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Jean Pierson, right, then managing director of Airbus, laughs as the British ambassador to France adjusts the insignia of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in an undated file photo.Reuters Photographer/Reuters

Industrialist Jean Pierson, the “Bear of the Pyrenees” who propelled plane maker Airbus onto the global jet market 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’s longest-serving chief executive between 1985 and 1998 and was credited with breaking into Boeing’s home market in the United States, kick-starting 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 deal maker who grew up outside the narrow Parisian-educated circle that dominated 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 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” in the French press, the gruff, steak-loving businessman and bon vivant took gambles that still echo in 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.

He also fought for budgets for its future A320 cash cow.

Crucially, former aides say, Pierson began a long process of integration at Airbus by declaring that a consortium arrangement between four nations had outlived its “genetic” usefulness.

Rather than buying assembled jets from its shareholders in France, Germany, Spain and the U.K., and then selling and supporting them abroad, Airbus would need its own management and oversight of the profit or less of each jet program.

After retiring to his fishing boat in 1998, Pierson made few appearances as the company plunged into more than a decade of infighting, but he broke his silence in 2007 to warn that Franco-German power-sharing in Airbus would fail. That structure was abandoned in 2013, though the countries remain as shareholders.