Strength in Acquisition Numbers

Examining the effects of mergers and acquisitions in the high-tech aftermarket services supply chain

Frank Cavallaro, Founder of Fronetics Strategic Advisors
Frank Cavallaro, Founder of Fronetics Strategic Advisors

The last two years brought with it a great deal of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the high-tech aftermarket services space. Electronics distribution and services giants Arrow and Avnet used their platforms, know-how and cash to acquire complimentary businesses that are adjacent to their existing service lines. More importantly, small, niche, aftermarket service industry participants continue to become increasingly attractive because of the upside opportunities they present. And acquirers need to identify the winning strategy in positioning their companies with such adjoining business growth.

“Add-on” acquisitions such as Avnet’s acquirement of Round2 Technologies, Pinnacle Data Systems Inc. (PDSi) and Nexicore Services represented opportunities for them to “touch” customers in a different way than they have historically, as well as in a more profitable and less commoditized service offering. They gained specialty services in electronics repair, technical services/call centers and electronic asset disposition (EAD). Additionally, through its acquisition of Tech Turn, Arrow gained specialization in service parts logistics, asset recovery, data destruction and e-cycling. But why are these small, niche aftermarket service industry participants so attractive?

Deploy the right consolidation method

In order to answer this, we must first understand the context of aftermarket services. When referring to the high-tech space, the term “aftermarket services” encompasses the services commonly referred to as technical support; field support; service parts logistics; electronics repair; asset recovery; data destruction; and e-cycling. These service markets have been historically served by specialized providers, each delivering their niche service offering (such as service parts logistics) to a select group of customers.

Typically, their customer density limits are bound by either a specific relationship base or the capital needed to adequately service their customers and keep them coming back. These companies can range in size from $10s of millions in revenue to $100s of millions in revenue (but typically fall between $20 million and $100 million in annual revenue). Due to the fragmentation of their service offerings and a size and geography limitation, this marketplace grew into a sizeable cottage industry with many participants servicing the major brands in the high-tech space. Even more interesting, their gross profit margins can range from approximately 25-to-50-plus percent. These margins are fairly sizeable in an overall industry that considers mid-teens as respectable gross profit margins. Due to these industry characteristics, it’s not hard to see why acquisition-minded participants in this space have been active.

The typical acquirer of these aftermarket services companies is a billions-in-revenue national or multi-national organization. These organizations enjoy gross profit margins in the mid-teens and have typically grown through vertical consolidation methods through which they get bigger revenue numbers but similar financial results on a percentage basis.

What these larger acquirers bring to the table is cash to invest, a global customer base and a platform to service them from. What the aftermarket service company brings to the table is an adjacent revenue opportunity for the acquirer—as opposed to the historical vertical acquisition strategy—that comes with double or triple the gross profit percentage. When you spread that over the thousands of customers the acquirer has relationships with, it adds up quickly in terms of net income and earnings per share.

While that’s really good news, due to the fragmentation of the services marketplace, in order to have a robust offering and realize that potential, one needs to acquire more than a handful of these service providers. And that’s exactly what such large acquirers have been doing. They have been stringing together adjacent and complimentary services to their existing businesses, thus positioning themselves for margin expansion in the longer term—a winning strategy.

M&A supply chain benefits

But is this truly bringing benefit to the marketplace for participants, customers and acquirers? Let’s look at it from each of the constituent’s perspectives.

The customer now has the ability to access services for every phase of their product lifecycle—from design to de-manufacture and all of the services management portfolios in between. And if they choose, they can gain leverage by doing this within a handful of qualified vendors. Prior to these acquisitions, it was a multi-vendor, multi-geography, multi-service offering. Anyone who lived this will tell you that just the tracking of vendor performance will keep a team busy let alone leave time for any innovation in one area. Those economies alone would sell some purchasing professionals on the idea.

From the acquirer’s perspective, it enables new, more profitable and less commoditized ways to interact with existing customers and gain new ones. All of this activity should lead to higher levels of operating income as well as higher earnings per share all driven by the higher margin profile of these services. But because these acquisitions come in small “chunks,” acquirers need to be thoughtful about their target companies as well as their go-to market strategies. Developing synergies with existing sales and service teams goes a long way in this area.

For aftermarket services industry participants, this M&A activity unlocks value for their businesses that would otherwise go unrealized. Most of these organizations run undercapitalized and with some level of debt service (long or short term). This activity allows owners and/or shareholders a way to break that cycle and reset their balance sheets. It also offers the opportunity to go beyond their historical customer and capital constraints and really grow their businesses in ways that would not have been possible without a strategic acquirer. Additionally, new participants now have an “end-game-strategy” as long as their business strategy, technical competency and service delivery are carefully thought out.  

Gain short & long-term growth

In the short term, we will continue to see more acquisition activity in these areas. There are still good aftermarket service companies in the marketplace and there are still holes in the service offerings of the larger acquirers. As these activities mature, we will see the industry benefits mentioned earlier really begin to multiply. In the longer term, as the acquisition and go-to market strategies become more refined and the service offerings more fine-tuned, these benefits will really have a lasting impact on how customers access these services and from whom. Not to mention, the positive and long lasting bottom-line impact to the service vendor. The only thing left to do is execute.