By Christophe Bénaroya & Jean-Michel Barthez
Interview carried out in Johan’s Airbus office on 16th of March 2021, following Jean-Michel’s initial idea and suggestion.
Holding degrees in Organic Chemistry and in Aerospace Engineering, Johan started his career in Belgium, and took diverse positions at Sabena Technics in maintenance related activities. He then joined Airbus in Toulouse where he’s been rapidly identified as a high-potential owing to his remarkable performance and problem-solving efficiency. He then enrolled in the Aerospace MBA program to be equipped with business skills and wide-ranging set of tools required to handle complex contexts with agility and enduring motivation. His internship in Airbus Finance on the A320 Neo Program has been a great introduction into the field of risk management and finance in general . He’s been granted the “Top of the class Award” at the graduation ceremony. He then continued to constantly take on new challenges and move to the top! He’s now ready to confidently take on the next step in the aerospace industry, joining soon SABCA as COO (Chief Operating Officer) in this homeland, but will keep working with Airbus as his main customer. Let’s get some insightful pieces of advice and have a look back at his rich and diverse experience of working for more than 2 decades in a highly competitive international environment dealing with complex (technical and organizational) set-ups and highly -effectively running and thrusting (often large) teams.
 On a side note, we’ve been much moved to see displayed respectfully on the wall, right over Johan’s desk, the article published in AGORA about late Nicolas Nalpas. Touching, sober, strong and authentically elegant.
After a warm welcome in spite of the sanitary restrictions, we greet Johan’s assistant and enter his office soberly decorated with aircraft models (A350, Boeing, fighter…). We talk about his background, his arrival in Toulouse, his experience in the MBA program, his role and expectations as a manager as well as some advice for our students and graduates.
Why did you come to Toulouse?
I started off in aviation in 1999 and Sabena Technics in Belgium in dealing with the heavy maintenance activities and structural repairs in general. I had the opportunity to basically manage a comparative study, which was ordered by Airbus, about A320 and the 737 next gen (next generation) in the frame of the preparation of the sales campaign for easyJet. The idea was to provide a complete detailed comparison enabling to demonstrate that A320 was a low-cost carrier model airplane. As Sabena Technics was maintaining both machines, we got data to manage such a study. I got then in contact with a number of people from Airbus. And those guys were asking me, after one or two months, would you ever be interested to come and work for us in Airbus? But at that time, my kids were still very young. My wife was working as a dentist. We just had bought a house. So the time wasn’t really right. We finished up the study over, and it went well. Some years after, by 2005, Sabena Technics was about to be sold to TAT for symbolic value. I didn’t feel like working for French people in Belgium. I’d rather work for French people in France! I got in contact again with the guys I used to work with on the project. I sent my CV and said, hey, guys, would you still be interested in me?”. And honestly speaking, two or three months later, there was a contract on my on the table. So basically, we dashed off to Toulouse in 2005 .
 Johan speaks Dutch (mother tongue) but also French and excellent English, easing this professional move to Toulouse.
What makes you enroll to the Aerospace MBA program?
After a few years, my management, such as Thierry Rollin, saw possibilities for me to move on in the company. I had the feeling that until then I had done quite a lot of technical studies, chemistry, engineering, science, teaching, all that kind of stuff, a lot of internal training as well, which were rather technical. And I really felt if I wanted to move on in the company, I would have to be able to speak from different angles, to learn business skills beyond those I just learned by doing my work, by acting. So I was very lucky at the time. My manager, Alain Leomant, was a guy who believed in me because sometimes in your life you need to get across people who believe in you. And he actually got me connected with this talent development part of H.R. and I was able to convince those people that it made sense to invest in me. And I was asking if I could do not a general MBA but the very unique Aerospace MBA in its part-time mode, as I already knew some people who did it, like Jean-Michel, by the way who did his MBA internship in my department. This was a good way to manage both the MBA and carry on Airbus activities. In addition, I’ve heard about the School from my colleagues here, stating that it is well known in France, I mean, with a good reputation. And that’s why I thought this was ticking pretty much all the boxes, and it was close to where I worked and where I lived. To be truly honest, I did not come for networking, as I’m an odd networker in the sense I don’t believe in artificial networking, opportunistic LinkedIn networking. However, I think the networking aspect within your company is an important point. You know why? Because I truly believe if you know a lot of people in the company and you need to fix problems and if you know where to press the button and where to talk to, that’s very useful. But this is for me, a real network. This is a business network, not just a sort of political. Nice to have sort of cozy family network.
Any anecdote you would like to share in the frame of the Aerospace MBA?
When I did these studies, the thing that struck me most at the time was basically the finance courses, because for me, this was a new world. I was never really in contact with financial industry or financial people or financial training or whatever. And so we got our professor the late Nicolas Nalpas. And by the way, if you look around in my office, there’s a dedication to him because I found him at TBS really sort of amazing. The fun memory was he came into the classroom and started with his finance stuff. It was very, very mathematical. In my cohort, a lot of people didn’t have a very strong mathematical background. So I remember, sitting about 20 people in the classroom and after half an hour, almost everybody except for two or three people who were really mesmerized by all the formulas and then the how he derives all the formulas, all the other ones were completely lost! He was simply building up a financial theory from the basic math, which I thought was just brilliant. And the guy just kept off going for one day and a half. And I loved the guy enormously. And honestly, when I heard that he died, I was really sad and very sad that other people wouldn’t have had the opportunity to having met him. Anyway, this fully specialized MBA, as it used to be till recently, has been a real plus. For example, when I did the MBA and I was almost having my degree, I was offered a position as a financial controller on A350 in Hamburg. For a number of reasons, it didn’t materialize, but by the virtue of the MBA, as an engineer, I would have had the opportunity to work as a financial controller on the A350 program back in 2012. Some years after, Airbus was looking for a financial control activity. So that was another opportunity. I didn’t go for that. But I was then selected as the executive assistant for Didier Evrard the brilliant program manager of the A350. I’ve been able to work next to a man who had, let’s say, the full view of a development program. I was able to understand many more with all the knowledge I built up in terms of operations, in terms of economics, in terms of people, management, the big picture. Having gone through the MBA just before, I was able to go beyond basic Ebitda, with a strategic understanding with tools and so on.
What is your last position all about? (Vice President Operations at Airbus Customer Services)
What do we do here? Basically, we’re running a team here of about 400 people, in eight different countries, i.e. in the four founding countries of Europe, France, Germany, UK, Spain and in four other regions in the U.S., in Malaysia, in Dubai and in China. This team is running all activities linked to structural repairs for the flying fleet of Airbus, from structural damages, daily repair (C check for instance some corrosion or cracks or any sort of damage) to the big structural and system modifications. Whenever an aircraft has an incident, any sort of incident, we send our people worldwide to fix those aircraft and bring them back into revenue service. This is a niche market because we do things that sometimes pretty much nobody else in the world can do. It’s very rewarding because we could basically unblock in many situations an aircraft which is stuck, and which can be brought back to life if the leasing company or the operator wishes to do so. We also take care of what we call anticipation activities. And this means there’s a part of the group, mechanics, team leaders, preparators who are working on technical solutions, on long term, short term sort of technical solutions. We can to deploy readily technical solutions with the customers in case issues, repetitive issues arise. So it’s a very hands on activity. You have to be very close to the people on the shop floor. At the same time, it’s also a very interesting economic activity because it’s all about coming up with business cases who make sure that makes sense technically, but as well as economically.
Why leaving Airbus and moving to this new COO position at SABCA?
I actually asked myself often after I took my previous position, what on earth am I going to do within Airbus after this? When I got in contact with the headhunter who was looking for a COO at SABCA, during the discussion he actually asked: Why do you want to leave Airbus after 15 years? Who leaves Airbus? Is there a problem? Did you make a professional mistake or something? There’s nothing about all that!! It’s much simpler than that. The real reason I’m leaving Airbus, but hold on, it’s maybe wrong to say that I’m leaving Airbus because I’m staying within the extended perimeter of Airbus, as we will deliver parts to Airbus, hence I still consider myself as part of the Airbus family. But the real reason behind all that is, actually my own little family, let’s say the next step global vision. It must be a good one for the whole family. Family stability is key to personal and professional development and success. The challenge proposed by SABCA is very exciting. This One Century old company is defined by its ability to innovate and to work at a human size around inspirational projects for top-demanding OEMs. This is a perfect environment to inject new ways of working and generate measurable, visible and rewarding impact to improve the organization’s efficiency. Knowing very well Airbus needs, as a customer, will certainly help!
What have been the main changes you’ve observed over the past decades?
I have the feeling that this industry has been moving little by little over the last ten fifteen years into almost a commodity industry. It means airplanes are not anymore what they used to be looked upon in the sixties or the seventies, I mean, like brilliant pieces of machinery and all the Glamorous thing about Aviation. Now, they have really become a commodity. It has a significant impact on the whole supply chain from the suppliers to the manufacturers such as Airbus or Boeing, going through the operators. Making margins is crucial and I wonder if we haven’t pushed it a bit too much into a simple commodity. The aviation industry is more complex than that. It’s a global industry requiring to be more cooperative owing to the challenges ahead.
At the end of the day, I think if everybody cleans up his act if everybody becomes more efficient and works well together, we could squeeze overall much more out for society. This Coronavirus crisis is just like a pie being thrown in our faces at full speed. We all need now to do something about this when it comes to sustainability when it comes to looking at the broader picture of developing, producing, assembling and operating a plane. Market will change for sure: do we really need to take the aircraft to go to the other side of the world for a summer trip? I’m not sure. Younger Generations start to think differently. We need to bring something to the table that will make sense in their eyes. There is a new page. So they want to be part of it. We want to write together the new story and truly and even more take into consideration environmental impact.
What lessons learned for our Alumni & students?
Regarding current students, I’d like to pass on a message. We’re experiencing the worst crisis in aviation. A lot of people now in there must be thinking what the hell am I doing wasting my money and my time. I think they’re completely wrong. This is the land of opportunities. As said Winston Churchill, never waste a good crisis! There is so many people leaving this business right now, they think it’s going to be tough to actually survive the coming two or three years.
So there are a lot of opportunities being created for people still believing in this business, still being passionate about this business and I truly believe that this is the moment to invest. In the coming year, year-and-a-half, there will be again things popping up. Then a lot of people will be already done for the business. I compare today’s situation as a compressed sphere. There’s a lot of people fleeing away. So there’s a lot of cracks in the front. There’s a lot of holes in there, but you don’t see it yet. Because it’s compressed now. When things will blossom again, you’ll see all the cracks all over the place. Those being courageous enough to add something to the equation, they will have plenty of opportunities to do. Of course, all the opportunities will arise first for the people within the system and then we’ll have to hire bunch of people because they won’t get there anymore. It’s going to be the land of opportunity. So this is the moment. The ones who are doing their studies, it’s even better these days! Everything is soaring back soon. There will be a lot of opportunities arising with enthusiastic people.
What are the key features of your management and leadership?
It’s important to remain humble and talk to your team members. You can learn a lot from them. When you engage with people, you’re able to take right decisions. You save time and energy but most importantly you get the people on board. Everyone is then happy to see the work done. I’m not able to change the whole thing alone. I need good people around me that make it work. You’re able to do great things with your team as long as you are aware of that, as long as you stand behind your decision. You can even change decisions if need be as long as people come up with good arguments.
If you work with passion, if you work hard for something you believe in, you would remain yourself and authentic, not trying to play some other’s Persona. Hence, I truly believe that you can do a lot of great things in life, not bothered with your own career but driven by passion and focused on meaningful objectives. In so doing, you can move and push things beyond departments. It’s a bit cliché but there’s too much Silo thinking. We need to think a bit more global and a bit more for the overall result of the company and not for their own department. You need to feel a certain level of freedom to move things. People with passion, common sense and getting the whole general picture. It’s the kind of people I’m looking for in my team, able to understand someone else’s point of view, to work together and to build bridges with others.
I don’t think I’m a reference when it comes to soft skills, I am very analytical and very straight to the point. I need to work a bit more on this. However, I would like to point out that the soft skills are extremely important. You cannot work with a full team of bulldozers! I’m looking for people who are open for discussion, for ideas coming from within or outside the department, but at the same time I’m looking for people able to actively listen, to take a lot of good things and good advice into account that they make decisions and then to stick to their guns. So I’m looking for team players able to change their decisions when somebody comes up with good arguments. I hire people who are there to make it work for the team, people that come to me and say that’s what I can do for the business. It’s what I always tell my guys when they’re looking for people to hire and they are the ones hiring within my team. They basically take on people who they’re really believe that will bring value to the business, and that those guys they will be there to really work with a sort of passionate atmosphere. Then you can really move all the things, you can do brilliant things off.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years from now?
I usually say I don’t even bother answering that question, because whatever I will say right now, it will never happen. Keep in mind what John Maynard Keynes said: “In the long run we are all dead”! However, I believe, I feel I will be in touch with a form of Entrepreneurship. I need to do things with full passion. We will see what happen, never exclude something surprising! I don’t know exactly where I’m going to, having my own company, being self-employed, but I’m going to be an entrepreneur!
De Buck personal assets & traits
A highly committed, dedicated and pragmatic manager with real strong leadership
- Empowering others, ensuring they have what they need to deliver
- Shaping and translating strategy into pragmatic directions to create individual and overall sense of purpose
- Adapting quickly to a changing environment and strongly supporting change