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Brussels Airport lives without chairman for two years – and probably will do

For two years now, the board of directors of Brussels Airport has been without a chairman. The Canadian shareholder is reportedly not in favor of an attempted political appointment.

With possibly stricter noise regulations, an environmental permit expiring in the middle of next year, and expansion plans, there is no shortage of hot-button issues for Zaventem Airport. In addition, there is the difficult recovery after the COVID-19 crisis. In 2022, the airport recorded nearly 19 million passengers, double the number in 2021 but less than the 25 million passengers in the years before the pandemic. For two years now, Brussels Airport Company has been without a chairman of the board of directors.

The last one, Marc Descheemaeker of the N-VA party, was thanked for his services in 2021. Since then, the appointment of his successor has been deadlocked. The conflict stems from a disagreement between the shareholders. The Belgian government owns a quarter of the shares through the Federal Participation and Investment Company (FPIM). The rest is held by private investors. Within that group, the main player is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP). This Canadian pension fund has a portfolio of a staggering 226 billion euros worldwide.

In the appointment carousel of the Vivaldi government, Open VLD claimed the position of chairman of the board of directors. According to various sources, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has completely taken control of the appointment. He has put forward Wouter Gabriëls, the investment banker and former chief of staff to Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

The shareholders commissioned a headhunter to find a suitable candidate. After several rounds, two candidates remained: Gabriëls and Roberte Kesteman, former CEO of energy supplier Nuon.

The private shareholders wanted Kesteman on board, partly because the chairman’s position has never been held by a woman before. But De Croo insists on Gabriëls. According to the shareholders’ agreement, both shareholders must agree. Hence the deadlock.

As a temporary solution, the board of directors is now alternately chaired by representatives from both shareholder camps. ‘This situation has no impact on the management of the company or good governance,’ says spokesperson Ihsane Chioua Lekhli.

In any case, there seems to be no solution in sight before next year’s elections. Moreover, a recent development is said to have only intensified the conflict. According to two sources, Prime Minister De Croo personally called the top executives of the Canadian pension giant to settle the matter privately. This did not sit well in Toronto. ‘Anglo-Saxon companies do not appreciate that form of old political culture,’ they say.

The De Croo cabinet does not want to comment on the specific phone call. ‘Both candidates have gone through the selection process and have been found suitable. The shareholders will have to make the decision soon,’ is the response.

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