February 8, 2018 / 4:20 PM / 5 months ago

AIRSHOW-New sales chief aims to rebuild after Airbus tensions

* Eric Schulz replaces legendary sales chief John Leahy

* Airbus seeking stability after probes, in-fighting

* Facing aggressive competition from rival Boeing

* No fear of “Alex Ferguson effect” as Leahy retires

By Tim Hepher

SINGAPORE, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The new sales chief at Airbus has acknowledged some of the internal problems facing Europe’s largest aerospace group and pledged to put it on a fully competitive footing by the summer.

Former Rolls-Royce civil engines boss Eric Schulz also signalled plans to build a “new Airbus” by 2025 as it emerges from recent distractions over Anglo-French compliance probes, while stressing it has the right jetliner portfolio.

“There are a couple of issues which are public which you know. But ... what I am interested in is that it gives me the opportunity to build the new 2025 Airbus, and that is really my ambition .... It’s a new Airbus which is now coming into play,” Schulz told Reuters at the Singapore Airshow.

Schulz comes from a career in airlines and then Rolls-Royce, where he was part of a recent management team that helped lift the company after profit warnings and a corruption probe.

He joins an Airbus that is profitable but scarred by the internal handling of investigations into alleged jetliner sales fraud involving a separate part of the group that has been disbanded. Airbus says no evidence of corruption has been found.

Although Airbus beat arch-rival Boeing in last year’s order race, it lost heavily on wide-body jets and has been struggling to stay aloft.

Sources say it spent 2017 in disarray over the fallout from probes into the use of foreign agents, with morale problems hindering its ability to compete — compounded by a botched process for replacing veteran sales chief John Leahy.

It has also been unsettled by a decade-long power battle between its two top executives, leading to the departure of planemaking chief Fabrice Bregier, who oversaw record output.

One air show VIP summed up the Airbus mood as “toxic”.

Schulz said he did not recognise such a bleak description.

But he spoke candidly about the need to regenerate Airbus — and to do so quickly as it confronts an aggressive new Boeing.

“I believe that we can give a new impulsion to the business,” he said in an interview.

“We should be targeting to do this in months, not years.

“My ambition is that by Farnborough (in July) the business is in order, it is ... in a position where it is aggressive and making the right decisions, the people are in place and we are moving forward.”

‘NOT DAVID MOYES’

While Schulz quickly found his stride with a confident air show debut, experts have warned his task won’t be easy.

His arrival follows talk of a wave of senior departures at Airbus, though Schulz also stressed the value of experience.

Analysts say Airbus is basking in record production, near-record share prices and an eight-year waiting list for its jets.

But others say sales momentum counts in a long-term business where airlines typically only change fleets once every couple of decades and where missteps can’t quickly be corrected.

Despite Schulz’s solid reputation, Leahy’s retirement after 23 years in the job and 16,000 jets sold will leave a gap.

Several delegates half-jokingly compared Schulz’s plight to succeeding Alex Ferguson, Britain’s most successful soccer manager who retired in 2014 after 26 years at Manchester United.

His replacement, David Moyes, failed to escape Ferguson’s shadow and was out within months after a series of defeats.

Schulz, 55, must follow an equally dominant figure while confronting in Boeing a U.S. rival being fired up under aggressive new sales chief Ihssane Mounir.

With Leahy still floating discreetly in the background, Schulz seemed to have defused one immediate threat on Thursday, as Airbus’ top Asian customer, AirAsia, looked set to confirm a $20 billion order despite being wooed by Boeing.

But the Alex Ferguson comparison still lingers.

“Am I worried about being David Moyes? No. John has his own style and personality and connections ... I am slightly different. We don’t have the same profile. I come from a different side of the business,” Schulz said.

“The business I was leading in Rolls-Royce in terms of customer relations was very close to what I have to do here, and I see no reason why I should be anxious about anything.” (Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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