Montreal-based Transat A.T. Inc. is evaluating unsolicited takeover offers, raising fears in Quebec that the province could lose another corporate head office.
The company, which sells vacation packages and operates a holiday travel airline, disclosed the takeover approaches on Tuesday, aiming to get out ahead of any misinformation or leaks. Transat employs about 5,000 people, and its stock soared 46 per cent on the news, giving Transat a market value of $325-million.
In a statement, Transat said it is in “preliminary discussions with more than one party,” but added that “no decision has been made as to any potential transaction.” Industry analysts have suggested WestJet Airlines Ltd., Sunwing Airlines Inc. and Air Canada as potential bidders. WestJet and Air Canada declined to comment, and Sunwing did not respond to a message. Some analysts believe global private equity firms might also be interested.
Any takeover would benefit from the weakness of Transat’s share price, which has fallen sharply over the past 16 months. The stock was trading around $11 at the start of 2018, but closed at $5.67 on Monday, before the takeover overtures were made public. Competition has prevented Transat from raising its prices to offset increases in fuel costs.
Despite this drop, Transat has $620-million in cash on its balance sheet, creating a disconnect between the market value and its liquid assets.
The potential of a takeover has stirred protectionist sentiment in Quebec. Transat’s headquarters is well known by Montrealers because the tower sits at the base of Mont Royal, the symbolic heart of the city.
“It was heartbreaking when I learned yesterday afternoon of this offer that would be made to buy Transat," said Premier François Legault, who was a co-founder of Air Transat about 30 years ago. "Obviously, it is emotional for me. You won’t be surprised to learn that we’ll do everything we can to keep the head office in Quebec.”
Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon also suggested Quebec investors will find ways to keep control of the company in the province. “Quebec interests can easily find the money to buy this company,” he said, adding the government is ready to assist if needed.
Under federal transportation regulations, Transat must remain majority Canadian-owned. It is also possible a Canadian buyer would have no interest in moving the headquarters to another province.
With its stock price under siege, Transat has rolled out a new strategy focused on constructing hotels in beach destinations such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Transat is enticed by the prospect of earning 30-per-cent margins on all-inclusive hotels, and aims to have 5,000 hotel rooms by 2024.
But this is a long-term aspiration. Transat released its latest quarterly results in March and disclosed an adjusted operating loss of $38-million. It marked the 10th straight year that Transat posted a loss during the winter.
“The initiatives we’ve taken in our strategic plan have not yet borne fruit,” chairman and chief executive officer Jean-Marc Eustache said at the company’s annual general meeting on Tuesday. “They are still weighing on our results instead of improving them.”
Transat continues to face heightened competition from Air Canada and WestJet, both of which have been adding service to sun destinations. They are also competing more frequently with Transat’s profitable transatlantic flights during the summer.
“Competition is more acute than ever in our two markets – Europe and the South,” Mr. Eustache added. To fend off the suitors, he added that "only the transformation brought about by our plan will see us through this.”
Transat expects to start construction in June on its first hotel, in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, and hopes its first projects will be ready for the winter of 2020-21. It also plans to start marketing its hotel brand later this year to draw attention and bookings for the next fiscal year.
Transat is not the only travel company suffering. Global giant Thomas Cook, which is based in Britain, has issued two profit warnings since September, and its shares have plummeted. European rival TUI issued a profit warning in March. Both are wrestling with structural changes in the travel industry, driven by millennials who prefer to map out their own plans and book their vacations on websites such as Trivago or Expedia.
In a research note, CIBC World Markets analyst Kevin Chiang laid out potential reasons for Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing to buy Transat, beyond the cash on Transat’s balance sheet.
Air Canada already flies into Transat’s markets, so it could easily integrate the business, Mr. Chiang wrote. Acquiring Transat’s fleet could also cushion against a long-term grounding of Air Canada’s Boeing 737 MAX planes.
WestJet would gain “an immediate foothold into the transatlantic market and greater presence in Quebec,” he wrote, and a different fleet type.
As for Sunwing, “a potential acquisition of Transat would remove a key competitor and bring a more rational competitive dynamic to the sun destinations markets – addition by subtraction,” Mr. Chiang wrote.