In theory, a new ownership structure means European planemaker EADS is no longer controlled by Paris and Berlin, free to pick the very best person in the world for the vacant job of board chairman. In practice, whoever it is, expect somebody French.
The new structure, hammered out late last year in stormy negotiations after the collapse of a proposed merger with Britain’s BAE Systems, goes a huge way towards fulfilling Chief Executive Tom Enders’s ambition to turn the maker of Airbus jets into a normal company, free from political meddling.
But filling board seats will still require agile diplomacy, and the outcome should go some way towards revealing just how normal Europe’s biggest aerospace company can become.
“This will be the first test of who gets what they want in the new EADS,” said Agency Partners analyst Nick Cunningham.
Under the new deal, Germany and France will still have some say over a minority of directors given special responsibility for overseeing ring-fenced sensitive defence interests.
The rest of the board is meant to be fully independent. As long as the company is run by German-born Enders, the chairman is likely to be French. But investors will want to see the company name a strong chairman with the backbone to stand up to politicians and to fight for the firm’s commercial interest.
For some weeks, as first reported by Reuters, speculation about a future chairman has surrounded former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, who is already on the board. He certainly has stature as a senior statesman, a Frenchman with long experience balancing the interests of Paris and Berlin.
But Trichet is not an industrialist and lacks expertise that could be needed to steer a company through big defence cuts and completion of a new airliner to compete with Boeing’s 787. Sources say the company is more likely to pick a candidate with more business experience.
Perhaps the most interesting candidate might be Alcatel-Lucent Chairman Philippe Camus, who helped found EADS and served as co-chief executive for five years until being forced to resign by French President Jacques Chirac in 2005.