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Report On Business Bombardier sells Downsview assembly site to pension fund in major makeover

Bombardier Inc. has struck a deal to sell its Downsview site in Toronto for about US$635-million ($817-million), further shoring up its cash reserves as it reshapes its commercial aircraft business after a brush with bankruptcy three years ago.

The shares rose 1.8 per cent to $4 in Toronto trading on Thursday. They have gained 35 per cent this year.

The plane and train maker said on Thursday it will sell the sought-after property in Canada’s biggest city to Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) for net proceeds of US$550-million after costs. The sale, combined with proceeds of an equity issue in March, buoys Bombardier’s cash by more than US$1-billion and gives it more power to buy back previously sold assets or speed up debt repayment, among other opportunities.

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“Once we get past 2018, we’ll have an opportunity to allocate this capital properly with the greatest return,” said John Di Bert, Bombardier’s chief financial officer. “There are many options.”

Read more: PSP pays for ‘potential’ with deal for Bombardier’s Downsview property

Alain Bellemare, who took over as chief executive of Bombardier in February, 2015, has pulled Bombardier back from the brink after cash-sucking investments in three major aircraft development programs forced it to consider bankruptcy. He has since shored up liquidity, cut jobs and struck a partnership with Airbus SE to take control of the C Series, a deal expected to close before the end of the second quarter.

The CEO plans to rebuild Bombardier’s earnings power by boosting revenue to $20-billion by the end of 2020. Selling more business jets is the key to that. The company also gave more clarity on Thursday about how commercial aircraft fit into the picture.

After exploring avenues to sell its Q400 turboprop and Canadair CRJ regional jet businesses, Bombardier has decided to keep the two franchises while partnering with Airbus on commercial aircraft bigger than 100 seats. “We’re not thinking about exiting” the turboprop and regional jet business, Mr. Bellemare said. “We’re thinking about growing.”

The company announced a new order from American Airlines Group for 15 Canadair CRJ900 regional jets and options on another 15 planes on Thursday, a good start to the CRJ reboot. The value of the deal based on published list prices is US$719-million, but customers buying multiple aircraft typically get discounts.

Bombardier’s Q400 backlog stands at 55 planes, including a recent order from Ethiopian Airlines. The company estimates the market for turboprops at 2,500 planes over the next 20 years, much of it from emerging markets. Bombardier will continue to do final assembly of the aircraft at Downsview as it evaluates other production sites. The PSP deal gives the plane maker rights to use the property for up to five years.

Mr. Bellemare struck a confident tone when meeting reporters and investors at Bombardier’s annual meeting on Thursday. “Bombardier is on the right path to reclaim its position as a global industrial leader,” he said. “We have rebuilt our finances and cemented our foundations. Now we’re focused on execution and growth.”

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Management has consistently beaten analyst estimates on profit before earnings and taxes, rebuilding the company’s Bay Street credibility. First quarter results on Thursday further bolster the company’s prospects. The company eked out a profit of US$44-million or 1 cent per share as sales climbed 12 per cent to US$4-billion. Orders for Bombardier business jets were at their strongest pace in three years.

″[This is] a constructive start to the year with encouraging signs of pick-up in demand in business aviation,” BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Fadi Chamoun said in a note.

A year ago, the company was under severe pressure from the public and shareholders after its decision to hike the 2016 pay of its executives by 50 per cent after taking more than US$1-billion in public aid. Over 12 months, much of that indignation has turned into polite encouragement as retail and institutional investors weigh the company’s progress.

All 14 directors the company proposed for election were accepted with little opposition. And a 12-per-cent increase in pay for top executives also won near-unanimous support, even if some shareholders expressed frustration that the fruits of Bombardier’s turnaround are not yet spilling down to them in a significant way.

“Your salaries are always rising while we’re left” begging for a dividend, one retail investor said. “I mean, how many millions of dollars does it take for a CEO to be content?”

Pierre Beaudoin, Bombardier’s chairman, said the company would start paying down its US$9-billion debt before introducing a dividend. It does not have a major repayment to make until 2020. Bombardier had US$4-billion of short-term capital resources available at the end of March. Proceeds from the Downsview sale would add to that.

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Bombardier could use the cash to buy back the roughly 30-per-cent stake in its train business it sold to the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec in 2016. Bombardier has rights to buy back the stake starting in February, 2019, at fair market value or a minimum three-year, 15-per-cent compounded annual return.

It could also plow money into a new aircraft development program, although it seems in no rush to do so. The Montreal-based plane maker is just coming out of a near-crippling, decade-long airplane development cycle and will be shy to commit capital to a new airliner unless it sees guaranteed returns.

In a parting message to Bombardier’s leaders on Thursday as he takes his leave from the company after 55 years, Laurent Beaudoin, Pierre’s father and the man credited with building the company into a multinational manufacturer, urged them to start thinking about the next product to keep workers motivated. “We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent,” he said.

The elder Beaudoin also vowed his family would not give up control of the company, which it enjoys through a class of supervoting shares. “If we had given up the multiple voting shares, I think you would not be here today,” he said to a reporter at the meeting. “You would not see Bombardier as it is.”

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