This month Singular Diligence covers Breeze-Eastern Corp (NYSEMKT:BZC) a manufacture of sophisticated engineered mission equipment for specialty aerospace and defense applications. BZC’s products are used to complete rescue operations and military insertion/extraction operations, move and transport cargo, and load weapons onto aircraft and ground-based launching systems. It’s an obscure, cheap stock in a duopoly. The extract below describes the company’s moat:
Breeze-Eastern has over 50% market share in helicopter rescue hoists. Outside of the former Soviet Union, it is part of a true duopoly with UTC Aerospace. Most customers believe they have only two choices for rescue hoists. They can either go with UTC or Breeze. It is important not to overstate the technical difficulties of this business. Breeze is a duopoly. And there are good reasons to believe it will stay a duopoly.
But there are not serious technical obstacles to overcome to enter the rescue hoist business. In fact, it is possible to modify a helicopter designed to work with a Breeze rescue hoist so it can instead be equipped with a UTC rescue hoist.
There are many more helicopter models than rescue hoist models. There is no need to design a completely new rescue hoist model for each helicopter model. A former Breeze-Eastern engineer told us: “In general I would say rescue hoists though somewhat customizable for each airframe in general the overall design was consistent. As with any aerospace product there is some uniqueness per aircraft whether it is electrical or mechanical interface or some unique performance requirement. But Breeze has a great baseline hoist that was easily modified as needed for the application.”
Breeze’s experience in cargo winches is probably similar to what a new entrant in rescue hoists would face. Breeze had a high initial investment. After this initial investment was made, Breeze hoped to invest much less in engineering each subsequent cargo winch project it worked on because it would have a base to work from. Here is a quote from a 2011 earnings call: “… we are using the engineering work that we’ve done for those in our bidding on other programs—so trying to use derivatives off of that with much less engineering—incremental engineering investment or effort than we had to make to do the from scratch development on a couple of those cargo winches.”
Although Breeze is part of a duopoly without a lot of change, it would be wrong to equate the technical challenges Breeze and its competitors face with something like what Babcock does in nuclear power components for the U.S. Navy. Rescue hoists are fairly simple. They only average a cost of about $250,000. There are not huge risks of cost overruns or delays in construction due to technical challenges. A rescue hoist is a niche product. But it is still a product. It is not a custom project. Historically, Breeze or UTC invested in all the upfront spending on designing a hoist to work with a certain helicopter. This is a big reason why the original equipment manufacturers do not mind a duopoly. They can choose from one of two companies who can offer a good solution. And those two companies will spend the necessary time and money on designing the hoist. The rescue hoist manufacturer then benefits from that new helicopter model specifying the hoist it is meant to work with. But, eventually, a popular helicopter model will be capable of working with a hoist from either company. This is because–eventually–the competitor who did not work on the helicopter when it was originally introduced does the necessary engineering work so it has a hoist that can work with that helicopter. The Sikorsky Blackhawk, Bell 412, Eurocopter AS350, AgustaWestland 109, and many other helicopters now work with rescue hoists from either Breeze-Eastern or UTC. So, a customer can buy a fleet of Blackhawks and then have its choice of which hoist to use: Breeze-Eastern’s or UTC’s. It’s not clear how important this choice is to the competitive position of the two companies. That may seem like a strange statement. But there are two facts to consider. One, when a new helicopter model comes out it generally has only one hoist meant for it. So, if you are an agency getting deliveries of some helicopter within the first few years of its introduction–you may not have a real choice. Also, customers—unlike the original equipment manufacturers–are focused on search and rescue. So, a customer might have 10 helicopters and even when buying a new model, they may still have 5 helicopters of a different model. In the Maryland State Police example we gave, they have a fleet of 20 helicopters split between 11 of one model and 9 of the other. A customer would not like to use one supplier for repair and replacement work on half the fleet and another supplier for repair and replacement parts on the other half of the fleet. Remember 90% of replacement parts are proprietary and the two companies’ parts do not work together. This preference may sound excessive. Airlines, militaries, government agencies, etc. frequently operate more than one model of airplane or helicopter in their fleet. Why not use two different kinds of rescue hoists? But there is an extensive distribution structure for even proprietary parts from most airplane and helicopter manufacturers. Remember, there is easily 10 or 20 times more helicopters out there than there are helicopter hoists. And there are far, far fewer helicopters in the world than airplanes. Logistically, it is much easier to service airplanes than helicopters. And it is much easier to service helicopters than to service helicopter rescue hoists. The inventory levels related to rescue hoists are very, very low. We know this because we can see Breeze-Eastern’s inventory levels and we know how long they take to get replacement parts to customers. We also know UTC is no better.
This is an area Breeze is working on. But, it is worth discussing the logistical problem caused by how small the rescue hoist niche really is. One customer told us: “My issue is that we equip all 12 of our helicopters with hoists and the operations are things we train extensively on. If a hoist is taken out of service we get very uncomfortable because one of our prime reasons for having them is to rescue our own firefighters from getting burned over by a forest fire or for getting an injured person in a remote area out for medical attention. I’m not sure either company gets that and it may be that the armed services have enough spares so that it never happens. The hoist is used because in almost all instances where it is used it is not possible to land the helicopter. So we don’t like having a helicopter available but no hoist. They don’t break often but they do break.” Another customer who complained about the lack of customer attention explained this problem is caused by the size of the addressable market: “UTC is the only manufacturer that makes the type of hoist we use and we selected (that hoist) for some very specific reasons. I suspect that things would be different if there were 5 manufacturers who made a hoist like this and they were interchangeable, with little or no work, but the market is too small for that to happen, so here we are.”
Customers know they can modify their fleet to use Breeze or UTC hoists. And several customers told us they have heard of people doing this. The reason for switching was always poor customer service. But the problem is that “there are significant changes in the fixed provisions” Fixed provisions are non – optional (required) parts. This point of fixed parts was stressed to us again and again by customers and engineers. For example, another customer told us: “…the external hoists from both manufacturers do not have any interchangeable parts. Wiring diagrams are also specific to each manufacturer. Each hoist type comes with a helicopter model specific flight manual supplement so these are also different between hoist manufacturers and helicopter models.”
So, it is not technically very difficult for Breeze-Eastern or UTC or anyone else with a good base hoist system to engineer solutions that work with different helicopter models. It is also not impossible for a helicopter operator to switch from one hoist to another. But there is an installed base of search and rescue helicopters out there. And each hoist manufacturer’s replacement parts only work with their own hoists. This discourages switching between hoist suppliers. If an operator believes the two companies offer roughly similar solutions the obvious decision is to stick with the solution they already have in place. This is why delivery times can be slow and gross margins can be high on replacement parts. Historically, it has probably been the case that Breeze and UTC work harder to please an original equipment manufacturer than they do to please the helicopter operators. As we’ve mentioned before, Breeze’s CEO has said they plan to improve customer service and speed up delivery times. But, historically, once an operator is using a certain hoist they generally have to deal with slow delivery times and high prices on the parts they need.
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