Sunday, April 14, 2024

Why BAE bought Ball Aerospace and why it matters | Business News

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For some time now there has been a growing air of confidence around BAE Systems.

That was underlined when, earlier this year, the UK’s biggest defence contractor reported a record order book.

And it was further emphasised when, today, BAE announced it is spending $5.55bn (£4.35bn) on the aerospace division of the US packaging giant Ball Corporation.

The deal, described by BAE as a “unique opportunity to strengthen BAE Systems’ world class multi-domain portfolio”, is the biggest acquisition this year by a British company.

The Ball Corporation is a specialist supplier of satellite systems, geospatial intelligence, tactical solutions and antenna arrays.

The acquisition of its aerospace arm takes BAE more deeply into both the space sector and into what, in defence industry jargon, is described as ‘C4ISR’ – command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Ball, the world’s biggest maker of aluminium drink cans, put the business up for sale earlier this year as it seeks to focus on packaging and to reduce its $9.7bn debt pile – which is partly a legacy of its £4.5bn takeover of Rexam, the former FTSE-100 packaging group, in June 2016.

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In November Sir Simon Lister discussed BAE’s Royal Navy contract to build five ships in Govan, Glasgow

Rivals beaten by BAE

BAE faced stiff competition to buy the business.

Private equity companies Blackstone and Veritas Capital were both in the running, as were other defence contractors, including the $61bn US giant General Dynamics and Textron, whose products include Cessna aircraft.

Charles Woodburn, the BAE chief executive, said the business – which BAE had not expected to become available – would be an “excellent addition” to BAE’s portfolio and an “excellent strategic fit”.

He added: “This is a significant and exciting day for BAE Systems.”

Mr Woodburn said Ball Aerospace was expected to grow its sales by 10% a year during the next five years and that it was also expected to add to BAE’s profits during the first year following the deal.

Ball Aerospace has already doubled its sales during the last five years and BAE expects those sales – which were $1.98bn in 2022 – to hit some $4bn by the end of the decade.

Mr Woodburn added: “We are making this acquisition from a position of strength. Ball Aerospace hits the mark in terms of a number of our strategic priorities… [including] defence, intelligence and scientific missions.”

Why BAE bought Ball Aerospace

Mr Woodburn outlined several reasons for buying Colorado-based Ball Aerospace.

The first is that the space sector is a market of growing importance to BAE’s customers. It will also deepen BAE’s relationship with the likes of NASA – one of Ball Aerospace’s key customers.

The second is the growing importance to BAE’s customers of environmental monitoring and surveillance as they seek to respond to climate change.

Ball Aerospace, which employs more than 5,200 people, is a key supplier of advanced remote sensing and other scientific systems and analytic tools and expertise.

It also enjoys a strong relationship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US government body that provides daily weather forecasts, storm warnings and climate monitoring.

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The third reason is the war in Ukraine.

Tom Arseneault, who heads BAE’s US arm BAE Systems Inc, said the war had led to a surprisingly rapid drawdown of munitions that was forcing governments to spend more in areas such as that serviced by Ball’s tactical solutions business, which supplies stealth cameras and antennas used on land and sea, and in air and space.

He said the company was optimistic about the regulatory process – a key point given that the US government, under first Barack Obama and then Donald Trump, has become increasingly sensitive in recent years about allowing the acquisition of strategic businesses by overseas buyers.

The deal means the US will now account for just under half of BAE’s global sales.

The Prince of Wales talks to BAE Systems apprentice Charlotte and Typhoon delivery director Martin Topping in the BAE Systems Typhoon Maintenance Facility during a visit to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, to learn about future technological innovations and open a new boxing club. Picture date: Friday November 18, 2022.
The Prince of Wales talks to BAE Systems apprentice Charlotte and Typhoon delivery director Martin Topping during a visit to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire

Debt fears cause shares to fall

Shares of BAE fell by just over 5% on the news amid concerns that BAE’s debt will increase following the takeover.

Some analysts also expressed concerns that Ball Aerospace’s profit margins are slightly below those enjoyed by BAE’s electronic systems arm.

BAE’s margin is between 15-17% while Ball’s margins are between 10-12%.

But Mr Arseneault dismissed that, arguing that synergies between the two businesses would in time bring Ball Aerospace’s margins higher.

He added: “As part of a company with like supply chains, similar customers and… the ability of the teams to leverage each other’s connections and buying power will… underpin margin improvement.”

That pledge probably stacks up given BAE’s recent history.

As Mr Woodburn noted, BAE has a track record during the last few years of improving margins in its electronic systems business, while more broadly it also has a solid track record in integrating acquisitions in this field.

Following the blockbuster merger between US defence giants United Technologies and Raytheon in 2019, US regulators forced the enlarged company to offload a number of businesses, two of which were subsequently snapped up by BAE.

These were successfully integrated into BAE’s electronic systems business despite the disruption posed when the pandemic erupted shortly afterwards.

The bigger picture is that, while many people associate BAE with military hardware such as jet fighters, tanks, submarines and torpedoes – all of which remain important parts of what it does – the company has been evolving over recent years.

Products and services in electronic systems, cyber security and intelligence are an increasingly crucial part of what it offers customers.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted, in particular, the importance of satellite technology.

The way warfare is conducted is changing – and this deal underlines how this important British business is responding.


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