Airbus wins board spat with Spain, to renew CEO

A scale model of an Airbus A330-200 during the Airbus annual news conference. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A scale model of an Airbus A330-200 during the Airbus annual news conference. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Airbus Group faced down a revolt by government shareholders over a board appointment and invited its chief executive to stay on until 2019 as Europe's largest aerospace company consolidated a recent push for political independence.

Europe's largest aerospace group, whose shareholders include the Spanish, French and German governments, won shareholder support for its choice of Spanish board candidate despite what sources described as behind-the-scenes opposition from Madrid.

But the relatively narrow margin of support for Maria Amparo Moraleda Martinez, with 40.4 per cent of the shares represented at an annual meeting cast against the former IBM executive, indicated a common front by all three shareholder nations.

France and Germany own 11 per cent each of Airbus Group and Spain controls 4.1 per cent. About two thirds of the company's shares were represented at Wednesday's meeting, which also saw the company reaffirm upbeat business forecasts.

Shares in Airbus Group closed up 2.8 per cent.

Airbus Group Chairman Denis Ranque hailed Moraleda's credentials as the company seeks to import experience from high-tech industries, but the vote became snared in the remnants of previous power battles between Airbus and founder nations.

It was only the second test of a 2012 agreement to curb the influence of the three government stakeholders, but one that Boeing's European rival appeared determined to win.

Headed by independent-minded former paratrooper Tom Enders, Airbus had blocked the French government's choice of chairman immediately after the governance reforms in 2012.

Defeat in what insiders dubbed their new war of Spanish succession could have sent a signal of weakness to Paris and Berlin ahead of future battles over defence spending and jobs.

Airbus also on Wednesday ended suspense over Enders' future as chief executive, saying its board had asked him to serve for at least one more term after his mandate expires in 2016.

Enders, who had tried and failed to buy BAE Systems but pulled off a surprise overhaul in company structure since becoming CEO in 2012, could remain in charge until 2019.

While Airbus maintains a board slot for Spain under the 2012 agreement, Madrid's government no longer has the right to directly appoint its representative, who is deemed independent.

Three Spanish ministers had however written to Airbus to put forward Belen Romana, former head of Spain's "bad bank" Sareb, as an alternative board candidate, company officials said.

While the three governments wield less direct influence over Airbus than in the past, they have committed to help safeguard each others' interests on issues of importance to them.

There had been concerns that the row could scupper plans for Airbus to adopt a new legal status as a "European company" if Spain persuaded its two partners to block the change, which needed 75 per cent approval. But shareholders adopted it by a margin of 99 per cent.

France and Germany appeared instead to have shown solidarity by backing Madrid on the board vote, but without triggering a full-scale confrontation with management since this vote needed only a simply majority.

The debate could however strain relations between Airbus and Madrid during a sensitive time for the troubled A400M military aircraft project, which is based in Seville.

Enders said he was optimistic that deliveries of the partially grounded aircraft would resume very soon, as long as it could quickly establish what caused a recent fatal crash.

People familiar with the investigation have said the crash may have been caused by a suspected installation error.