Sale of Jet Aviation marks end of an era

 - September 29, 2006, 9:45 AM

On August 11 European private equity group Permira said it would buy a majority stake in Zurich, Switzerland-based aviation services company Jet Aviation for an undisclosed amount. With a formal closing expected later this month, the sale will end the uncertainty about the fate of the Hirschmann-family-controlled enterprise, which was informally “in play” since it was first put up for sale in early 2002.

Founded in 1967 by entrepreneur Carl Hirschmann Sr., Jet Aviation grew into a worldwide corporate aviation services company with interests in aircraft maintenance, completions, management and charter. After Hirschmann’s death in April 1995, family battles to control the company led to changes of management and headquarters. Until April 2003 Jet Aviation was led by son Thomas Hirschmann, who had moved the headquarters to West Palm Beach, Fla. in the 1990s. Those headquarters returned to Zurich last summer, about a year after Thomas Hirschmann resigned as chairman and CEO.

The company was placed on the market in early 2002, at which time Permira was one of the leading suitors, along with investment banker 3i and strategic buyers Gulfstream Aerospace parent General Dynamics, Dassault Aviation and Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets. Jet Aviation was formally taken off the market in late 2002 when the family and potential buyers could not come to terms.

Activity on the current sale started in the second quarter of this year when unsolicited bids to acquire the aviation services company came in from Permira and U.S.-based private equity firm The Carlyle Group. Bids also reportedly came in from some strategic buyers, including Gulfstream parent General Dynamics.

Although the final price Permira is paying has not been confirmed, the figure is believed to be substantially higher than the $500 million to $600 million offered in the aborted 2002 sale. While the two parties said only that Permira bought a majority interest in Jet Aviation, sources close to the transaction placed that stake at more than 75 percent, at a reported figure in the low SwFr800 million range. This would value the entire company at more than $700 million.

Permira had been seeking to establish a foothold in the worldwide corporate aviation services business, while The Carlyle Group, believed to be the second-highest bidder, had a clear strategic reason for the purchase as a logical fit for its current aviation service company holding– Piedmont Hawthorne, Garrett Aviation and Associated Air Center.

Under the sale to Permira, Jet Aviation will likely stay a single business entity and not have to be integrated with a company already in the process of merging other aviation service companies under one roof. Several people close to the transaction said that in the end it was a “cultural” decision by Jet Aviation management and the Hirschmann family to sell to European-based Permira.