New Masters, New Laws for Aviapartner?

Speculation runs high as to the effects of the shareholder swop in the capital of the Belgian ground handling group Aviapartner. Through its European subsidiary HIG European Capital Partners, the American private equity fund HIG Capital has bought the 50% controlled by the British venture capitalist 3i.

Aviapartner’s future at Brussels Airport (pictured here) and elsewhere remains uncertain  / source: hs
Aviapartner’s future at Brussels Airport (pictured here) and elsewhere remains uncertain / source: hs

The proposed deal still has to be scrutinised by the European powers that be, but as HIG has no other interests in the aviation industry, this can be considered as a mere formality.
3i acquired Aviapartner in 2005 for €185m. The purchase was not the group’s first Belgian venture, as it had previously taken over ABX Logistics, the logistics business of Belgium’s state-owned rail operator SNCB/NMBS. ABX’s CEO, Laurent Levaux, transferred to Aviapartner in the same position. Levaux is the owner of the remaining 50% of the company capital, but he has so far refused any comment on his own intentions.

Nearly insolvent
Due to the financial crisis and its impressive debt, Aviapartner found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008. Today, the company’s debt is estimated at €25m, even if it can still enjoy a suspension of payment till 31 January 2015. In 2012 Aviapartner entered into merger negotiations with WFS, but these fell through in the summer of 2013.

Stiff competition
At Brussels Airport, Aviapartner and Swissport are the only ground handling companies licensed to operate airside. Theoretically speaking, this duopoly should have a positive effect on the business of both companies. In reality, it has forced them into an even accelerating race of bottom pricing. Even now, in the midst of the peak season, Aviapartner has had to resort to temporary unemployment for part of its workforce.
The key question remains whether HIG will be willing to bring in extra funding to keep the business going. Among the workforce anxiety prevails and the trade unions remain more than vigilant.  In Europe Aviapartner employs some 6,000 people at 30 airports in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. The Belgian workforce is estimated at 1,500, of which 1,200 at Brussels Airport.
The employee’s council has been told by Levaux that the take-over by HIG will have no impact whatsoever on the employment, neither in Belgium, nor in Europe. In a flyer distributed by the trade unions the CEO is quoted saying that “HIG firmly believes in the quality and the growth potential of Aviapartner and will reinforce the company’s financial structure.”


Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

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