Éric Martel started as President and CEO of Bombardier at an inauspicious time. His appointment was introduced on March 11, 2020 – just as Canada and Quebec announced COVID-19 closures. He assumed his duties on April 6 amid global uncertainty.
Éric confesses not knowing how the pandemic would play out, but he pursued a proactive agenda and chose to stay the course as Bombardier embarked on a strategy of exclusively manufacturing and servicing business jets.
“I remember my first week in the job, having people calling me wanting to cancel their order. There was a lot of panic coming from all angles,” Éric tells The CEO Magazine. “A lot of people were betting against us and a lot of people thought we were not going to make it. But we did.”
Éric guided Montreal-based Bombardier through the turbulence of the pandemic. He also kept the company on its course of exiting business divisions, such as rail and passenger aircraft, to focus on business jets – just as the pandemic saw demand for air travel plunge.
“There were a lot of decisions to be made, and a lot of decisions that needed to be made very quickly,” he recalls. “As a team, we made some pretty bullish decisions right away, which served us pretty well.”
Éric first joined Bombardier in 2002. He headed several divisions as he assumed increasing responsibilities, including business aircraft and aerospace services. After five years as CEO of Hydro-Quebec, he returned to Bombardier to lead a turnaround of the industrial giant.
We are a pure play business jet company with the financial strength needed to compete.
Bombardier is considered a Quebec success story, having been founded by mechanic and inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier in 1942 as a snowmobile manufacturer, and later morphing into a manufacturer of everything from subway cars and recreational consumer products to passenger jets. Its products won acclaim, but Bombardier stumbled somewhat in recent years and its balance sheet needed attention.
“Today, we are a pure play business jet company with the financial strength needed to compete,” he says. “This is why I returned. I felt a bit of a mission to bring back my knowledge of the industry and the chance of putting this great company back on track.”
The business jet focus appeared potentially imperilled at the start of the pandemic. Travel stopped the world with flights cancelled and borders closed. But Bombardier did not falter. In the summer of 2021, Éric saw the strategy producing results – customers sought out business jets, partly for convenience but also for a sense of security. Sales of business jets also returned to robust levels.
He has now set his sights on the services side of the business, noting, “We have 5,000 aircraft flying around the world.” Bombardier is opening or expanding operations in Florida, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Australia – to name several markets. “We believe we can grow our services business quite extensively,” Éric says.
As Bombardier moves beyond the worst of the pandemic, he sees additional challenges for the company. One industry-wide challenge involves reducing the aviation sector’s carbon footprint, though Éric says, “We’re on the path of being successful as a group.”
The increased use of sustainable fuels is helping the sector meet its emissions targets, as is Bombardier’s history of innovation. “The research and development budget today is dedicated to improving the shape of the aircraft, to reduce emissions again,” he says.
Our company is back. We still have the best products out there. We still have the best services operation. And the culture we have developed is fun for our customers.
People are another priority for Éric, especially as the pandemic kept employees and executives apart. “I think the biggest challenge right now is a people challenge,” he says, pointing to a looming number of retirements in the company. “I always like to say that the most important asset of a company like ours, it’s not our aircraft, it’s our people.”
Other challenges include restoring the corporate culture, which was eroded in recent years. “Entrepreneurship, family spirit, focus on the customer and quality are part of our DNA and that is extremely important for our people,” he explains.
“Our company is back,” Éric says proudly. “We still have the best products out there. We still have the best services operation. And the culture we have developed is fun for our customers.”