Among the few forecasts which Airbus finance chief Harald Wilhelm didn’t have to hand during the company’s third-quarter briefing was whether the odds were about to shorten on his boss, Tom Enders, staying in the top job.
Because there is something uncomfortably pernicious about the creeping revelations about corruption probes and irregularities that have emerged at Airbus over the past 18 months, and a persistent drip-drip effect – combined with the uncertainty associated with drawn-out investigations – can ultimately be more damaging in the corporate sphere than a short-term shock upset.
Airbus had already been co-operating with fraud investigations initiated in a number of European states before disclosing, at its nine-month briefing in October, that it might be facing defence-related regulatory issues in the USA as well.
Enders, who has headed Airbus since 2012, has taken steps to overhaul the company’s ethics oversight, stating that Airbus needed to take a “hard look at both our systems and our culture” – although this declaration of redress will inevitably be interpreted, in some quarters, as the sound of a door-bolt being forcefully drawn to a backdrop of distant galloping hooves.
In the hot seat: Airbus chief Tom Enders (left), with outgoing sales supremo John Leahy
The situation threatens to overshadow a tenure, newly extended, under which Airbus’s share price has soared, and its commercial aircraft operation is beginning to reap the harvest of its ambitious A320neo and A350 programmes – both of which forced responses from rival Boeing. Not to mention the bold decision-making demonstrated by swooping on Bombardier’s CSeries.
Airbus has yet to find out the extent to which it might be penalised as a result of the inquiries. Even a hefty financial settlement is unlikely to hurt Airbus in real terms, but fickle investors might not be entirely satisfied that a line has been drawn unless a suitable sacrifice – fair or otherwise – is offered at management level.
Enders emerged unscathed from a previous, and arguably higher-profile, management ethics crisis while serving as EADS co-chief. But since orchestrating a restructuring of Airbus he occupies a position of sole and undisputed leader.
There is no indication that Enders, having climbed to this pinnacle, feels vulnerable under the current scrutiny.
He has cultivated a no-nonsense image as the head of Airbus, and – as a former paratrooper who jumped from one of the company’s own A400Ms – would doubtless be undaunted by the prospect of having to bail out of his corporate chair, if that should prove necessary.
But such a move would rob Airbus of a symbol of discipline and strength at a time when it is also set to lose its colourful sales chief, John Leahy. Neither seat would be easy to fill.