FEATURE
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Positive outlook

The rebranding exercise for Acal BFi is almost complete, as Warren Clark discovers

Acal BFi may not yet be a familiar name within the photonics industry, but its previous incarnations most certainly are – Optilas began life almost 40 years ago. The new name is the latest rebranding step in the merger between Acal and BFi Optilas, which occurred in 2009.

Back in 1973, founder Michel Imbert had returned to France having spent some time in the US as a postdoc engineer working in photonics. Jean-Claude Sanudo, business development director for the Photonics Division of Acal BFi, says: ‘Michel realised that the US photonics industry had a much easier time in sourcing photonic components than was the case in his native France. Spying an opportunity, Imbert used the contacts he had built up in the US to set up Optilas, the first photonics distributor of its kind in Europe.’

Initially focusing just on France, the company very quickly grew and opened offices around Europe, in the UK, Holland, Italy, Spain and Germany, with the Nordic countries following later. Over time, Optilas developed expertise in four key areas: lasers and optics, test and measurement, imaging, and communications.

Sanudo himself first joined Optilas in 1989, working in the sales team for three years, before leaving to work for a French laser manufacturer for five years as an export sales manager. He rejoined the company in 1997 as photonics business unit manager in France. In 2002, he took on responsibility for the business unit across Europe.

Optilas founder Imbert died in 1993, and five years later Optilas was acquired by electronic components company Avnet. Avnet already owned BFi Ibexsa, an electronics company that had been around since the mid-60s. Avnet merged the two businesses to create BFi Optilas.

By 2007, Avnet decided that the BFi business did not fit with the rest of its global commodity business, and set about the process of selling it off. A management buy-out, funded by French private equity firms, ensured that BFi Optilas was once again an independent company. However, after two years, and as the global economy started to slow, investors looked for an exit strategy. In March 2009, Acal began to take an interest.

Nick Jefferies, group chief executive officer of Acal plc, says: ‘Acal had been operating largely in commodity areas up until that time too. We realised that we needed to get out of anything to do with commodities and differentiate our business in specialist technology areas. These areas needed to display certain characteristics: the products had to be technically challenging; the staff needed to be technically capable in order to assist in the design in of these products; and there needed to be a high degree of system consulting and custom development.’

At the time merger talks began, both companies had similar revenues of around €100m each, both had lost money in the six months prior to March, and both had cut costs considerably.

‘We were both in similar positions and looking to go in similar directions,’ says Jefferies. ‘So we decided to merge the businesses, take out a one set of back office operations, such as warehousing and IT systems, and make one profitable business. We kept all the front-end operations, and at first, kept the two brand names – Acal Technology and BFi Optilas.’

Now, those two brand names are being brought together to create Acal BFi, which represents the Electronics division of Acal plc.

Within Acal BFi, there are 10 technology businesses, including eight business units covering: sensors, electromechanical, magnetics and power, speciality semiconductors, microsystems, photonics, imaging, and communications.

Across Europe, Acal BFi has 13 operating companies, and each office has its own staff dedicated to the respective business units. ‘We have a common infrastructure for all,’ says Jefferies, ‘but each business unit is separate, which allows us to specialise.’ The rebranding exercise is rolling out over the next couple of months, including a new Acal BFi website.

 

‘In terms of market positioning, we see ourselves as a European specialist technology supplier,’ continues Jefferies. ‘This sets us apart from high volume distributors and high service distributors, and we are continuing to move away from standard components and into specialist systems – solutions that you simply can’t sell off the page.

‘Within this space, there are many single technology, single country businesses, often owned by individuals that have been involved for decades. Through acquisitions we are consolidating these into our infrastructure, but where these businesses retain their way of working and independence. So, we’re growing our business both organically and acquisitively.’

For the past couple of years, there has been a significant degree of economic uncertainty out there. ‘Many suppliers now want to know whether a company is financially robust,’ says Jefferies. ‘As a public company, we provide that visibility and assurance. Customers get knowledge and expertise, and real design and system capability, while suppliers get access to our huge customer database in Europe. Moreover, 75 per cent of what we sell is unique in some way.’

There are now, of course, many distributors throughout Europe, but Jefferies believes Acal BFi still holds a unique position. ‘We are the only photonics distributor present in all markets,’ he says. ‘We operate as one business. Others may have multi-country presence, but the ownership might be individual and there is very little common interest. For example, we can assure a supplier that it only takes one decision to get their product across all European markets, rather than having to address each one individually.’

Paul Webster, group product management and operations director for Acal plc, says: ‘We look to have the leading supplier in terms of technology within any given area. We avoid having conflicting products wherever possible. It means our sales team can always offer the best product for any given solution, without having to offer a bag of products that do the same thing.’

Sanudo adds: ‘Many distributors try to get as many suppliers as possible. We prefer to focus on a few suppliers, rather than trying to do too many things at the same time and fail. This means we do a better job for our suppliers, and it also benefits the customer, as we are more knowledgeable about specific market products and applications.’

Looking forward, Jefferies is pleasingly optimistic. ‘One of the lead indicators in European economics is the M1 money supply, and that is looking more positive. Industrial output tends to lag the trend of money supply by six to nine months. Lo and behold, after six months of rising money supply, we’ve just seen GDP rise [in the UK]. We expect Germany to follow.

‘We think that’s a very good sign, because from that, other indices follow. We don’t know if it’ll be a low growth or a high growth market, but we certainly know that the European outlook is more encouraging than it was 6 and 12 months ago.’