Opinion: How New ‘Predators’ Are Reshaping Aerospace Landscape

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Behind the big aerospace and defense (A&D) primes like Boeing and Airbus and the “Super Tier-1s” such as United Technologies (UTC) and GE, a very different type of company is shaping the global A&D industrial landscape in a way that may be even more impactful than high-profile UTC-Raytheon-type mergers.

Companies such as Teledyne, TransDigm and Heico are the spearheads of a breed of A&D players dedicated to “components and subsystems,” with explicit and perfectly executed “horizontal” external growth strategies. Their track records are impressive: These three companies—with combined revenues of more than $10 billion—have collectively made close to 200 acquisitions and delivered more than 20% average annual growth rate in either profitability or share value over the last 20 years. Thanks to such returns and skyrocketing market valuations, they are able to outbid most other contenders when going after an acquisition target by leveraging the so-called “accretive effect.”  This effect boosts the acquiring company’s earnings per share, as long as the price paid for the target as a ratio of the enterprise value (EV) over its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) is lower than that of the acquiring firm. As it happens, the current EV/EBITDA ratio of the three above-mentioned companies stands at more than 18 (see graph). By comparison, most other A&D companies have an EV/EBITDA ratio in the 9-13 range. 


Such “buying power” is enhanced by operational synergies (for instance, in corporate overheads, sales and marketing), which immediately boost the profitability of the acquired company and can therefore be factored in the offer price. This gives them an additional edge against pure financial investors like private equity (PE) funds, which have historically been strong buyers of such component and subsystem businesses.

Two recent deals in Europe (one still ongoing) illustrate this new balance of power. The first concerns Souriau-Sunbank, a $360 million-revenue specialist in interconnection technology for harsh environments. After being owned successively by two PE funds and bought by Esterline (now TransDigm) in 2011, it was again put up for sale last year. While expectations were that a PE fund would grab it, another industrial buyer, Eaton Corp., won the contest, paying the hefty price of $920 million (an EV/EBITDA multiple of 12). The second deal relates to a French company called Photonis, a world leader in night-vision technology for defense and space applications, for which Teledyne is apparently bidding—and offering a price 30% higher than the highest PE bid! 

These deals highlight the limits of the traditional private equity model (too short-term and too short-sighted) and why the “new predators”—all publicly listed companies—are in a much better position to continue to thrive. In fact, by combining “private equity-like growth in value with liquidity of a public market,” as TransDigm puts it, they are not only beating PE players at their own game, but they are also capturing a significant share of the A&D capital market by offering investors an attractive alternative to the traditional vertically integrated groups such as UTC, Thales or Safran. These groups are typically too busy focusing on large systems and equipment to realize that they would actually benefit from articulating a proper “component and subsystem” strategy. They would benefit not only because their portfolios are still full of such businesses, but also because their long-term competitiveness largely depends on their ability to nurture a strong network of strategic suppliers, in terms of both criticality for their own systems and national sovereignty.

As it happens, Photonis seems to be such a strategic supplier, since the current French government just announced it would veto the Teledyne deal, hoping to give other French or European companies or investors time to make a competitive offer for the business. But because PE funds, at least in Europe, are somewhat faint-hearted when it comes to ambitious sector-specific “horizontal” portfolio strategies, and because Europe has no industrial player able to compete with the likes of Teledyne, the outcome of the process is still highly uncertain.

In any case, Teledyne, Heico, Transdigm and similar companies are surreptitiously reshaping the A&D industrial landscape by buying technological nuggets and component businesses left and right, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the process, they are boosting their shareholders’ returns and changing the balance of power with both traditional private equity investors and large vertically integrated A&D groups. As the saying goes: One man’s meat is another man’s poison. 

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week. 

Antoine Gelain

Contributing columnist Antoine Gélain is managing director at Paragon European Partners, based in London.