By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) - John Leahy, who has sold planes worth over a trillion dollars during more than two decades as sales chief at Europe's Airbus, is finally calling it a day at the end of the year after one last push to level the score with Boeing, executives said.
The 67-year-old New Yorker, who hinted earlier this year he would retire in the autumn to make way for his deputy Kiran Rao, is once again in battle mode as Airbus faces an aggressive new sales drive from its U.S. rival.
That comes as Airbus is trying to end a hiatus in sales of its A380 "superjumbo" by seeking more orders from Emirates and other deals at the Dubai Airshow, which Leahy is now expected to attend after earlier saying he would not be going. He has agreed to stay on until the end of the year, the executives said.
Chief Executive Tom Enders disclosed the timing of Leahy's departure during a recent internal sales meeting, but has not publicly confirmed details of the transition.
Leahy, who has run sales at Airbus since 1994, could not be reached for comment on his plans on Wednesday, while Airbus declined comment.
A tireless 'deal closer' known for snatching deals at the last moment, Leahy sold small Piper aircraft before joining Airbus to help break open the U.S. market in the 1980s.
Aides say he has overseen sales of more than 15,500 aircraft worth $1.7 trillion at list prices. But after a prolonged boom, Airbus has slipped behind Boeing in the order race this year with just 35 percent of net orders.
After suffering a rare defeat at the Paris Airshow in June, Leahy seems determined to end his career on a high and has set his sights on new sales for the A380, without which the plane could struggle to survive, industry sources said.
Emirates president Tim Clark, the biggest A380 operator who has negotiated with Leahy for decades, declined to say whether he would write more cheques for jets at the Dubai Airshow but confirmed he was being courted to expand his superjumbo fleet.
"He's anxious that we should order a squillion A380s before he goes, so that he’ll go out with a fanfare of trumpets or whatever," Clark joked in an interview with Reuters in Asia.
"But he's been telling me for the last four years that he'll retire in the next year, so I’ll believe it when I see it."
The veteran CEO paid tribute to Leahy's record, which leaves Airbus with a record backlog but questions over short-term jet demand, and declined to comment on his own retirement plans.
"He’s been very good at what he is doing. He's certainly a character who has been a big contributor to the industry."
With more than 200 sales needed to close the gap with Boeing in a market already bursting with jets, some market sources said Leahy's looming departure may put pressure on prices.
"Now is the time to strike. Airlines know the last thing Leahy will want is to lose his last annual order competition against Boeing," said a senior aircraft financing source.
Leahy, however, has said Airbus does not expect 2017 to be a marquee year for orders as the industry slows.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Alexander Smith)