Auto supplier mergers, acquisitions hit record level

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A new report says auto supplier mergers will hit an all-time high this year, surpassing the previous high set in 2007.

Auto suppliers face rising development costs and cost pressure from automakers, which places more pressure on them to consolidate. Rising auto sales also have given some auto suppliers enough cash to make big deals.

PwC says in a new study released Monday that supplier mergers and acquisitions will likely top $48 billion in 2015, easily overtaking the previous high in 2007 of $35 billion (measured in transactions closed within the calendar year). Excluding the major deals — above $500 million — the number of deals will remain approximately the same at 200 and with about $100 million in transaction value.

“Auto supplier consolidation is fueled by a number of factors, including the long-term growth in global vehicle production, five years of double-digit growth for many global suppliers, technological developments related to light weighting, powertrain enhancements, ‘connected car’ and autonomous driving, as well as a strong uptick in private equity activity,” said Dietmar Ostermann, PwC Strategy&’s Global Automotive Advisory Leader and one of the authors of the study.

The study reveals that for the fifth consecutive year, North American suppliers are the strongest consolidators in 2015. Nine out of the top ten consolidators are North American suppliers.

The study says in the last 12 months, 42 percent of all deals were in powertrain and chassis systems.

In May, German auto supplier ZF Friedrichshafen completed its acquisition of one of the largest U.S. auto suppliers, Livonia-based TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., in a $12.4 billion deal. Last month two big automotive suppliers — Arkansas-based Pace Industries and Muskegon-based Port City Group — said they would merge and operate under the Pace Industries name.

Michigan has more auto supplier-related jobs than any state in the U.S., but it suffered brutal losses in the last decade, as hundreds of factories closed and much of the work was shipped to Mexico, China or other low-wage countries.

In 2000, Michigan had 230,000 people working in the auto parts sector — a figure that fell as low as 73,000 in 2009. The sector currently employs 120,400 people in Michigan, up 5,500 jobs over the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But despite consolidation, 61 of the top 100 automotive suppliers to the world are headquartered in Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce says.

The United States has 564,000 working in the auto parts manufacturing sector — up nearly 180,000 since the recent low of 386,000 in 2009 — but still significantly below the 850,000 people employed in 2002.

Johnson Controls Inc., one of the nation’s largest auto suppliers and a major force in Michigan, said in July it will spin off its auto business.

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls remains a major parts source to Detroit’s Big Three and has a big presence in the state. The company’s automotive division is a big employer in Michigan. It has facilities in Detroit, Lansing, Monroe, Battle Creek, Port Huron, Warren, Holland and Highland Park, and a tech center in Plymouth.

“I’d love to stay in the automotive business,” Alex Molinaroli, chairman and CEO of Johnson Controls, told CNBC. But he said the company will focus on its other businesses, including energy storage and building trades that he thinks are undervalued. Johnson Controls also makes York air conditioners.

Molinaroli said that by selling the auto business, it will be able to get enough investment to thrive. He thinks it will also allow for a higher valuation for its business, especially its battery business. Another issue is the auto business is cyclical, even though auto sales have risen for six consecutive years.

The company’s auto business represents just over half of its revenue.

Over the years, it has acquired Michigan suppliers or plants. In 1996, it bought Holland’s Prince Automotive in a $1.35 billion cash deal, making it the world’s largest automotive interior parts supplier. It also bought Visteon’s Highland Park plant.

Johnson Controls’ auto facilities in Michigan include a 750,000-square-foot campus in Holland with more than 1,000 employees; its Plymouth Technical campus is headquarters of its North American auto business. The campus has over 500,000 square feet of office space and more than 1,000 employees within three buildings.

Citi analyst Itay Michaeli said a spinoff or sale could prompt more consolidation in the seating business — and could be positive for competitors Lear, which is based in Southfield, and Ontario-based Magna.