Thales boss Luc Vigneron has resigned from the France-based company, having "acknowledged the absence of support" of the group's two main shareholders, the French state and Dassault Aviation, which hold 27% and 26% respectively.
His replacement is Jean-Bernard Lévy, a veteran French civil servant and manager at companies including Matra; most recently, he was chairman of Vivendi until June 2012.
Vigneron was appointed chief executive in May 2009, shortly after Dassault purchased Alcatel Lucent's 21% stake in Thales, and he was due to serve until May 2014.
Vigneron's sudden departure surprised analysts, who have been watching him drive a successful turnaround at the electronic systems maker. Thales lost €92 million ($121 million) before interest and taxes in 2010 but racked up a 2011 profit of €749 million, partly owing to a strict new regime of aligning sales and engineering, to prevent undeliverable promises being made in contract negotiations.
The 2010 performance included a charge of €700 million against supply contracts with the Airbus Military A400M airlifter, the Turkish Meltern maritime patrol aircraft and a Danish ticketing project.
Zafar Khan, of Société Générale's London equities analysis team, says French press reports that Vigneron's departure may have come at the behest of trade unions is an "unwelcome development" but suggests that his broader restructuring plan was having an impact.
And, he adds in an note published by Société Générale, there has been investor resistance to its "buy" recommendation - now cut to "hold" - because of concerns that French government influence has prevented management from having a truly free hand.