(Aug. 2, 2004) — Get out your scorecards, because the plastics industry is changing again.
In recent weeks, we've seen new ownership announced for major players including Captive Plastics Inc., Bristolpipe Corp. and, last week, Owens-Illinois Inc.'s container blow molding unit.
Others definitely are for sale, including Basell Polyolefins Co. NV.
And then there's the biggest fish of all, Rubbermaid, which may or may not be for sale, depending on whether you believe the financial press in Israel, which says Keter Plastics Ltd. wants to buy the housewares giant from Newell Rubbermaid Inc.
It's downright confusing keeping track of who owns what. But it's important to know, because not all owners are created equal. Customers and suppliers need to have a good idea who they are dealing with, and how much debt new owners have on the balance sheet.
With so many financial buyers interested in plastics right now, there's no doubt that many more companies will be changing hands in the coming months.
While on the subject of mergers and acquisitions, here's a question to consider: Are current prices reasonable? Consider the case of Graham Packaging Co. LP and Owens-Illinois as an example.
Graham is paying $1.2 billion for O-I's container business, which has sales of about $1.1 billion.
But in 1998, when O-I bought BTR plc's packaging businesses, including Continental PET Technologies Inc., it paid $3.6 billion for a unit with sales of $1.5 billion.
Now this isn't an entirely fair comparison, because BTR brought more to the table than just Continental PET, although that was the gem in the deal. On the other hand, O-I is selling quite a bit more to Graham than just the old Continental PET business.
Back in 1998, some competitors felt that O-I paid too much for BTR. Looking at the numbers today — $1.2 billion vs. $3.6 billion — you'd probably have to conclude that they were right.
Company valuations were sky-high in the late 1990s, and with all the uncertainty in the economy these days, it doesn't look like they're going to rise that high again anytime soon.
Here are a few more points to ponder:
c When your company undergoes a change in ownership, take the opportunity to make sure local elected officials know what's going on. Unless you're a major employer in your town, you'd be surprised how often people in city hall don't really understand what you do and who is in charge. Keeping them in the loop can pay dividends.
c Should you change the name of a company that you acquire? That is a complicated question, but one where emotions can get in the way of making the smartest business decision. This might help: ask employees and customers their preference.
c It's fairly commonplace these days to buy companies out of bankruptcy. Some companies really need that opportunity to start fresh, and the move saves a company that deserves a second chance.
But don't forget that creditors who lose out as a result of the bankruptcy have long memories. Do your best not to make anyone feel like they were cheated. You'd be surprised how frequently that doesn't happen.