The latest Lower Middle Market Pursuits Report from Axial reveals the most in demand industries in Q4 2021, and how “intent” data can provide insight on prospective deal activity in 2022.
As macroeconomic backdrop begins to shift, data suggests deal flow will remain steady. While activity in the industrials and technology sectors fueled deal flow, the transportation and healthcare sectors quickly came into fashion in the second half.
When covering such trends and drivers in these active sectors, the private deal network’s editors and thought leadership team turned to industry leaders, including Auctus Capital Partners, for insights. Here is what Auctus’ Managing Director, CFO & COO John Dilatush shared during Q&A on the transportation sector:
The buy-side interest and budding sell-side activity in the transportation sector was probably inevitable. The most active acquirers in the lower middle market — private equity firms, independent sponsors and search funds — are generally thematic in their approach. Said another way, they are on continually on the hunt for long-term secular trends and they found one this winter on the otherwise empty store shelves that underscored a need to solve the acute supply chain challenges.
Again, the transportation sector, while it also deals with rising commodity prices, is better than other sectors at passing those costs along to end customers. Bloomberg, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, noted that the cost of transporting and warehousing goods for final demand jumped by approximately 18%, year over year, in December. Meanwhile, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the infrastructure bill passed in November will pump $1.2 trillion into all modes of transportation.
By the Numbers: Still it’s the need for sophisticated solutions and more efficiencies that are beckoning investors. When looking at the individual deals, a keen interest in third-party logistics providers is apparent. Similarly, the services sub-sector also accounted for the majority of buy-side mandates last year, and 3PL assets specifically were again among the most cited targets by prospective buyers.
Survey of One: John Dilatush
Q: Transportation is a large expansive sector, but where are you seeing the most interest and what’s driving activity in the lower middle market?
A: Transportation seems to have three significant driving trends. The first is electrification across the vehicle spectrum, from utility vehicles to vans and long-haul trucks. The second focuses on the infrastructure related to that electrification, including charging, maintenance, and leasing. The third, and most critical element in my opinion, focuses on solving the cost issue related to last mile delivery. EVs and right sized vehicles seem to hold the answer and adoption has just begun. Surprisingly, I think you’ll see the recent disruptors — such as DoorDash and Uber Eats — being disrupted most.
Q: What are some of the other problems business owners and acquirers are looking to solve?
A: Investors, clients, and transportation companies fall into separate buckets. Investors aren’t clear about what problem requires solving or what value creation is coming from these new trends. It leads to a risk off mentality, which we’ve seen in the market lately. I suspect it is also why certain SPACs were overpriced and less positive outcomes resulted for investors.
Transportation companies are focused on environmental impact and sustainability. However, it’s not nearly enough in my opinion. These companies need to create value for the purchasers of these vehicles, in dollar and sense or enhanced capabilities, otherwise their product will be relegated to a novelty item. So far, much of the EV sector hasn’t demonstrated an economic benefit other than bragging rights for going green. If the vehicles don’t have a quantifiable benefit, then charging infrastructure and other supporting verticals won’t experience an accelerating adoption curve or the scale currently being envisioned. For example, an Auctus Capital Partners client in the EV space has recently been approached by nine AI/autonomous software companies seeking partnerships since none of them have customers for just the software application.
At the same time, purchasers are clear about where value lies. Other than municipalities or government entities that are solving for a political cost, everyone else is actively engaged in addressing the high cost of last mile delivery. Whole Foods recent pricing changes serve as exhibit A.
The supply chain is a major problem for most EV manufacturers, and hence, all the supporting infrastructure. I suspect you will see a trend for moving the supply chain to North America, or otherwise out of China.
Q: What other trends are aiding the sector? For example, is Amazon Logistics a risk or an opportunity for buyers in the lower middle market?
A: Other recent trends will serve up some major surprises this year — and disruptors may soon find themselves on the wrong side of the River Styx. Larger OEMs will continue losing ground to startups, regardless of their ability to throw cash at the problem. The model has shifted to providing solutions vs. providing a chassis and four tires. Amazon only serves to highlight the problem and opportunity. New last mile delivery companies that we’ve seen gain traction overnight in Europe, we suspect, may be the new last mile delivery disruptors.
Q: Where are purchase prices trending in transportation?
A: Purchase prices for any capital equipment is a function of value creation. In some segments of the market, such as utility vehicles, tremendous value creation is derived from both cost savings, lower purchase prices and operational expenses, plus enhanced capabilities.
If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that the lower middle market has become one of the more resilient forces driving growth across the U.S. economy. The activity of the past year doesn’t just underscore the creativity of buyers in this space, it speaks to the value of the markets as a stabilizing force.
As 2022 picks up where 2021 left off, this perspective [from private deal network Axial] should offer optimism even as new macroeconomic developments emerge. Fifteen years ago, this segment may have been more exposed to risks outside of our control; today, the lower middle market machine is in place and gathering momentum to ensure investment and deal activity continue to flow. While some buyers may bristle at the idea of a more efficient marketplace, the lower middle market is vast enough to accommodate any number of professionals with an eye to spot opportunity where others don’t.