John Leahy : The man who sold the sky

>> Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The man who sold the sky

February 09, 2011

Leahy poses for a photo session at the Airbus head office in Blagnac near Toulouse, January 14, 2011. — Reuters pic

PARIS, Feb 9 — One warm July evening three years ago, John Leahy set off along London’s river Thames in an electric punt. With Leahy, a sharp and energetic New Yorker who has been Airbus sales chief since 1994, were the company’s Middle East president Habib Fekih and Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world.

Dubai-based Emirates was the largest customer for Airbus’s A380 superjumbo but Leahy wanted Clark to confirm his support for the A350, Airbus’s bid to compete with Boeing’s hot-selling 787 Dreamliner.

The three men inched their boat along a secluded stretch of the river six miles west of Windsor Castle. There were others out enjoying the last few hours of sun. As the evening wore on, the punt became more difficult to steer and the men narrowly avoided a fracas with members of the local rowing club.

Spirits undimmed, they landed and made their way to the Fat Duck, a restaurant with three Michelin stars whose menu includes such dishes as snail porridge and salmon poached in a liquorice gel. Over dinner Leahy and Clark finally agreed a deal: a contract for dozens of jets worth US$15 billion (RM46.5 billion). The Emirates boss says Airbus’s chief operating officer forgot nothing of that evening.

“He remembers everything,” says Clark. “When a deal is taking shape John will remember every last facet of it. The deals we do are so complex given the amount of money. It is all about how it is going to be put together.”

Leahy, 60, is one of the most prolific salesmen in industrial history — a relentless chaser who with irreverent wit and the discipline of a politician has amassed a backlog of plane orders worth half a trillion dollars. More than anyone, the American is responsible for lifting Europe’s Airbus to the number one slot in global sales.

“He really moves the metal,” says Cathay Pacific Chief Executive Tony Tyler. “He is indefatigable. When he smells a deal he will dig in until he has done it but he is also good - he takes the trouble to understand our business.”


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