Last December, Dassault Aviation named Eric Trappier as its new chairman and CEO. The 52-year old Frenchman, who was previously the group’s international executive vice president, succeeded Charles Edelstenne when he retired on January 8 after more than half a century of service to the Dassault group.
Trappier joined Dassault in 1984 and most of his career has been on the military side of its business, including leadership roles in marketing its Mirage and Rafale fighters worldwide. He has also previously served as the group’s vice president for the Middle East and Africa, as well as head of worldwide sales.
Ahead of this week’s EBACE show, during a visit to Dassault’s U.S. operations, Trappier spoke with AIN about what it’s like to take charge at such an historic company and the challenges that lie ahead.
For most of your time with Dassault, your focus has been on the company’s military programs. Now you have to consider the Falcon family, too. What is your perspective on the current state of the business aviation market? Is this a business in which Dassault can continue to do well?
After just three months it is still quite new for me. Business jets are now a big part of the company–about 70 percent of our turnover [revenues]. This will continue for several years to come and it represents quite an evolution of the company over the last 30 years. We were mainly a military company before and now we are mainly in business jets. It is a change that will be in place for the next few decades and we will maintain both. It is vital for us to have the military and the civil sides. We have synergies from having a design office that can design both types. Also, our factories, such as Mèrignac and Martignas, are able to produce military aircraft and business jets alongside each other. There is real cross-fertilization between the two teams.
What aspects of Dassault present themselves as new to you?
What is new for me is the completions stage [of manufacturing] because this is very specific to business jets. That’s why I went to the U.S. to see it myself–in Little Rock. We produce everything, including the cabinets and the seats. Over the last few years our methodology has become a new industrial process for the completions and this was new to me. I continue to learn from it. What I have seen has given me many ideas to prepare the future, and this is true for the military side too.
We need to have new products and give work to our engineering department and ensure the workload for our factories over the next few decades. The balance between the military and civil side is important because the cycles are not totally inline. We have to prepare for this and be ready to sell Rafale exports and to increase business jet orders at the same time, so our factories have to be ready to produce both types at the same time. Flexibility is the key. We may face crises or we may face growth, but we have the same company nucleus, adapted to the market, and this makes us very unique.
How do you see Dassault on the world market?
We are more and more a global company because we are addressing a world market requirement. More than 80 percent of our turnover is export and our customers are everywhere in the world. We need to support them wherever they are and we need to support their culture and their requirements. We are known for designing the best aircraft in the world, whether military or civil, but we are also known for addressing the support needs of our customers worldwide.
In your military activities you have dealt with customers including top-level government and military leadership around the world. Is that very different from the business jet sector where you customers could include Hollywood actors and entrepreneurs? Does it require a different approach to customer support?
Yes and no. When you become CEO you do not become the chief Falcon salesman, you still have the sales team dedicated to different regions and they know their customers and their requirements. What matters is to have a view on what the market is going to be.
In my time working on the military side I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve met a lot of Falcon customers and also customers of competitors such as Gulfstream and Bombardier.
We know that the requirement is to try to travel as fast as you can and with more comfort so that you will be more effective at work. For many of these people the business jet is a second home and also a tool. Yes, I know many of the customers but I don’t know them in detail.
Defense markets are now under pressure, in Europe. Does this mean that logically the Falcon side of the business could become even more important to the Dassault balance sheet?
Again, yes and no. There are too many conflicting hypotheses so we need to be flexible. I agree with you on budget constraints in Europe, unfortunately. We are fighting to keep the right level for France. But if tomorrow we can sign an export contract for a country like India, where there are no budget constraints, then that could make a big difference.
To start, India will buy 126 aircraft [having pre-selected Dassault’s Rafale for its next-generation fighter requirement], and some of these will be manufactured in India. There are other countries like Brazil that have a huge demand for defense. The same thing has happened for the Falcon.
In previous years our main market has been the U.S. but now 50 percent of the market is from the BRIC countries alone [Brazil, Russia, India and China]. We are ready to slow down or increase rate of production to satisfy this changing demand. To gain the markets of tomorrow we have to develop new programs and that requires huge R&D investment. New markets like China have forced us to rethink things. We are sure that we did not know China before and we are listening.
You’ve had the chance to fly on Falcons many times. Do you feel this has given you a real understanding of what makes them special?
My first reaction was to want to be in the cockpit and my response as an engineer to this was that it made an excellent impression. When I saw these aircraft using the technology developed on the military side, I was reminded that we are the only company in the world producing our own flight control system for both military and civil [applications].
But we have also improved the experience again and again for the passenger. There are many details in which we have taught the engineers, who have been prioritizing aircraft performance, to consider the comfort of passengers in terms of cabin atmosphere and how they can sleep and eat. In recent years the improvement here has been huge.
Visiting Little Rock [where Dassault does most Falcon completions] I could see that it is a real joint team between the U.S. and the French. There are a lot of aircraft in Little Rock so the workload is significant. The quality is very good but we have plans to improve it in the coming years and we will be investing more in Little Rock. These will be improvements in design and production, and this will also improve our costs and competitiveness.
Your company has a very rich heritage, founded by an exceptional individual with real vision. Do you feel a real sense of history?
It is hard to say we are walking in the feet of Marcel Dassault. He was the founder of our company, he was a genius and we are very proud of what he did. The [Dassault] leader I’ve known best is Mr. Edelstenne. What we will try to do as a team is to be as good as they were.
I started with this company and I’ve never been with any other, and most of the engineers are the same. It is something they are very proud of and this is the spirit of Dassault, and Marcel Dassault’s love of flying on both military and civil sides. For us he was like God.
Does this encourage you to take a long-term view?
It is not that we are encouraged by this but that by definition and genetics we always think about the long-term. For us every decision we are taking is in the short-term but it is also to prepare the long-term. You will never see a Dassault manager thinking only short-term. We are, at the same time, working on what we are doing for 10 years from now, and also working to provide better support for our Falcons today. We are uniquely interested in the details. This is fundamental to aeronautics: taking care of quality and safety in detail.
Is there a danger with this heritage that people become so proud that they don’t challenge themselves to think that the customer might want something else?
If we were too sure about what we are doing we would become arrogant, but that is not the case because we have to face the world every day and we know that to survive in such a world you have to be open to what is going on around you and adapt yourself. Dassault has a strong tradition and knows its roots very well, but we also know that we decide where we want to go. And for where we want to go, nothing is written yet. We will write this ourselves. We work hard every day to adapt ourselves.
What is good is that we have the Dassault family as our main shareholder and they trust in aeronautics, right down to the grandchildren of Serge Dassault.
We don’t have to care so much about what’s going on in the stock exchange. We are concentrating on the job of making the right aircraft at the right price, and making money to reinvest in the next generation of aircraft. In any case, we have to be humble because in aviation you have to be humble because [the future is uncertain]. You have to be very serious about what you are doing. Being sure you know where you’re going doesn’t mean you are arrogant.