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Leahy sees several more years as Boeing's enemy No.1

Airbus sales chief John Leahy poses during a photo session at Airbus head office in Blagnac near Toulouse
Airbus sales chief John Leahy poses during a photo session at Airbus head office in Blagnac near Toulouse

By Tim Hepher

PARIS (Reuters) - John Leahy, the American supersalesman who propelled Airbus from European upstart to the world's largest maker of passenger jets, disclosed he has no plans to retire for several years from a post which has made him Boeing's most visible adversary.

Leahy, 62, has been in charge of Airbus sales since arriving in Toulouse in 1994. Since then, the planemaker says it has sold more than 10,000 aircraft worth 1 trillion dollars at list prices, or four out of five of the Airbus jets ever built.

Speaking as France embraced the energetic New Yorker with a long-awaited honor, Leahy told Reuters he expected to stay on for some time, serving incoming Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier.

"I am 62 and I am going to retire at some point; I don't expect to retire in the immediate future, though," Leahy said in an interview. "I would expect to be here for several more years."

Since 1994 Leahy has increased Airbus's market share from 19 percent to 64 percent, served six Airbus chief executives and outlasted eight sales chiefs at Boeing, where he appears to relish his reputation as commercial enemy number one.

Recent record sales of a revamped Airbus model and the prospect of Airbus top management changes due in June, had raised questions over how long Leahy, a dominant figure in the $100 billion annual jetliner industry, would stay in his post.

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders is due to replace Louis Gallois as head of parent company EADS in June.

His designated successor Bregier and Leahy are "not close but respect each other's ground," an Airbus executive told Reuters last year. Bregier is expected to announce his organization in the summer.

Leahy was named an Officer of the Legion d'Honneur in the New Year and received the award in a ceremony at the jetmaker's headquarters in Toulouse, southwest France, on Monday.

Representing a raw capitalism that is tolerated rather than adored in France, Leahy had until now been distant from the French establishment, not least because he never fully learned the language. But supporters felt the honor was overdue.

"I am not the first American to get it. Apparently Napoleon III's dentist got it; he was an American," Leahy said, referring to Thomas Wiltberger Evans, a colorful 19th century figure who helped the ruler's wife Empress Eugenie flee the Parisian mob.

"Maybe there is some commonality -- I get to relieve the pain of the French."

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SPECIAL REPORT: The man who sold the sky http://reut.rs/hAaAKM

Airbus and Boeing market share http://link.reuters.com/pak85s

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RIVALRY WITH BOEING

Leahy's irreverent wit and constant -- critics would say excessive -- goading of "our friends in Seattle" have not been popular over the years with Boeing, whose officials privately blame him for accentuating the rivalry and stoking a price war.

Leahy denies this. Although he has acknowledged Boeing might bounce back in the order race this year, he remains ever ready to snap into sales mode, often with a sting in the tail.

"I think you have got an awful lot of sour grapes in Seattle," Leahy said, asked about the charges of discounting.

"We are a profitable company selling airplanes at very good margins, so I think they are having trouble coming to grips with the fact that the 21st century fly-by-wire A320neo is more than a match for a 1967 derivative airplane called the (737) MAX."

A Boeing spokesman declined comment.

The A320neo and 737 MAX are the latest battleground for global aircraft sales. They are designed to save around 15 percent in fuel as airlines struggle to ride out the recession.

Boeing says the 737 MAX includes many advanced features and expects to sell 1,000 of the revamped jets this year, counter-balancing record sales in 2011 for the A320neo.

In the immediate term, Leahy has set his sights on reaching 10,000 net sales on his watch -- a number that planemakers take seriously because it is adjusted for cancellations.

"We will get there by mid-year, I think. We are close to 9,800 right now, so we need to get a couple of hundred more in the order book which we'll probably have by the (Farnborough) air show (in July) and that'll get us across the 10,000 line."

(Editing by David Holmes)

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