Warren East, the chief executive with a penchant for playing a church organ, is leaving Rolls-Royce, eight years after he was parachuted in as chief executive to navigate Britain’s aerospace champion through what turned out to be the most turbulent period in its 116-year history.
On his second day at Rolls-Royce the Welshman was forced to issue a profit warning – the fourth of what would become five in a 20-month period – and presided over a record £4.6bn loss in his second year.
“I didn’t know quite how bad it was,” he recalled as he began to uncover just how parlous the Rolls-Royce business was when he started in 2015. “I don’t think anybody did. It was more a case of survival.”
East, now 60, was called off the board of directors at Rolls to take the helm of the jet engine maker after the surprise announcement by his predecessor, John Rishton, that he was to retire after only four years in the post.
Shares rose when East was named as Rishton’s successor, as investors welcomed the appointment of the engineer, and they fell 13% on Thursday when it was announced he would step down at the end of this year.
Two years before he was appointed chief executive of Rolls, East had retired from Cambridge-based microchip design company Arm, where over a decade he had helped make it a critical global partner for companies from Apple to Samsung, but the task at Rolls-Royce would prove to be the defining challenge of his career.
The company had previously enjoyed two decades of unprecedented success under the leadership of Sir Ralph Robins and Sir John Rose, cementing the company’s place as the world’s second-largest maker of aircraft engines after General Electric.
However, it was left to East, the part-time church organist, who confesses he enjoys a “great wrestle” with a difficult piece of music, to handle the devastating fall out of investigations into claims that the multinational had paid bribes to secure contracts in countries around the world.
Five years ago the company paid £671m to avoid prosecution by authorities in the UK, US and Brazil – and East has in the past recounted how stunned he was to learn that the practices continued until as recently as 2013.
“The genuine surprise was how recent some of the instances were,” he said in an interview a year after the fines, which were finally paid in full last year, were announced. “Most people thought it was prehistoric.”
East, who has three children, attended Monmouth School for Boys in Wales and has a degree in engineering science from Wadham College, Oxford.
He has said that his management style is not best suited for the thick-skinned job of big cuts and restructuring, certainly his time at Arm was a growth story, and yet at Rolls-Royce he will be remembered for managing one crisis after another.
“[It] isn’t why I joined Rolls-Royce,” he has said. “I am probably not the best turnaround person there is.”
The discovery of a series of failings with its Trent 1000 engines, which power the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, cost the company billions. In 2018, he said almost 5,000 job losses would be necessary “if we want to be around for the next 100 years”.
East will bow out having for the most part weathered the worst of the crippling coronavirus pandemic, albeit after an emergency £7bn refinancing and asset fire sale, and at the cost of almost 9,000 jobs and billions in losses as the aviation industry came to a virtual standstill during lockdowns.
When East took over, Rolls-Royce was valued at £15.7bn. As he enters his final months it is worth just over £8bn, and he leaves the company facing the steep challenge of moving away from fossil fuel-powered products and achieving a net zero carbon business.
“This is the biggest technological shift for the group since the arrival of the jet engine,” he said, announcing his departure on Thursday. “[It] is the right moment to look to the future.”