Airbus, the consortium of European aerospace companies based in Toulouse, France, has too often resembled the proverbial horse designed by a committee. But Noel Forgeard has taken a big stride toward transforming this industrial camel into a swift-winged Pegasus. With his diplomatic and managerial skills, Airbus has pulled even with archrival Boeing to command half the global market for commercial aircraft. And with a long-needed management overhaul under way, Forgeard is now ramping up Airbus to produce the A380, the world's largest commercial aircraft, by 2006.
Forgeard got the top spot at Airbus in early 1998. Much of his on-the-job training, however, came during 11 years at Lagardere Group, a French conglomerate with interests ranging from publishing to missiles. There, he learned how to forge joint ventures between traditionally secretive European and U.S. defense companies. Says a former Lagardere colleague: "He appears low-key, but he can be very tough, and when he has set a goal, nothing can distract him from it. He has an impressive ability to set priorities, to focus on his goals, and then set up a very strong team to achieve these goals."
With his keen political sensitivities, Forgeard has also defused cross-border rivalries at Airbus, allotting construction projects so that all nations feel they have been treated equitably. Formerly a loose alliance of British, French, German, and Spanish companies, Airbus became a unified company on Jan. 1, 2000, 80%-owned by the European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. (EADS) and 20%-owned by Britain's BAE Systems.
Forgeard has honed Airbus' competitive edge by improving productivity and attracting top engineering and marketing talent. And even as Airbus booked a record $25 billion in orders in 2000, Forgeard pushed ahead with an audacious $10.7 billion plan to build a jet that will be one-third larger than the Boeing 747. Forgeard predicts that the new jet, formerly known as the A3XX will soon replace the 747 as the aircraft of choice on long-haul routes. "We will introduce a new way of flying," he promises.
Forgeard will have to keep up his powers of persuasion in 2001. Although Airbus already has already booked 50 orders for the A380, it needs to sell 250 jets to break even.
Meanwhile, the new Bush Administration is likely to back Boeing complaints that Airbus gets unfair trade subsidies in the form of low-interest loans from European governments. Defusing that issue will be just another test for the high-flying industrial diplomat.