The departure of Elbers in May next year is not unexpected in itself, but the announcement is early. On Thursday, the KLM Supervisory Board decided that Elbers will not receive a third term. That chance didn’t seem great.
CEO Benjamin Smith of parent company Air France KLM in Paris already wanted to get rid of Elbers two years ago. The cabinet then had to intervene to force the reappointment.
The staff also took action en masse. Then he sent a poem, which he received from a customer, to his employees: As long as my heart beats/It will be blue/And when I fly/It will be with you. Shortly afterwards, the Dutch State became a shareholder, thereby shifting the power struggle towards France and the Netherlands.
Pieter Elbers (m) and Benjamin Smith (2nd) refuse to shake hands in front of dozens of cameras.
Ⓒ photo ANP / ANP
Unions are shocked at the announced departure of Elbers. KLM is far from over the worst crisis in its existence. The airline is technically bankrupt and the corona pandemic is not over yet.
KLM staff still loved their boss, despite a wage sacrifice and major layoffs in connection with the corona crisis. of the KLM Works Council.
“Both for all colleagues and for me personally. The CEO who has shaped our company and is trying to guide us through the worst storm of our existence. This is a heavy message for many colleagues and it takes time to process it. Elbers is much appreciated and loved.”
There is also disappointment at De Unie union. “Because the airline needs a strong chairman of the board who can pull KLM out of the corona crisis, but above all also offer the anti-aviation cabinet a response, Pieter Elbers’s departure is too early. Partly because of the early announcement, it seems to me a weakening of the resistance that KLM can offer in the ever-flaring debates about power and money by Air France. With the historically significant challenges ahead, a change of captain is anything but convenient,” says De Unie foreman Reinier Castelein.
In recent months, Elbers was barely visible to the outside world, fueling rumors that he was leaving. The Association of Dutch Airline Pilots says that Elbers has made ‘an important contribution’ to KLM.
“Even in difficult times, such as now with corona, he has led KLM through the crisis as a committed airline to the best of his ability,” a spokesperson said.
‘Perfectionist’ Elbers joined KLM in 2014 after former minister Camiel Eurlings had to leave as boss at the airline within a year. Insiders see the departure of Elbers as a signal that the Dutch airline will lose its remaining independence.
The KLM CEO is a man with a straightforward leadership style. He has always kept going for the content and facts in his work, which clashed with the French mentality where form and hierarchy are important, can be heard from the work floor. ‘Not words but deeds’, ‘builder’ and ‘good guy’ are descriptions his colleagues come up with when Elbers’ personality is discussed.
The Schiedammer Elbers started in 1992 as an operational management trainee at KLM’s aircraft loading company. He later switched to commerce. Elbers sat for KLM in Italy, Greece and Japan. As a protégé of Peter Hartman, who himself was president from 2007 to 2013, Elbers climbed to the top.
Another might have thrown in the towel long ago because of the major conflicts that have occurred in recent years with three different French bosses about the independence of KLM. Not Elbers. He is committed to the Dutch jobs and the route network that KLM maintains, he previously told De Telegraaf. “I am responsible for more than 30,000 families. I don’t want to run away from that.”
Legendary was the press conference in February 2019, where Elbers and Smith did not want to shake hands in front of the cameras. Things never worked out again between the KLM CEO and his French boss. In interviews or press interviews he even avoided uttering the word ‘Smith’.
In February of last year, Elbers was through. Then KLM threatened to ground the fleet because of test rules that were completely unworkable in practice. In the meantime, at Schiphol, he helped then State Secretary Paul Blokhuis of VWS to load a shipment of vaccines to the Caribbean Netherlands.
The top man was visibly and audibly irritated when it turned out that the minister had forgotten his passport, resulting in a lot of delay. When they finally stood on the platform, one of the forklift drivers said to Elbers: where is your rouge? You look so pale. Are you okay?’ The smile finally broke through on his face.
Names of crown princes have been doing the rounds for some time now. Pieter Bootsma was ready in the wings two years ago, when the parent company in Paris already wanted to get rid of Elbers. Marcel de Nooijer, the current CEO of holiday flyer Transavia, would also be in the race to succeed Elbers.
An outsider from The Hague is Wiebe Draijer, who is leaving as a top executive at Rabobank and has a background as a consultant at McKinsey. He belongs to the same party as the new Minister of Finance Sigrid Kaag, who is also a shareholder of KLM.