The End of the Viasystems Era

At long last, the hunter became the hunted.

TTM Technologies today announced its pending acquisition of Viasystems. The deal, expected to close in early 2015, will vault TTM to second place among the world’s largest PCB fabricators.

No matter how the deal turns out for TTM, Viasystems will remain one of the most talked about PCB companies in the industry’s history, held in awe for its audacity and blamed on multiple continents for nearly single-handedly devastating local supply chains.

For the entirety of its 18 years, Viasystems was worth 10 times its revenue in industry controversy and chatter. It sprung on the scene in fall 1996, the brainchild of New York investment firm Hicks, Muse, which in quick order bought up AT&T’s board shop in Virginia, Circo Craft, Kalex, Forward Group, ISL, Mommers and Zinocelere, plus several EMS and peripheral businesses. They were the Yankees of the PCB world, albeit without the same level of success.

Then came the Tech Recession of 2001, and Viasystems’ debt ballooned to over $1 billion. Two Chapter 11 restructurings and countless lawsuits later, the company stabilized and managed to spend the better part of the rest of the decade simply managing the business.

In 2010 the veil was lifted. Viasystems resumed its buying ways, snatching up Merix and then, two years later acquiring DDi (which in turn had gobbled up Coretec). Yet consolidation didn’t bring happiness. Over the years Viasystems found it nearly impossible to turn a consistent profit. Debt, a persistent problem dating to its Hicks, Muse days, now sits at $561 million.

TTM is getting Viasystems for $16.46 per share, or about 6.8 times adjusted EBITDA. You tell me if that’s worth it.

I would expect TTM will sell off Viasystems’ wire harness business, which is small ($174.6 million in 2013) relative to the rest of the business and has shown operating losses in five of the past seven quarters. Viasystems has already consolidated its China manufacturing base, so I would not expect much change there. TTM is running at 75% capacity in China but only 60% in North America. TTM has seven sites in North America and Viasystems has nine, including a combined three in the Silicon Valley and two in Orange County. Perhaps they will seek to consolidate here in order to boost rates.

Viasystems changed the way the world viewed the industry. It forced Wall Street to take notice. It laid waste to the regional landscape, ultimately closing millions of sq. ft. of some of the once-best shops in the world. Some will say this was inevitable. Viasystems bought plants that were obsolete or quickly headed that way, whose workforces could not change even while the technology was quickly shifting away from them. And the firm tied up enormous amounts of capital in dubious debt deals that may have enriched a few but certainly did not leave their business units with the balance sheets necessary to operate in such a cyclical market.

There’s still time for the deal to fall through, and it took about 18 seconds before shareholder lawsuits began piling up. No matter what happens on the ground, come next spring, Viasystems will again occupy the rarest air of the PCB world. It just won’t be as Viasystems.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He is also vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversees all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 20 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow