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Monday, April 1, 2013

A Lesson in Media Engagement

By Andrew Drwiega

The surprise resignation of Eurocopter’s CEO, Dr. Lutz Bertling, who sees a better future away from rotorcraft as president and chief operating officer of Berlin-based Bombardier Transportation, is an undisputable loss to the helicopter industry in general.

Since his appointment in November 2006—replacing Fabrice Brégier, who moved “up the ladder” within EADS to become chief operating officer of Airbus—Bertling seemed to quickly grasp the pace of growing Eurocopter worldwide against its competitors.

Bertling has gained the respect of many of my fellow journalists for his ability to take-on the media “toe-to-toe,” both though his open presentation style, and in the question and answer sessions that inevitably follow. In his annual January address to the European aviation press in Paris, he delivered a detailed summary of Eurocopter’s past performance, current position and future goals.

Unlike the majority of his peers, his style is to be open and engaging rather than the more common guarded and reluctant. He has mastered the ability of parting with a volume of useful information—always eagerly soaked up by the media’s sponge-like thirst for detail—while rarely giving any hint of concern or insight into programs that Eurocopter wanted to keep “close to its chest.” Yet he does take questions on those difficult subjects. Most recently he has had to answer questions regarding the EC225 accidents in the North Sea, and the grounding of the aircraft type. These were awkward moments, as they would be for anyone in his position, yet he tried to explain why it is taking time to resolve the issue—and this is a problem that strikes at the heart of Eurocopter’s oft espoused focus on safety.

Yet he faced the press alone on stage with only very occasional references to colleagues offstage for clarification. His style is to lead from the front, guiding his audience page-by-page through his presentation. Even when in the United States, at his final Heli-Expo conference in Las Vegas, he was almost leading the head of American Eurocopter, Mark Paganini, in a vaudeville routine. It was nearly entertainment, but not quite, as the professional Bertling would never let it go that far. In these times where the press is continually fed marketing messages and sound bites thinly disguised as news, and where regurgitated content is prized over useful engagement, Bertling clearly stood out from the crowd. His presence will be genuinely missed.

This is not to undermine in any way his successor Guillaume Faury, 45, who already has a 10-year track history between 1998 and 2008 with the EADS helicopter division and who has been brought in from Peugeot S.A., where he held the position of executive vice president for research and development. While he is sure to have his own style and ideas about how to engage with the media, he would be wise to follow the basic TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) so well practiced by his predecessor.

So what does Bertling see in another industry sector that has enough potential to pull him away from a future with Eurocopter and, like his predecessor, a possible career further up the executive ladder at EADS? At a time when the helicopter is arguably more valued by both the civil and military than at any time in its history, where there are more helicopter types to fit to individual niche sectors and where Eurocopter is a world heavyweight in its sector?

Well, could he be following the mantra of it is best to leave at, or near, the top? Does he feel it has reached its zenith and the challenges being arranged against it from budgetary to developmental and the growth of international competitors mean that harder times lay ahead? In partly answering that Eurocopter has already shown its resilience to change in rolled out its X3 with a successful tour of the United States last year. It is advancing with its X4 project and has X6 and X9 being worked on in the wings. It also has good contacts and presumably business opportunities within the developing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries.

Does Bertling see a terminal lack of procurement from the global military in the years to come as a major issue, and does he see recent development such as the Boeing/Sikorsky partnership as one which the X3 and others will struggle against, making Eurocopter’s inexorable performance impossible to maintain for too much longer?

Without doubt the pace of life and travels that a Eurocopter CEO must endure is scary due to the nature of the organization’s global reach. From India to Brazil, back to Europe and then the United States, not to mention his duties as an EADS executive committee member—the travel must take its toll.

But I would suggest that it is not in Bertling’s character to avoid problems or be phased by the workload or the competition. Rather, this very enthusiastic, competent and positive German industrialist is more likely to have set his eyes on new challenges to test his skills in a new environment. We say herzlichen dank and good luck Lutz.

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