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Schouppe ousted from SNCB in Brussels pantomime

01 Jun 2002

THE APPROVAL by the Belgian Senate of government plans to change the management structure of Belgian National Railways (RG 4.01 p253) triggered a remarkable and unseemly round of political manoeuvring, as Transport Minister Isabelle Durant strove to gain control of the railway's management board. A member of the Green party, Durant was supported by the Liberals in her quest to dethrone the board, which was dominated by members of the Socialist and Christian parties. A particular target was Chief Executive Etienne Schouppe, elected as UIC Chairman for 2002-03 and holder of the top executive post at SNCB since 1986.

Wasting no time after the Senate's approval, which incidentally also authorised a 12-year investment programme but no funds to implement it, the government did not reappoint the SNCB board whose term of office had expired. Instead, it invited candidates for a replacement board to present their credentials by April 10. No fewer than 45 came forward, including a 21-year old student whose intentions were hardly serious. Board Chairman Michel Damar was nominated to another government post, and the search began for a new Managing Director. By April 19 it was clear that the only well-qualified candidate was one Etienne Schouppe, not least because of his experience in running a railway business.

This was not acceptable to Durant, so the job was readvertised on April 20. Applications were required by April 23 so that the nomination could be made before the legally-binding date of April 25. Headhunters Korn Ferry were hastily engaged, and in the space of a weekend Christian Heinzmann, Managing Director of Luxair, was nominated for the job. A replacement board was swiftly appointed under the chairmanship of Alain Deneef, previously with Belgacom, with care taken to ensure linguistic parity between French and Flemish speakers. Three of the 10 members were from the Green party.

Under the revised management structure, a Strategic Committee in which the trade unions are represented and a Steering Committee with representatives from the regions are to be formed. There will also be an Executive Committee composed of the Managing Director and eight managers responsible for national and international passenger traffic, freight, infrastructure, rolling stock and safety, property, finance and human resources. Schouppe was appointed to head the troubled logistics business ABX, 25% of which is to be sold to the private sector.

More drama followed. On May 1 Heinzmann announced his resignation, saying that he did not feel welcome at SNCB. His decision may possibly have been influenced by the government's decision to appoint two General Managers with similar powers without consulting their new protégé. Heinzmann went so far as to say that he had received threats, although their nature was unspecified. SNCB managers at once denied this, but Heinzmann's comments were sufficient to precipitate a legal tussle. As we went to press, debate was raging in the Belgian media, and candidates for the post of Managing Director had been invited for a third time; Schouppe is reported to have applied again to get his old job back.

SNCB has meanwhile announced the launch of 'New Cargo' to restructure its freight business. Last year B-Cargo recorded a 7% fall in tonnes carried to 57·1 million and a loss of €90m. Whereas B-Cargo employs 4500 people, New Cargo aims to have just 3450; retraining will cost €202m. With €333m earmarked for investment in new rolling stock until 2005, New Cargo aims to be in the black from 2008.

Not that SNCB can expect to have it all its own way. On April 2 D&L Cargo launched an open access freight service over Belgian metals. The train began running thrice-weekly between Schwandorf near Regensburg and Antwerpen after four years of preparation. Swiss intermodal company Hupac has a 40% stake in D&L, the rest being owned equally by Jeroen le Jeune and Ronny Dillen. The first customer to sign up was the Swiss Mediterranean Shipping Co.