With debt down and cash up, Aerojet Rocketdyne hunting for acquisitions

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WASHINGTON — Space propulsion and defense company Aerojet Rocketdyne is looking for other companies or product lines to buy as its financial situation improves.

“Our No. 1 priority for capital deployment is [mergers and acquisitions],” Eileen Drake, the company’s CEO, said during G.research’s Aerospace and Defense Conference Sept. 13, adding that the right opportunities are proving hard to come by.  

“It doesn’t necessarily mean buying a company,” she said. “It could be buying a product line. It could be buying a portion of a business that fits with us. We want to make sure that it’s strategic, that it doesn’t distract the team from delivering on the remainder of our competitive improvement program.”

Aerojet started its competitive improvement program in 2015 as a response to market pressure from rising new entrants SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which build their own engines. The goal of the program, first set at $145 million in annual cost reduction by 2019, was raised last year to $230 million in annual savings. Drake said Aerojet Rocketdyne should reach that mark by 2021.

At the same time, Aerojet slashed its debt load from $464.4 million in May 2015 to $102.2 million this June. Drake said Aerojet had about $560 million in cash at the end of June when the company disclosed its quarterly financial results. Aerojet reported a profit of $34.8 million on $467.2 million in revenue during the months of April, May and June.

Drake described last year’s $15 million purchase of missile maker Coleman Aerospace from L3 as emblematic of the type of acquisition it would like to make.

“We continue to look for opportunities like that,” she said.

Aerojet is also seeking to monetize some 5,600 acres of land, the bulk of which is in Sacramento, California, where the company announced the elimination or relocation of 1,100 jobs last year. Drake declined to estimate how much the land is worth.

“It’s all [predicated] on the local economy for jobs, for the real estate, the appetite for the builders, for the developers — we consistently work with them on opportunities,” she said.

Drake said it was ultimately a good thing that SpaceX and Blue Origin put pressure on Aerojet to be more competitive. While Aerojet does more than space launch — satellite propulsion and missile defense are also business areas — the impact of competition “made us all look at how we can be better and take cost out of our products,” she said.

Aerojet this year won contracts to provide its RL10 upper stage engine to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems for its future OmegA rocket and to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its future Vulcan rocket. The company remains in competition with Blue Origin to provide Vulcan’s first stage engine.

Aerojet is pitching the AR1, a liquid-oxygen and kerosene-fueled engine, while Blue Origin is offering the BE-4, a liquid-oxygen and methane-fueled engine.

“United Launch Alliance continues to say that this is a competition,” Drake said. “They have also said that Blue Origin is probably primary. We might be secondary and that’s based on a couple of things when it comes to funding, but we feel strong about the AR1.”

Drake said Aerojet convinced the U.S. Air Force to fund five-sixths of the cost of AR1 development, up from two-thirds in part because of delays with ULA’s downselect.

“The downselect was supposed to happen a year or so ago between us and Blue, and that continues to slip. We still don’t have a date for when downselect will be,” she said.

If ULA doesn’t choose the AR1, other launch vehicles could make use of the engine, she said.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno has for several months described the company’s decision as coming “soon.” In a Sept. 10 interview with SpaceNews at World Satellite Business Week in Paris, he described the decision as coming “very, very soon.”