UPSAT buy yet another coup for nimble Garmin

 - August 11, 2008, 9:24 AM

It’s a David-and-Goliath story, but lately it has been getting tougher to tell just who’s the Goliath.

On the one hand Garmin’s proposed buyout of UPS Aviation Technologies (UPSAT) for $38 million, announced on the eve of last month’s Oshkosh airshow, is a familiar story, one steeped in the history of industry consolidation and simple economics. But in another sense this marriage marks one of the most visible signs to date of the intense behind-the-scenes efforts by Garmin to gain serious ground on its larger, ensconced competitors. Whatever your take, one thing at least is certain: nobody still calls Garmin the little startup that could.

Observers say Garmin is getting a good deal. As a subsidiary of United Parcel Service, UPS Aviation Technologies has been at the forefront of developing automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) technology and WAAS-capable GPS receivers. A strong product line and growing base of loyal customers is a plus for Garmin as it seeks to entice OEM and retrofit customers with avionics that define the state of the art.

The move to acquire UPSAT comes on the heels of recent successes for both companies, including the selection by Cessna for Garmin’s G1000 avionics system in the Citation Mustang and the recent certification of UPSAT’s new CNX80 GPS/navcom, the first stand-alone navigator approved for WAAS primary navigation.

With the Mustang contract award, Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin beat out industry giants Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, a coup that will likely have lasting effects as the trio of competitors begins to vie even more fiercely for integrated cockpit systems in the emerging breed of very light jets and turboprops. For the Honeywell engineering executives who produce Bendix/King avionics there is further motivation to compete against their cross-town rival.  Garmin is a company that was founded in 1989 by two former Bendix/King engineers and has been stealing market share ever since.

Completion of the UPSAT acquisition is anticipated this month, after which UPSAT will officially change its name to Garmin AT. Its 150 employees will remain at the subsidiary’s base in Salem, Ore., where the division will continue to be closely involved in the FAA’s Safe Flight 21 and Alaska Capstone programs. Garmin AT will also still count on its former owner as a major customer, as UPS continues to upgrade its fleet with ADS-B traffic-surveillance avionics.

The sale by UPS of its avionics subsidiary was not all that surprising considering that the parcel shipping giant has little desire to become more deeply involved in developing new airborne technologies than it already has. Rather, it saw the quick evolution of UPSAT (formerly Apollo) as a convenient way to acquire the technology it wanted for its airplanes. Now that its primary mission is accomplished, UPS is ready to hand the controls to a company with the expertise to make it further succeed.

“Garmin is uniquely positioned to accelerate the marketing and acceptance of ADS-B and other recent technology advances in general aviation,” said Tom Weidemeyer, president of UPS Airlines. “Our decision to sell,” he added, “is based on the fact that our airline has matured and ongoing development and marketing of aviation technology is not part of the long-term strategic direction of UPS.”

While the companies’ product lines are viewed as largely complementary, the CNX80 navigator from UPSAT burst onto the scene this summer as the first serious competitor to Garmin’s GNS 430 and 530 all-in-one panel-mount GPS/navcoms. The CNX80 differentiates itself by being the first stand-alone product certified for primary navigation using the newly christened FAA wide-area augmentation system. Questions about how the CNX80 might fit into the product line and Garmin’s plans for the UPSAT GPS receiver “engine” (the heart of the CNX80) should be answered soon after the merger of the companies becomes official.

All facets of G1000 development are occurring in house, where Garmin has added engineers and made other important acquisitions. The addition of UPSAT’s products and staff will allow Garmin to do even more, which could mean that the company will finally supplant the Bendix/King brand as the industry’s leading producer of general aviation avionics.