When contemplating the challenges posed by the eurozone debt crisis, Hans Peter Ring, CFO of EADS, draws comfort from the aerospace and defense giant’s performance since 2008. “A major achievement of the last few years is that the company proved to be resilient throughout the financial crisis,” Ring says. “We anticipated the downturn before the financial crisis started and tried to prepare ourselves as well as we could. As a result, we went through the crisis in such a way that we didn’t feel the crisis internally—we didn’t suffer on our top line and we didn’t suffer in terms of deliveries. That was the first time that we’ve achieved that during a downturn.”
Ring should know—he has had a long career at EADS. He joined a predecessor company, Dasa, in 1990 after 13 years at German aerospace company MBB. At EADS, which stands for European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., Ring has held the CFO post since 2002 and also served as CFO for Airbus, the company’s aircraft manufacturing unit, from 2007 to 2008.
While EADS was formed in 2000 from the merger of French, German and Spanish businesses, the company is registered in the Netherlands and comprises four divisions: Airbus; Astrium, a space company; Cassidian, which provides solutions for the armed forces and civil security; and Eurocopter, a helicopter manufacturer. Ring is based in the company’s German headquarters near Munich.
“Hans Peter Ring is probably one of the most popular and credible CFOs from an investor’s perspective that I’ve run across in my 24 years as a sell-side analyst,” observes Sandy Morris, an aerospace analyst in the global banking and markets unit of RBS.
EADS’ positive experience during the financial crisis was no happy accident but the result of carefully executed strategy. After implementing a new governance model in 2007—which saw the company move from two CEOs and two chairmen to one CEO and one chairman—Airbus, the company’s leading business, initiated a process known as “watch tower.” This strategy enabled the company to get a real-time view of its customers and suppliers, so it could anticipate potential risks in time to take mitigating actions.
“This was one of the key improvement steps we achieved after having implemented the new governance,” says Ring. “At the time I held the CFO role, not only for EADS but also for Airbus, in order to foster the integration of teams. Holding this double function was not sustainable for a long period of time, but it helped to be involved in all subjects, and all the important processes on the Airbus side of the business, which are among the most important processes in the group.
“Other teams, together with the finance function of Airbus and us at EADS, developed this new process, which was so effective throughout the last crisis,” he adds. “It includes things like overbooking ourselves on delivery positions, which we’ve not done before, in anticipation there might be a challenge arising.” Booking more deliveries than are actually required provides more flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. “It basically is about micromanaging the delivery slots for the next two years, customer by customer, at a very high level in a risk management committee,” says Ring.
In practical terms, this process means customers’ delivery slots are proactively managed and adjusted where necessary. “Where difficulties with customers are anticipated, the delivery slots are postponed,” explains Ring. “Others are advanced. At a certain point in time our commercial team stopped counting these shifts of aircraft deliveries—this was at some 600. So it’s a really important process and a significant achievement.”
Ring describes the company’s performance since 2008 as a “unique European success story” and indeed EADS’ track record speaks for itself. Between 2009 and 2010 the company grew 7%, and expects 4% growth for 2011. Its net cash position has grown from 9.8 billion euros ($12.8 billion) at the end of 2009 to more than 11 billion euros ($14.6 billion) today. And record orders in 2011, driven predominantly by Airbus, put the company on course for sales surpassing its last record year in 2007.
Meanwhile, the ongoing European crisis provides a new opportunity for the tried and tested watch tower process to prove its worth and as such Ring views it as a vital tool in the company’s risk management arsenal. “We have developed a strong crisis-proven process, and the watch tower is consistently being applied, also given recent developments in the macro environment,” he says. “In fact, we have widened the program’s scope, which now also entails a close monitoring of our supplier landscape.”
Besides high volatility in the markets and the uncertain future of the euro, EADS, which turned over 45.8 billion euros ($60.7 billion) in 2010 and employs 122,000, also faces challenges posed by a number of governments’ adoption of austerity measures that will impact the countries’ defense budgets.
Ring says these issues are not insurmountable. “The military business in our home countries and also in the U.S. is not growing and in some countries, in real terms, is even decreasing,” says Ring. “That needs to be managed. Linked to that, what we want to do is go to the export markets to globalize the government businesses, particularly the defense, security and space businesses, in order to compensate for the shortfalls we may have in our home markets. We have already had quite some success in the areas of security business and border protection.”
While the economic climate is inevitably a major concern, there’s more to being a CFO than crisis management. “Of the contributions I could make to the company’s achievements, the most important is ensuring that I am not alone,” says Ring. “I have built a strong finance team across the divisions and the headquarters, which is shaping the company beyond the finance function.
“We were instrumental in changing the target-setting process and philosophy within the company in the last one to two years,” he notes. “Another example is that we launched a group-wide initiative on business partnering, bringing finance people closer to the business.”
While the day-to-day responsibilities of the CFO continue to focus on areas such as controlling treasury and refinancing, Ring sees partnering with the business becoming increasingly important.
“It’s about making sure that the requirements we have from the financial and risk management side of the business are really considered in the decision making throughout the whole operative chain—starting from business development and including bidding, contracting and executing processes,” he says. “Here the finance department plays a stronger, more strategic role today than it did a few years ago.”
Another topic of growing importance is customer financing. “This means ensuring that the financing of equipment, particularly aircraft equipment for airlines, is somewhat secured and supported,” Ring says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do that with our own cash, but we support it with export credit guarantees from the government. We want to further evolve the framework we have today with export credit.”
Nevertheless, at this point in time the challenges of the markets loom large and activities like hedging currency risk are high on the agenda for 2012. Managing the company’s 11 billion euros ($14.3 billion) of cash is another challenge, and the focus there is on de-risking the investment portfolio by concentrating on AAA-rated governments, strengthening the corporate bond portfolio and reducing investments in financial institutions.
The size of the portfolio does of course give the company a significant safety net, says RBS’s Morris.“I’d venture that with around 11 billion euros of net cash, EADS is a better position to deal with the challenging economic backdrop that appears to lie ahead than most companies.”
As far as the future of the euro is concerned, Ring points out that it is difficult to get a straight answer from banks due to the widespread uncertainty. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. “The euro is more than a European symbol: It’s the most ambitious and successful political and economic project,” Ring says. “It is worthwhile to fight for the euro—Europe needs it.”
Ring is quietly confident that EADS is well positioned to overcome whatever obstacles might arise. That said, he is not resting on his laurels and is keeping a watchful eye on developments in the market.
“Based on our backlog and our strong cash position, we think we have a good basis to navigate through another crisis if one should come,” Ring says. “For the time being, we stay vigilant.”