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GE and Honeywell Stare Down a $74 Billion Monster

Brooke Sutherland

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- United Technologies Corp. CEO Greg Hayes dropped the bombshell news of his company’s merger with missile-maker Raytheon Co. just days before the start of the Paris Air Show, thereby ensuring rivals would have to answer questions about the deal at the industry’s premier event. The deal will turn United Technologies into a $74 billion commercial aviation and defense powerhouse, with the kind of scale and negotiating leverage that was previously only enjoyed by Boeing Co. and Airbus SE. Management at General Electric Co. and Honeywell International Inc. don’t seem in any rush to respond in kind, and they aren’t so sure bigger is better. But the United Technologies-Raytheon merger is so big that it will be impossible for them to ignore it.

“We’ve never really considered scale as a part of our strategy,” Tim Mahoney, CEO of Honeywell Aerospace, said in an interview at the Air Show on Monday. The company prioritizes differentiated products that are more than a “me-too” and believes that will ultimately give it an advantage with manufacturers and airlines, he said. GE’s David Joyce, who heads up the company’s aerospace business, echoed that thought in a Bloomberg TV interview: “That merger may have scale but we have the right technologies and engines to be competitive.”

During a media briefing earlier in the day, Joyce touted the advantages of GE’s Leap engine over the rival geared turbofan from United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney arm, including what he says is a $1.4 million advantage in residual value and 6% better utilization. After the merger, GE’s biggest jet engine rivals will continue to be Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, and “I feel really good about our positioning relative to either of those competitors right now,” Joyce said. The “right now” part of that sentence seems key. No, GE isn’t gaining a new competitor, but it is going to see a very different one.

United Technologies and Raytheon are targeting $8 billion in annual R&D spending. GE Aviation spent $1.5 billion on R&D in 2018, including contributions from customers, according to its annual filing. That would put the aviation unit’s R&D spending at about 5% of sales. At the media briefing, Joyce said GE Aviation spends about 8% of its sales on R&D, which is based on $2.4 billion in total “engineering” spend. Either way, it’s less than the nearly 11% of United Technologies-Raytheon’s combined sales that will be devoted to investing in new products. Honeywell doesn’t disclose R&D spending by division, but spent $1.8 billion on company-sponsored R&D across all its businesses in 2018, according to its 10K. That’s roughly 4.3 percent of its total sales last year.

The dollar amount isn’t everything. As GE itself knows far too well from its experience going down the rabbit hole on its Predix software platform, it’s quite easy to spend a lot of money without anything to show for it. And United Technologies will admittedly be distracted while it integrates not only Raytheon, but the $30 billion acquisition of avionics maker Rockwell Collins Inc., which only just closed in November. Not to mention it’s also trying to break itself in three parts. The company’s wager on scale is still highly untested and despite all the speculation about the sweeping consolidation its dealmaking might inspire, we haven’t seen much of that. Of the eight aerospace and defense deals larger than $5 billion over the past decade, United Technologies (or Rockwell Collins) has been involved as a buyer in four of them; United Technologies also sold its Sikorsky helicopter unit to Lockheed Martin Corp. for $9 billion in 2015. The party of bigger is better is pretty much a party of one – again, for now.

Joyce interestingly said that while the United Technologies-Raytheon tie-up doesn’t make him feel compelled to act, he “wouldn’t rule out anything” when it comes to a deal with a good value proposition, and that he talks to CEO Larry Culp on a regular basis. That echoes increasingly frequent comments made by Culp about going on offense. I do wonder whether GE is thinking more seriously about dealmaking – or if it just wants investors to think that it is. As for the much-debated possible combination of GE Aviation and Honeywell Aerospace, I don’t get the impression the latter is that interested. Honeywell views acquisitions as a way to extend the capabilities of its businesses, rather than double down on more of the same, Mahoney said. He gives the example of Honeywell’s purchase of fuel-efficiency software maker Aviaso in 2015 for an undisclosed amount. Mahoney said he wished Aviaso was a larger business, which suggests he’s not opposed to bigger takeovers but only if the technology is really compelling.

So don’t hold your breath on that one. But could there be other deals? Check back at next year’s Air Show in Farnborough. 

To contact the author of this story: Brooke Sutherland at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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