Vol. 5 No. 12 - January 17, 2017 - Click here to access our library.
History of price increases. Transdigm operates as a private-equity-like business that has historically focused on acquiring companies that make high-margin, but relatively low-priced proprietary aerospace products with significant aftermarket sales. This strategy has allowed Transdigm to raise prices and also stay under the radar by not affecting the overall price of an airplane so much that it would attract scrutiny.
Transdigm has increased prices on its customers in both commercial aerospace and the military sectors, and in 2017, we expect an increase in political risk from Trump administration personnel looking to reduce military costs, and business risk from commercial customers who are facing a profit squeeze from the increased political attention to the sector.
Customers push back. Recently, commercial customers have begun to push back against Transdigm’s price increases; however, there has been little to no political attention devoted to Transdigm’s often significant price increases on parts sold to the government during the Obama administration. In the Q4 2016 Earning’s Call, Transdigm’s CEO, Nick Howley, stated that the defense markets make up approximately 30% of Transdigm’s revenue. We estimate domestic defense accounts for approximately 18-23% of revenue. A recent RBC Capital Markets report put that number at 22%.
Enter Trump, negotiator in chief. Under a Trump administration, however, things are likely to change, perhaps dramatically. To start, President-Elect Trump has already applied pressure to defense contractors, and efforts to cut prices on government contracts are likely to accelerate once Trump formally takes office. Trump has focused thus far on Boeing and Lockheed Martin products, to which Transdigm contributes. Additional and continuing pressure will likely result in increased pressure on subcontractors and parts suppliers as contractors try to maintain profitability by reducing supply costs.
Political risk from layoff-driven strategy? Further, political risk is not limited to increased prices on customers. The Transdigm model—which is focused on acquisitions, sharp price increases, and layoffs—leaves the company vulnerable to political risk under a Trump administration focused on increasing jobs. While Transdigm is not a household name, it is not hard to imagine Trump tweeting about creating more competition or lowering costs if he were to find out that Transdigm is a supplier to high-cost military contracts.
Low margin for error. Finally, Transdigm’s significant leverage, caused by a business model focused on debt-fueled acquisitions and price increases, leaves little room for error or political risk.
For this article, we interviewed numerous industry sources, some of whom previously worked at companies that were acquired by Transdigm. Some of those sources were asked to stay on by Transdigm and others were terminated in connection with the acquisition. We also spoke with a government contracting officer, individuals who are involved in the procurement process, and various lawyers that represent companies in the procurement process. Furthermore, the article includes difficult-to-locate pricing data.
A Closer Look at Government Contract Business and Trickle-down Effect
Trump pressure on defense contractors likely to result in increased pressure on subcontractors. Boeing and Lockheed are already under scrutiny and pressure from Trump. Specifically, Trump raised concerns about the costs associated with Lockheed’s F-35 program and Boeing’s 747 Air Force One program—both of which are programs to which Transdigm contributes parts.
Scrutiny of defense contractors and cost overruns will likely accelerate in a Trump administration. Indeed, during his first press conference as President-Elect on January 11, 2017, Trump discussed how he had been quite active “in an economic way for the country . . .” After discussing the pharmaceutical industry and his desire to create new bidding procedures for the drug industry, Trump continued, “we’re going to do that with a lot of other industries.” Again, Trump called out the F-35 program stating “And it’s way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget. I don’t like that.” Finally, Trump stated “And we are going to do some big things on the F35 program, and perhaps the F18 program. And we’re going to get those costs way down and we’re going to get the plane to be even better. And we’re going to have some competition and it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
Previously, Trump reportedly asked Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet due to cost overruns and cost concerns with Lockheed’s F-35. Some observers have noted, however, that the F-18 cannot actually replace the F-35 because of the F-35’s stealth capabilities. As such, some observers believe that defense contractors may be asked to take a look under the hood of the F-35 airplane and ascertain whether there are ways to reduce the costs of various component parts that comprise the F-35. Transdigm’s most recent 10-K discloses that it contribute parts to a number of military programs, including the F-18 and F-35 programs. In addition, Transdigm’s June 23, 2016 analyst day presentation states that the “A400M and F-35 are Major Military Growth Platforms.”
To the extent the F-35 program continues to face scrutiny and defense contractors face new scrutiny in a Trump administration, it could have negative implications for Transdigm’s revenues. Additionally, it is likely that as defense contractors and airplane manufacturers face increased scrutiny in a Trump administration regarding the cost of certain military projects, those contractors are likely to try to and squeeze their subcontractors to ensure that the entire project remains profitable for the manufacturer. The effort by manufacturers to lock down suppliers will likely occur in both commercial and defense contract business lines, with corporate negotiating tactics mattering most on the commercial side and political pressure mattering more on the defense contractor side.
Available pricing data shows steep price increase for military customers after Transdigm acquisition. Our review of pricing data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), and a review publicly available data on the DLA Internet Bid Board System (DIBBS), reveals a clear pattern of steep price increases immediately after Transdigm completes an acquisition. In our investigation, we reviewed Requests for Quotes (RFQs) issued by the DLA when it conducts procurement for parts.
The RFQs contain the procurement price history for that specific part. Due to restrictions in the DIBBS database, we are only able to view actual RFQ documents issued within the last year, meaning that pricing information from DIBBS is available to us only for current or very recently closed procurements. Outside of DIBBS, however, we have reviewed information on Haystack Gold, a defense parts and logistics management system used by contractors, which contains more historical pricing. Although there were many examples of significant price increases after Transdigm completed an acquisition from the Haystack Gold Data, we have only provided examples from the DIBBS database here, as they are direct from the DLA’s own procurement processes.
While some parts are bought at irregular intervals and in differing quantities (making price comparison more difficult), all parts produced by Transdigm companies generally double in price after a Transdigm acquisition, with some parts increasing by well over 100%. To show this pattern across the range of companies Transdigm has purchased, The Capitol Forum reviewed acquisitions of five sole-sourced parts produced by five different companies both before and after Transdigm acquired the company
Stakeholders should note that the cage code of suppliers differs on some RFQs, which is a result of the company using different distributors to sell the part, a topic that we will discuss in future reports. All parts are produced by the same company before and after the Transdigm acquisition. Additionally, most companies generally used distributors both before and after acquisition, leaving Transdigm becoming the parent company the only variable that has changed. The Capitol Forum has collected the RFQs for each of the above contracts (click here to view) and below is a table comparing the pre-acquisition and post-acquisition prices of each part: