the country’s top white-collar crime prosecutor.
The success of the DPA will depend on prosecutors’ ability to prosecute individuals responsible for the wrongdoing, particularly after the SFO decided not to charge any individuals in connection with the 2017 Rolls-Royce case, the agency’s biggest DPA in history. The company admitted to paying bribes to secure aircraft engine contracts around the world.
The Parquet National Financier was set up in 2014 to focus on major financial crime after a former French budget minister was found to have used a secret Swiss account to dodge taxes. The PNF last year reached its largest settlement with Google, which agreed to pay 500 million euros to end a tax fraud case. In court, UBS Group was ordered to pay a 4.5 billion-euro penalty in a case led by the PNF.
Seattle Times business staff contributed to this report.