New guard takes command at France’s Thales

Tank builder Luc Vigneron has taken over as head of France’s Thales at a courtly shareholder meeting belying the climax of a bitter power struggle at Europe’s largest defence electronics group.
Vigneron, who for eight years has run state-owned Nexter (formerly GIAT Industries), maker of France’s Leclerc battle tank, stepped in as chairman and chief executive following the ouster of Denis Ranque by Thales’s new main industrial shareholder, Dassault Aviation.
Vigneron’s appointment was forced through by the French government, which owns 27 percent of Thales, after a dispute with Dassault over who should run the supplier of radars for its Rafale warplanes and a battery of defence and security products, Reuters says.
Dassault will, however, have effective industrial control of the company and named four representatives on its board.
Thales sought to keep the appearance of a smooth handover, with the sharholder meeting conducted according to stiff protocol. In reality it was a defeat for Ranque, who stared pensively from the rostrum after failing to cling on to his job.
“I understand new shareholders want to turn the page. It is the law of capitalism which I yield to, not with great pleasure, but with confidence in the future of the company,” he said.
Dassault became Thales’s largest industrial shareholder, with a 27 percent stake, after agreeing to buy 21 percent from telecoms equipment maker Alcatel Lucent ALEA.PA last year, adding to the 6 percent held by the Dassault family.
Industry sources said Dassault clashed first with Ranque over his reluctance to back its arrival and then with the government over whether, and by whom, he should be replaced.
Vigneron, described by former colleagues as a discreet but tough-minded manager who cut jobs and shed Nexter’s image as a bureaucratic state arsenal, will have to juggle the interests of the largest shareholders, but he was quick to sound an independent note.
“I have not received any particular instructions, nor am I under any particular constraints,” he told the annual meeting.
He also dismissed speculation that he would appoint Dassault’s defeated candidate for the CEO post, Francois Quentin, as his number two with control of strategy.
Former Thales aerospace boss Quentin was sidelined by Ranque in January when he emerged as Dassault’s choice to succeed him.
Quentin is still said to cut a powerful figure inside Thales after steering the Rafale programme, and decisions on his future could test the balance of power as Vigneron take charge.
Ranque left with a coded warning to Dassault and the government not to put at risk multi-billion-dollar defence exports by fuelling any fears over transparency.
“It is important that people know that Thales is held to the highest standards of governance. It is the guarantee of trust and independence which we offer our UK and Australian clients.”
Britain has long kept a close watch on the future of its second biggest defence contractor, helping to block a move by Airbus parent EADS to take over Thales in 2004.
A source familiar with the matter said Britain had won reassurances after Dassault became the industrial partner.
“Alcatel was a mainly neutral shareholder, but Dassault is more linked to the French military-industrial world. Britain had the opportunity to seek assurances that Thales would not become too parochially French or inward-looking,” the source said.
Vigneron began his career as an official in the equipment and budget ministries before moving to Alcatel.
He pushed through a restructuring at Nexter, formerly known as GIAT Industries, and began a so far inconclusive search for European merger partners.
Vigneron nipped in the bud any concerns of a conflict of interest by severing indirect links with EADS.
He was last year appointed chairman of SOGEPA, a holding company that represents the combined interests of the government and media group Lagardere in EADS, which is a competitor to Thales in defence products as well as a client.
“I will resign as head of SOGEPA,” Vigneron said.
EADS has a 46 percent stake in Dassault Aviation.