When Jean-Paul Ebanga looks up at the sky, he thinks about the more than 3 million people who fly every day on airplanes powered by CFM International engines. In fact, every 2.4 seconds an airplane departs under the power of a CFM engine.
“That means our role today is far beyond delivering engines to the industry; it is also making sure people are traveling in a very safe way at a decent price,” says Ebanga, president and CEO of CFM International, a $15 billion aircraft engine manufacturer that is a joint venture between GE here in the U.S. and Snecma in France.
CFM — which gets its name from a combination of the two parent companies’ commercial engine designations, GE’s CF6 and Snecma’s M56 — combines the resources, engineering expertise and product support of these two engine manufacturers to build engines for narrow body aircrafts.
“Today, in the air transport industry, the narrow-body segment is the main segment of the industry,” Ebanga says. “Looking forward for the next 20 years, there will be a need for roughly 30,000 new airplanes; two-thirds of those will be narrow-body airplanes and CFM is currently leading this market segment.”
If being the industry leader in engine manufacturing wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ebanga also has the challenge of leading a joint venture company where compromise and collaboration is the key to success.
“If you are taking two parent companies with two different cultures and you try to blend them, this will generate some difficulties,” Ebanga says. “But the net result, because you have to find compromise, because you have to work between different cultures, will be more sound ideas and a much more efficient organization.”
Here’s how Ebanga utilizes both GE’s and Snecma’s resources to keep CFM the industry leader in narrow-body aircraft engine manufacturing.
Compromise and collaborate
While a majority of companies are focused on streamlining themselves, CFM has to take a different approach to its business. Its joint venture means CFM has to work to find compromise above all else in order to properly function at its best.
“The problem with the JV is because you have two different constituents, you have to make compromise,” Ebanga says. “There is no one voice saying this is the way and the rest of the team just follows without asking questions. In terms of leadership, it requires some things to be a little bit different than normal leadership.”
The existence of this additional challenge makes this kind of partnership too difficult for some leaders and companies. But Ebanga sees the glass as half-full.
“If you are able to find the sweet spot between the two company cultures and then work around these difficulties, you enable a new space of opportunities and strengths,” he says. “This is the essence of joint venture success.”
CFM has been known for a long time by its superb engine family, CFM56. Now the company is looking to release its next generation of engines called LEAP, for which compromise and collaboration will be key to its success.
“This new product will be designed based upon a very detailed and comprehensive market survey,” he says. “We spend more than three years asking the customer what they are looking for in the next 20 years and understanding in a granular way how the dynamics of the market can evolve, and then we define the product, which is the answer and the solution to that.”
When you have two companies, the reading of the market dynamics will be different because each company has a different way of operating and a different culture, so they will analyze all the signals in a different way.
“Maybe the solution has some things shared, but the two won’t be exactly the same,” Ebanga says. “The whole key is how you bridge the two approaches. How can GE or how Snecma can make the necessary compromise to accept that the other guys also have a great idea and how can you work together to bridge ideas that make a great product.”
The trick is being able to step back from what you believe is the ultimate answer and being able to compromise with other ideas from another company that also thinks they have an ultimate answer.
“By bridging the two, you find out that some of what’s behind the idea of the other company you didn’t think about at first and vice versa,” Ebanga says. “At the end, the product you are putting on the market is far better than the one you could have done alone.”
Both GE and Snecma own their own technology. Snecma works on the front and back of the engine, while GE works on the middle of the engine. For LEAP, they both have been developing technologies for their respective parts of the engine, but the companies don’t unilaterally say, ‘Here’s our part of the engine.’ The other company has to accept and agree with the technology based on analysis. There are checks and balances that go into the process.
“Based on the other company’s remarks, you can improve your own part,” he says. “Snecma might make some comments about the core, which is the responsibility of GE and taking into account these remarks GE will improve its own part of the engine and vice versa. It’s a mutual cross-pollination.”
The level of compromise and collaboration that CFM has developed has been built up during more than 30 years and is now a major part of the joint venture’s culture.
“In our case, the different GE and Snecma leaders, over time, understood that CFM’s success is more important than their own success,” Ebanga says. “That is to say that if I’m trying to optimize my own interests rather than CFM’s interests, at the end of the day, I would lose the game.”
CFM and GE have been very successful at carrying out this approach even though the leaders have changed.
“One way to do that is we manage young leaders in the challenges of working in this strategic partnership environment,” he says. “If you are growing leaders in this environment, eventually when they are in the top spot, they will have the framework to deal with what makes up the success of this JV.”
A joint venture takes an investment in both people and process in order to make it work.
“In a strategic partnership, it is like being a couple — you could fall in love day one and it’s great for a couple of weeks, but if you are not investing in the relationship … it won’t be a great love story,” he says.
Plan for the future
One of the main challenges CFM has is that in the ’70s it was just a start-up company. Now it has become the leader of the aircraft engine industry, and in order to remain in that position, Ebanga and the company must be forward-thinking.
CFM has several matters it needs to focus on for the future of the company. No. 1 is executing on current commitments.
“This is a big deal because we are currently developing a new engine family called LEAP, and the start of this new program has been very successful,” Ebanga says. “We are the sole power plant for the next generation of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, one of the two engine makers of the Airbus A320 aircraft, and we are the sole power plant of the new Chinese COMAC C919 aircraft.”
Beyond making LEAP the next engine of preference, CFM also has to ensure that whatever changes the market goes through in a decade or two from now the company will be able to adapt and reinvent itself to stay in the leading position.
“When you are in this top-dog phase, it’s difficult,” he says. “It’s about working on a short-term basis and, at the same time, articulating a strategy to change the way we are running to make sure we will still have the appropriate fit 10 years from now.”
Planning for what the future has in store is not an easy task. You need to address the situation in a very humble way.
“You are already overwhelmed by the shop-time challenges and to find time and perspective to think about the long-term is rather difficult,” Ebanga says. “Being humble helps you to engage in this journey. Along the way, you will have a lot of reasons to give up for a while and stick with the short-term. I think this is a recipe for failure. You need to stay humble on one end but also stay engaged and not let things go away.”
You also need to understand your market but not in the way you understand your market for your short-term objective.
“When you are looking at the market on a short-term basis, it is to make sure you have the appropriate marketing and value proposition to get yourself up and make your numbers,” he says. “When you are looking at the long-term perspective, it’s really the ability to elaborate scenarios about the change in your industry.” ●
How to reach: CFM International, (513) 563-4180 or www.cfmaeroengines.com
Drive compromise and collaboration for best results.
Be able to reinvent your business to adapt to your market.
Develop plans for how the future of your market may unfold.
The Ebanga File
President and CEO
Born: Paris, France
Education: Graduated from École Nationale Supérieure d’Électricité et de Mécanique (ENSEM), France with a degree in engineering
What was your very first job, and what did you take away from that experience?
I was the leader of the photo club in high school. A lesson I learned from that time is that you can have some great ideas and be very fast in your head, but you have to have the ability to bring people up to speed. This is a great example of how a real organization works.
What got you into aviation?
It was the beauty and the exceptional achievement that this industry is all about. When I was in high school, I had two dreams—the first one was to be an architect and the second was to be an engineer to design great things. To imagine that I could generate some great things to enable this kind of achievement was absolutely fascinating for me. So I chose the engineering path and it still gives me great satisfaction. An aircraft engine is an absolutely amazing piece of technology, but also a piece of art.
Who is someone that you admire in business?
My first thought was the leaders and initial creators of Intel. Not only was this company able to start from nothing as CFM did and became the leading company in the microchip/microprocessor business. Initially they were the leader in the memory business and then they reached a point where they had to reinvent themselves. The reason Intel is the great company they are today is because they were able to reinvent themselves in the absolutely right way. So I admire this generation of Intel leaders.