Air chair

Former Deutsche Telekom boss tipped for Airbus hot seat

FILE PHOTO:An Airbus A380 aircraft is stored at the base of French recycling and storage aerospace company Tarmac Aerosave in Azereix near Tarbes
Taking on a jumbo task. Source: Reuters

With part-owners France and Germany seeking a safe pair of hands to help Airbus navigate the shoals of its current corruption crisis, former Deutsche Telekom Chief Executive René Obermann has become the clear favorite to take over as chairman of the aerospace company’s non-executive supervisory board.

Both governments own 11.1 percent of the firm, giving them a controlling interest, and they have agreed to alternately appoint French and German chairmen and CEOs. The tenure of the current chairman, Frenchman Denis Ranque, is due to end in 2020.

Mr. Obermann, a German who is currently managing director of US private equity firm Warburg Pincus, is joining Airbus’s supervisory board as a regular member on April 11. According to diplomats and Airbus officials, he has the necessary support to take over as chairman in 2019. He declined to comment. One of the jobs at the top of the board’s list is choosing a French replacement for current CEO Tom Enders, a German who retires next year.

Mr. Obermann is highly regarded by both Paris and Berlin.

According to German and French officials, Mr. Obermann is highly regarded by both Paris and Berlin. One German politician said that his experience at Deutsche Telekom, the former state telecoms monopoly, taught him about the particular demands of working for a state-controlled company. Deutsche Telekom is still 30 percent owned by the German state.

In addition, officials said Airbus needs what they call “digital literacy,” meaning greater use of online platforms for things like aircraft maintenance, but also to control its supply chain, which stretches around the globe. As Deutsche Telekom’s former chief executive from 2006 until 2013, Mr. Obermann impressed an internal search committee with his telecoms knowledge.

He’s also very popular in France, where he became an Officer of the French Légion d’honneur in 2013, and worked on several deals with France Télécom-Orange.

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Getting his wings? Source: Reuters

However, Mr. Obermann faces a daunting task because of the corruption scandal, which is far from being resolved. In the past, the company used middlemen as agents to sell planes in places like Africa and the Middle East. There is a lot of evidence that these agents paid large bribes as part of the sales process, but whether the bribes can be linked backed to the current management is still an open question. Airbus says it has stopped the practice.

The allegations are currently being investigated by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, which is looking into whether Airbus lied in its statements to UK Export Finance, the government credit agency that provides financing to large export deals.

Mr. Enders also reported the firm to the US authorities to investigate whether the company had given inaccurate information in its applications for arms-export licenses. Austria is also investigating possible bribes over the sale of jet fighters. Mr. Enders has warned Airbus staff to prepare for “turbulent and confusing times.”

Peter Brors is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt, Tanja Kewes is Handelsblatt’s chief reporter, and Jens Koenen covers aviation. To contact the authors: brors@handelsblatt.com, kewses@handeslblatt.com and koenen@handelsblatt.com

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