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Executive Watch - Chris Emerson of Airbus Helicopters

Posted 6 years 19 days ago ago by Admin



Being the president of Airbus Helicopters is one of the great responsibilities in the rotorcraft world. Over 23,000 employees generate over $6 billion in revenue while manufacturing and delivering some of the top flagship aircraft in the industry. The leader of this global OEM must be driven, yet calm and calculating. So one wonders: Would Chris Emerson be the president of Airbus Helicopters had he not seen a photo of a naked man wearing a résumé to cover his front and backside?  

Admittedly, that’s quite a question, and one that requires travelling to find the answer. Which is exactly what that newspaper photo inspired young Emerson, then a student at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s, to do. He recalls, “Unemployment at that time was rather high. This guy in San Francisco had posted his résumé on two billboards that covered his front and rear. I thought: Wow, is it that desperate? What am I going to do to stand out?”

Mannheim Steamroller

As the college kid pondered those questions, he remembered the many moves he made as a kid growing up in a military family while his father served in the Army. He decided an exchange program Alabama had with The University of Mannheim in Germany might give him the foreign language skills and experience to set him apart. There was only one problem: Mannheim wouldn’t accept him unless he was proficient in German … and Emerson didn’t Deutsch sprechen. Undeterred, the student paid his own way overseas, enrolled in a five-week immersive language course, and gained the proficiency to steamroll his way into Mannheim.

While such initiative is impressive—not only for a college student but for most adults—Emerson’s upbringing prepared him to take it. Those childhood moves with his New England family prepared him to adapt to new situations. “That moving shaped a lot of who I am,” he says. “With every move to a new post, it was like you could reinvent yourself. There were new friends in a new area; everything was new again.”

In addition, the kid had excellent role models. “My main mentors have always been my family,” Emerson says. “My father and grandfather both taught me how to be calm and approach problems in life. Most important is the way they lived their lives. They put family and friends first and have generously given back to their communities.” Even now when Emerson leaves his Dallas office after a 12-hour day, on the 45-minute drive home he regularly calls his dad in Maine. Then when he arrives home, his focus is on his own family—and perhaps a good book or a nice bottle of wine shared with his wife and neighbors—not business.

Another aspect of Emerson’s youth that shaped him was employment. Since high school he always got a job of some sort—jobs that paid his way through school. So when he enrolled in Mannheim, he naturally sought work on the side, including an internship at ABB, a Swedish-Swiss-German conglomerate that at the time was one of the largest construction companies in the world. Little did he know how fortuitous that internship would become.

From Roll Tide to Roll Off

Upon returning to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for graduation, Emerson learned that Mercedes-Benz was building their first U.S. production plant just a few miles from the college town. The German company wanted to hire graduates from the local university, so Emerson threw his name in with thousands of others. “What stuck out in my résumé wasn’t a naked dude wearing billboards, but that I had gone to Germany and worked for ABB.”

The newly minted graduate was hired and worked on-site as a financial controller for three years while state-of-the-art facilities were built and production got underway. Emerson went from his alma mater’s team cheer of “Roll Tide” to seeing new vehicles roll off the assembly line. “The first production car rolled off in ’97,” he says. “It was a great experience to see that happen and be part of that little team that did something that no one in Germany thought would ever happen: Mercedes building cars abroad.”

After that success, Emerson was given the opportunity to return to Germany by Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler-Chrysler, and soon wound up in Daimler’s Munich aerospace division. In the year 2000, this division was merged with aerospace companies from France and Spain to create the new European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) that would later be reorganized in 2014 as Airbus Group. Being in the finance department, Emerson found himself right in the middle of the three-company merger. “Two of us worked on building this joint pro forma plan for what the new EADS would look like … that led to a successful initial public offering.” How did the young executive find himself in an integral role for such a major merger? He reflects, “It was the right place, right time, right attitude.”

Creating Value

With a key role in a successful IPO now on his list of accomplishments, Emerson went to Washington, D.C., as vice president of investor relations for EADS North America, and soon thereafter he became senior vice president of finance (CFO) for commercial operations. For eight years in those jobs he immersed himself in all aspects of the company. “It was a great experience because it helped me learn about all of the business lines: helicopter, commercial jet, military, satellite, communications … all of it.” Furthermore, he realized an important truth: “Our job is to create value. Everything we do is to create value.” With that mantra taken to heart, he also somehow found the time in 2007-08 to earn an executive certificate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

The young executive was rising fast through the international aerospace corporation and had become quite confident and comfortable in his financial capabilities. However, another promotion would stretch him out of that comfort zone when he was offered the position of senior vice president and head of product strategy for commercial aviation in Toulouse, France. “Wow, what an opportunity; I wasn’t going to turn that down! I had 60 engineers working for me—and I was a fish out of water.” From his first day in that job, Emerson recalls he had a lot to learn. “I was saying you need to do this and that, and the group replied back, ‘No, no, no, it doesn’t work this way Chris.’”

Nevertheless, Emerson quickly learned to bring the value he constantly sought to his new role. “I really had to learn how to be a leader without being an expert. I was an expert in finance but I wasn’t an expert in engineering, and I sure as hell didn’t know how to develop a next-generation commercial jet—but my team did. So, how was I supposed to bring value to the corporation by leading these guys, when I wasn’t an expert? It challenged me but was rewarding, and I have to say I think we did a pretty good job. It was a lot of fun.”

Emerson laughs he may have had too much fun, because as EADS reorganized into Airbus, he was next asked to lead global marketing efforts for commercial sales. Once again, the new senior vice president of marketing, who had never been part of the sales process, found himself with a lot to learn. Fortunately, a team of over 200 worked with him as he steered their efforts, and again he met the challenge.

Au Revoir Jets & Howdy Helicopters

By this time Emerson and his family had been in France for over five years, and his wife and their young girls were a little homesick for the States. (Emerson jokes that his family lived in France, whereas he lived at Airbus.) So when the position of president/chief executive of Airbus Helicopters opened up in Dallas, the husband and father pursued it.

Having now been in Texas since June 2015, Emerson is convinced he and his wife made a great decision to move back. He also loves helicopters. “This is a really exciting and interesting industry. You deal with a lot of personalities in rotorcraft, and it’s fascinating because they’re all different. It’s a lot about relationships.”

Simple and Quick

As Emerson sees it, serving those unique personalities is often best done by simplifying things. “I pride myself on being able to see an issue, break it down to its simplest form, and solve that issue,” he says. “Get down to the root cause, fix it, and see if that gets the job done. Be simple.” Toward that end, “the suit”—that disdains wearing ties—routinely walks the shop floor. If there’s a broken part, he wants to see it. If there’s a proposal on the table for a service bulletin, he’ll get with a pilot and go through a run-up to determine specifically how the bulletin might help. Emerson says, “I learn more walking the shop floor and talking to technicians than I do in a meeting.”     

Still, meetings are necessary. So when in them, Emerson makes decisions as quickly as possible. “I probably make decisions faster than people are comfortable with, and sometimes faster than I’m comfortable with. But I’ve seen too often where decisions don’t get made because people are so cautious about taking a step forward. Well, if you don’t take a step forward you’re not going anywhere.” Emerson says the key to making a fast decision is honestly evaluating its results. “If it’s the wrong decision, am I stubborn and proud or am I going to quickly readjust my course? If I make a bad decision, I admit it and make a change.”


Emerson sums up his leadership style this way: “Be simple, be quick, communicate, respect people, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal. I like to win on our own merits.” This philosophy dovetails with what he looks for in team members: Trust, competence, and respectfulness. “I want to have debate because the best decisions come from that, but I want it to be respectful because it’s business; it’s not personal.” Emerson is also big on engaging employees. “I want people to share in the success,” he says.

If his history and enthusiasm is any indication, Emerson and the Airbus Helicopters team will be sharing a lot more success. “We have an exciting product portfolio with a loyal customer base. One of the things we’re doing this year is reaching outside our existing base to open up new channels of opportunity. It’s a privilege to be in this industry and it’s a lot of fun. I’m excited!”

Yes, Chris Emerson has managed to cover all sides throughout his career … without yet wearing his impressive résumé.