Base Metal into Gold

UK-based venture capital firm Alchemy Partners is aiming to turn a profit through the acquisition of struggling automation companies.

Aw 5767 Gold

The last three decades have not been kind to the once proud process automation industry in the United Kingdom. Few traces now remain of the George Kent Group within ABB or of GEC Elliott Process Automation within Emerson Process Management. Still less of Ferranti, driven into bankruptcy a decade ago as a result of its merger with International Signal and Control Group (ISCG). And while it’s true that the more chauvinistic Brit can claim Invensys for his or her own—after all, it’s quoted on the London Stock Exchange and has its headquarters here—its recent performance provides little to be proud of.

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. Take the case of Industrial Control Services (ICS), the “mini-conglomerate” put together in the late 1990s and made up of Max Controls, the former Leeds & Northrup distributed control systems business; Triple Modular Redundant (TMR) safety specialist ICS Triplex; and Transmitton, which supplies supervisory control and data acquisition systems to the oil & gas and railway industries.

Bottom feeder?

ICS was suffering huge losses in 2000, and in very real danger of going belly up when it was taken private by venture capitalist Alchemy Partners, against the wishes of a vociferous minority of shareholders who regarded 1 pence per share as derisory, even if it was 1 pence better than anything else then on offer.

Alchemy has something of a reputation as a “bottom feeder” in some quarters, but the ICS experience seems to have been largely positive. True, Max Controls was sold on within weeks to the Finnish group Metso, but Alchemy, through its Tritrax acquisition vehicle, continues to own 96 percent of the equity in ICS, and to invest in both ICS Triplex and Transmitton. ICS Triplex acquired Altersys, the Canadian developer of the ISaGRAF IEC61131 programming package, back in February 2003, and earlier this year, Transmitton bought ADT Rail Systems, a rail industry condition monitoring specialist.

In the year ending May 2004, ICS generated earnings of £3 million before charges, on revenues of £46 million, but revenues will jump by between 50 percent and 100 percent this year, following the recent acquisition of another struggling UK automation company, Silvertech, which has been added to the ICS Triplex division. Silvertech was started in the early 1980s as a safety specialist, and has developed over the years into an automation contractor, working principally in the oil and gas industries, but with an increasing interest in pharmaceuticals.

Funds injection

Now, with a capital injection of £5.5 million, it has ambitions to become a true independent Main Automation Contractor (MAC), operating globally and addressing potential customers on equal terms with the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Silvertech management believes there’s a real opportunity for an independent who offers an alterative approach at a time when, despite paying lip service to open systems, mainstream OEMs seem keener than ever to lock in their users.

Whether one buys that argument or not, it would be unwise to bet against Alchemy working its Midas touch on Silvertech. It’s clearly developed a real understanding of and expertise in the process automation sector, which might yet be deployed on a larger scale, should the opportunity present itself.

About the Author

Andrew Bond, andrew@abpubs.demon.co.uk, is a journalist based in the United Kingdom, and is Editor of the Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter delivered via e-mail. www.iainsider.co.uk.

More in Control