In December, 2002, at a time of uncertainty and crisis for Bombardier Inc., the industrial giant engineered one of the most shocking executive shakeups in Corporate Canada, replacing CEO Bob Brown with Canadian National Railway boss Paul Tellier. It was an inspired move: Mr. Tellier was tough, smart and savvy, a skilled communicator and one of Canada's most admired CEOs. He joined to get the job done: fix Bombardier and return it to greatness.
It's difficult today not to think back to Mr. Tellier's ultimately stunted and unfinished tenure at Bombardier – he was ousted after 23 months – as the company reaches yet again outside the gene pool of the family that created and has managed and controlled Bombardier since its founding by snowmobile inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier 73 years ago.
This time its pick to replace CEO Pierre Beaudoin is Alain Bellemare, another accomplished corporate chieftain who seemed headed for the top job of Fortune 500 company United Technologies Corp. when he unexpectedly resigned last month. The new CEO seems to have more of a carte blanche than Mr. Tellier thought he had, though it's hard to tell. This time, however, the turnaround looks more daunting.
Bombardier has had a CEO problem ever since Laurent Beaudoin stepped back to the chairman role in 1999, after taking the company his father in law created and building it into a global leader in the plane and train businesses. Mr. Beaudoin expanded the company largely through canny acquisitions – sometimes aided by helpful governments – and led its thrust into the regional jet market in the 1990s.
The problems started when the company handed the CEO job to Mr. Brown. The company's aerospace boss got the title but not the full responsibilities of a CEO: For example, investor relations, strategy, legal affairs and other key responsibilities didn't roll up to him, but another executive, Yvan Allaire, a self-styled corporate visionary who believed that Bombardier should emulate General Electric and build up a financing business, which he oversaw. Mr. Brown didn't have a voice when it came to major acquisitions, and couldn't make many of the tough decisions because they weren't his to make.
Mr. Tellier came in prepared to ram tough medicine down the company's throat. He slashed jobs, halved the dividend, sold stock and the company's prized recreational vehicles company and slimmed down the opaque and over-leveraged financing business. He dusted off shelved plans to build a 100-seat aircraft, which led to the development of the C Series jet.
But he wanted to go further and extinguish the dividend, list the company in New York and drop the stock's two-class structure that gave the Beaudoin/Bombardier family control. He declared Bombardier was no longer a growth stock and called out the company for sins of the past: arrogance, poor governance and venturing into areas it shouldn't have gone. It was all too much for the family. With the company hit by slowing orders from airlines and a sharply rising Canadian dollar, Mr. Tellier was shown the door in December, 2004, eventually replaced by Pierre Beaudoin, Laurent's son.
The younger Mr. Beaudoin is a nice fellow but he always seemed to lack a sense of urgency. Profit margins have remained chronically low and the stock has limped along for years. Senior executives have come and gone. The company built on acquisitions seemed to have lost all taste for them and there remains no trace of the boldness that defined its ascent. It has a nice business selling executive jets, but that is not a very large industry and the company has never quite figured out what to do with Learjet, which makes smaller jets and is in the part of the market that seems to get hit the worst during down cycles. The market for 50-seat airliners dried up as fuel prices soared, airlines cut costs and consolidated. The company's big bet, developing the C Series – overdue and over budget – has always faced doubts about whether it could generate big sales, or even succeed in a crowded field.
Fortunately, the family seems to recognize it's time to step back and hand the reins to someone else. Mr. Bellemare is an inspired choice. He ran UTC's Pratt & Whitney Canada small aircraft engine division for years and, until he left, oversaw that business and another that generated a combined $28.7-billion (U.S.) in revenue last year – more than Bombardier and accounting for close to half of UTC's total revenue. Bellemare is a charismatic and effective operator. Some of what needs to happen on his watch is already under way: Bombardier said Thursday it would stop paying the dividend, sell stock, and hinted it was open to selling parts of the company.
But investors should remain concerned. Though Laurent Beaudoin has left the board he has been replaced as executive chairman by his son. That leaves the dauphin still in charge. The company had nothing to say about other family members leaving the board, which should be considered. The company should end the dual-class share structure.
But these are likely not Mr. Bellemare's first priorities. Where Mr. Tellier was once preoccupied with restoring Bombardier to greatness, the new CEO must now prove the company still matters as an independent going concern.