When Bombardier Inc.’s obituary is eventually written, at some still-to-be determined date in the future, it will identify the spring of 1982 as the moment when a fledgling Montreal-based transportation upstart joined the big leagues.
That was when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chose the Canadian interloper over U.S.-based Budd Co. for a $1-billion contract to build subway cars for New York, in what was then the largest transit deal ever signed in the United States.
“When you get a big contract like this, your international reputation for this kind of equipment is enhanced immeasurably,” one stock analyst said then. “This should lead to other business.”
Did it ever. And, at every step along the way, Bombardier could count on having Canadian governments of all stripes on its side. The New York deal itself had been greased by a US$563-million loan from the federally owned Export Development Corp.
Under the leadership of Laurent Beaudoin, an accountant who married the boss’s daughter, Bombardier quickly rose from its rural Quebec roots as a maker of Ski-Doos to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of transit equipment. In 1986, it moved into the aerospace business with a deal to take Canadair off the federal government’s hands. It soon revolutionized air travel with the development of the Canadair Regional Jet.
And it couldn’t have done it without the help of the Canadian taxpayer.
Bombardier has maintained a co-dependent relationship with Canadian and Quebec politicians, one that withstood the ups and downs of the business cycle for four decades. As recently as 2017, Ottawa provided $372-million in the form of a “repayable contribution” to fund Bombardier’s Global 7000 business-jet program and 100- to 150-seat C Series jet. Each time governments forked out cash, they’ve insisted Bombardier was a good bet.
“We have a proud and long-standing relationship with Bombardier and today is another milestone,” Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said in announcing the 2017 loan. “I believe Bombardier is indeed back.”
That was just after the Quebec government had invested US$1-billion in the C Series program, which had been running behind schedule and overbudget for several years. Taxpayers were led to believe that both aid packages – from Ottawa and Quebec – were meant to instill confidence in potential customers that Bombardier could make good on C Series orders.
On Monday, however, Bombardier chief executive officer Alain Bellemare instead told Radio-Canada that the US$1-billion injection from the Quebec government had been “a bridge toward a partnership with a big player.” In other words, Bombardier wasn’t “back” as Mr. Bains suggested. It was merely buying itself enough time to do a deal with French-based Airbus SA, under which it ceded control of the C Series to the “big player” for a symbolic US$1 in 2017.
Last week, Bombardier sold off its remaining 34-per-cent stake in the C Series program to Airbus, which will now reap any dividends from a plane financed partly by Canadian taxpayers. The Quebec government – which now values its initial investment, worth $1.3-billon, at only $700-million – retains a 25-per-cent stake in the C Series program. But Airbus, which has the right to buy out Quebec’s stake in 2026, last week told French analysts that it does not expect the C Series to be profitable until the middle of the decade at the earliest.
It remains uncertain, then, whether Canadian taxpayers will see any payback. As Leeham News aviation analyst Bjorn Fehrm wrote last week: “The stakes are high in the civil airliner business. Don’t enter it unless you have the depth of pocket to see it through to profitability.”
For now, Airbus will continue to assemble the C Series – renamed the A220 – in Quebec. But it has made only a verbal undertaking. Airbus already has a plant in Alabama that assembles A220s for the U.S. market, as part of a strategy aimed at averting potential American trade barriers. Airbus could eventually transfer more production of the A220 to Alabama.
Meanwhile, Bombardier’s rail unit, whose sale to French-based Alstom SA was announced on Monday, has suffered from a string of poorly executed contracts. New York City comptroller Scott Stringer recently complained that “Bombardier sold us lemons” in the form of defective subway cars that the MTA was last month forced to pull from service.
It was a sad statement on the decline of a company that had cut its teeth on a massive MTA contract in the 1980s. If that deal “immeasurably enhanced” Bombardier’s international reputation, its most recent MTA contract may have irreversibly killed it.
Mr. Bellemare, who was hired in 2015 with what was believed to have been a mandate to save Bombardier, has effectively presided over its dismantling.
Shareholders and taxpayers are now being told that Bombardier’s future lies in building business jets. Yet, corporate aircraft is a highly cyclical luxury sector. Bombardier’s business jet division took years to recover after the 2009 recession, while the company lost US$2.6-billion on its Learjet 85 program, which it abandoned in 2015.
What’s more, Bombardier’s main competitors in the corporate jet sector are all owned by or partnered with bigger players with defence divisions that help bear the burden of technology development and ride out cyclical downturns. General Dynamics owns Gulfstream and Textron owns Cessna, while Brazil’s Embraer has partnered with Boeing.
It may still be too soon to sign Bombardier’s death notice. But the obituary writers should keep their pens handy.