Alone among the media-marketing sectors that pre-date the internet, exhibitions keep growing in profitability and value, and don’t investors know it. Whatever the potential digital disruption, trade shows continue to thrive (especially in the emerging economies) as real-life marketplaces in an increasingly digital world. Another week and another exhibitions group is up for grabs.
This time, the grand old dame of private equity, the UK’s 84-year-old Charterhouse Capital is selling its 50.1% stake in the Paris-based Comexposium to Crédit Agricole. The French bank will, therefore, become partner of long-term shareholder, the Paris-Île-de-France Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI).
Comexposium is now the world’s fourth largest non-venue-owner exhibitions group (after the UK-based trio: Informa, Reed and Clarion). It has some 140 B2B and B2C events principally in agriculture, construction, fashion, food, and health. Its leading brands include: IAL, Intermat, Paris International Agricultural Show, SIMA and Foire de Paris.
The company, which organizes 5 of the 10 biggest exhibitions in France, was founded in 2008 when Unibail-Rodamco and CCI merged their events with Comexpo. Since Charterhouse became a shareholder in 2015, it has made 14 acquisitions, and is believed to have made EBITDA profit of €72m in 2017 on revenue of €335m. It has been actively trying to reduce its dependance on the French market, now 70% compared with almost 90% in 2015. Despite its recent growth (from 100 events in 2015), some 40% of Comexposium’s revenue last year came from its 10 largest events.
Charterhouse, which had paid some €275m for its 50.1% (valuing the company at almost 14 x EBITDA), now says it has made a return of 2.4 x its investment in just over three years. It is believed Crédit Agricole’s deal may value Comexposium at some 16x EBITDA . Such earnings multiples (even for an exhibitions business with a going-nowhere long-term shareholder) will continue to tantalise investors and executives at RELX Group. Its Reed Exhibitions (no longer the world’s largest organiser, since being dethroned by Informa) looks seriously out of place in a parent company dedicated so publicly to high-value data and analytics.
Across London, Inflexion private equity is seeking to sell its minority stake in CloserStill, the fast-growing, seven-year-old international organiser of healthcare and technology shows, founded by industry veteran Phil Soar. The deal is likely to involve the sale of the whole c£40m-revenue company to Providence private equity for £300m – up to 20x the forecast 2018 EBITDA of some £15m.
Now come whispers about the impending sale of the 53-year-old, family-owned Mack Brooks group which has long-established events across airport technology, chemicals, packaging, and fasteners. The company, whose major brands include Euro Blech, InPrint, RailTex, FastenerFair, InterAirport and ChemSpec, has long been one of the UK’s most admired independent exhibition organisers. One of its stand-out events is the Fastener Fair, taking place at Stuttgart in March 2019, which will have a total of 22,000 net sq m of exhibition space occupied by 900 companies from 40 countries. It is said to be almost 10% larger than the previous event in 2017.
Owner Stephen Brooks has spent half a lifetime fending off bids from larger rivals whose own profit margins are miles behind his own. In 2016-17, Mack Brooks made operating profit of £16.7m on revenue of £38.5m (a 43% margin). It’s a solidly international business: some 92% of revenues come from outside the UK, with profitable operations in the US, China, Singapore, India, France, and Germany. Even its complementary publishing is soundly profitable.
Mack Brooks is a gem of a business, so we might expect the price multiplier to be as high as anything yet seen in exhibitions deals. But, when it is sold (to private equity?), there will be a lot of disappointed exhibitions bosses who had thought they were on some kind of long-term promise when the owner decided to sell. Ouch.