‘Bear of the Pyrenees’, Former Airbus CEO Jean Pierson Dies

By Reuters
Reuters
Reuters
November 5, 2021 Updated: November 5, 2021

PARIS—Jean Pierson, the “Bear of the Pyrenees” who propelled planemaker Airbus onto the global stage and began its transformation from a loose consortium into a European giant, has died, former colleagues said on Thursday.

Pierson died on Wednesday aged 80 in France, they said.

The Frenchman was Airbus’ longest-serving chief executive, between 1985 and 1998, and was credited with breaking into Boeing’s home market in the United States, kickstarting one of the world’s greatest business rivalries.

“He was a great personality and leader. He brought Airbus from a startup to compete head-to-head with Boeing,” said former spokeswoman Barbara Kracht, whose father co-founded Airbus.

A burly and voracious dealmaker who grew up outside the narrow Parisian-educated circle that dominated the French industry, Pierson strode factory floors, and exhorted sales teams to take on Boeing on its home turf despite executives’ initial wariness.

In 1997, he landed a breakthrough order for 400 jets from U.S. Airways for which he dropped his trousers in protest against a last-minute discount demand, a tactic first recounted in a 2007 book “Boeing vs Airbus”, which he later confirmed.

On another occasion, Pierson told Reuters, he ripped off his shirt, telling a tenacious airline boss that the garment might as well be thrown into the aggressively priced deal.

“He was an inspirational leader. He didn’t care about his salary and all he cared about was the people and the success of Airbus,” said Mohamed El Borai, president of Reliance Aerospace, and a former Pierson employee.

Nicknamed the “Bear of the Pyrenees,” the gruff steak-loving businessman, and bon vivant took gambles that still shape an industry where success or failure is measured in decades.

He strongly backed the A380 superjumbo, which flopped in the market and is about to see its last delivery after just 14 years. But he accurately predicted that the A400M military plane would cause trouble for the then civil manufacturer. It has just won its second export order in 16 years and blown huge losses.

‘Liar’s Club’

“He knew how to build airplanes and knew that to succeed in a duopoly you can’t be a small player,” said John Leahy, the uncompromising American promoted over Europeans by Pierson to fill the job of sales chief, which he held for over two decades.

Pierson fought for the future A320 cash cow and threw aides who proposed a different cockpit for the sister A321 out of his office, Leahy said. The one-cockpit strategy set the stage for A321 sales that underpin profits of a new management today.

Pierson was “a great humanist behind the bear facade,” said current Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer.

Airbus was founded in 1969 as a venture between industrial groups in France, Germany, Spain, and Britain and went on to snatch Boeing’s crown as the world’s largest planemaker.

Crucially, former aides say, Pierson began a long process of integration by declaring the original consortium outdated.

A veteran of shareholder meetings known internally as the “Liar’s Club” after the propensity of partners to disguise costs, Pierson campaigned for Airbus to become a single company.

Rather than buying jets from shareholders and selling and supporting them abroad, Airbus would need more control.

After retiring to his fishing boat, Pierson made few appearances as the company plunged into more than a decade of in-fighting under new partners, but he broke silence in 2007 to warn Franco-German power-sharing would fail.

The idea was abandoned in 2013, though the countries remain as shareholders.

By Tim Hepher

Reuters