Comet prevails in a demanding year and moves forward with renewed strength
- 10.8% EBITDA margin despite 14.8% lower sales of CHF 371.6 million
- Increase in free cash flow from CHF 0.8 million to CHF 30.0 million
- Reduction of net debt from CHF 39 million to CHF 25 million
- Strategy execution and Boost improvement program on track
Outlook for 2020
- Growth opportunities intact thanks to progressive recovery in the semiconductor market
- Low visibility due to Covid-19
- Streamlining of Board of Directors from seven to five members
After the semiconductor market correction in 2018, the year 2019 was defined by continued weak demand in this market important to Comet. The Group’s consolidated net sales of CHF 371.6 million were off 14.8% from the prior year. Comet nevertheless delivered consolidated EBITDA earnings of CHF 40 million (prior year: CHF 43 million) and boosted its EBITDA margin to 10.8% from 9.8% in the prior year. Besides the cost reductions of about CHF 15 million, the better utilization of production capacity at the end of the year and the absence of prior-year one-time costs of CHF 10.5 million were positive for EBITDA. Net income, at CHF 12.0 million, was in line with the year-earlier level. What is more, net working capital was successfully reduced as planned and free cash flow increased from CHF 0.8 million to CHF 30.0 million.
Comet is financially sound, with an equity ratio of 50% and net debt that was reduced from CHF 39 million to CHF 25 million. On this solid footing, and invigorated by a sharpened strategic focus and the Boost improvement program, Comet is moving forward with renewed strength.
PCT: Successful ramp-up at end of year; investment in forward-looking projects reflected in earnings
The industry’s overcapacity for memory chips reduced demand for Comet’s products in the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, the market picked up again. Comet’s Plasma Control Technologies division rapidly and flexibly ramped up manufacturing capacity, although this was not able to make up for the weak previous quarters. The division’s sales of CHF 151.7 million were 28.5% below the prior year’s. Maintaining the ability to take advantage of future opportunities, Comet continued to invest in promising forward-looking projects, including bolstering its product portfolio. PCT kept up investment in the new RF power generator, which was presented to key accounts in the summer. This and the 28.5% reduction in sales were reflected in the EBITDA earnings result of CHF 15.4 million (prior year: CHF 43.5 million).
IXM: Profitability raised in a difficult market environment
X-Ray Modules held its own despite reduced demand for manufactured goods in the end markets of automotive and aerospace. The division’s sales of CHF 78.1 million were only slightly below the prior year’s CHF 81.2 million. Thanks to systematic cost management, the division increased its EBITDA earnings from CHF 20.7 million to CHF 21.7 million – marking the fourth consecutive year of gains – and despite the sales decrease, the EBITDA margin improved by 2.3 percentage points to 27.8%.
IXS: Restructuring program has traction, profitability up significantly
X-Ray Systems achieved growth in the electronics sector with recent product innovations and benefited from sizeable prior-year orders in the aerospace industry. Sales increased as expected by 2.9% to CHF 139.6 million. The program of measures launched in the previous year had the desired effect: The division generated earnings of CHF 12.0 million at EBITDA level (prior year: CHF 1.0 million, including one-off costs of CHF 3.9 million). This represented an EBITDA margin of 8.6%, exceeding the target.
EBT: Systems divestiture and cost reduction show results; assessing strategic options
At ebeam technologies, the main focus in 2019 was on examining strategic options for the further reduction of risks and costs. Comet is currently in talks with potential partners and expects to complete this process in the course of the year. Comet believes that no special charges for 2020 will arise in this regard. The division’s sales in 2019 were CHF 15.5 million, as expected. Besides the disposal of the loss-making systems business in the prior year, the increased focus on the further reduction of risks and costs also paid off. The EBITDA loss was reduced from CHF 19.9 million in the prior year to CHF 6.2 million, thanks also to the non-recurrence of one-time costs of CHF 6.6 million.
Strategic focusing adopted; implementation of Boost improvement program launched
The growing digitalization and demand for ever more powerful, reliable and smaller semiconductors offers major opportunities for Comet’s established technologies. Based on its strategic review, Comet has therefore decided to focus on the two core businesses of plasma control and x-ray and the high-volume growth markets of semiconductor & electronics, automotive, aerospace and security. This includes the repositioning of the x-ray systems business as a manufacturing partner for the predictive optimization of production processes, and the expansion of its service offering. Seeing great potential here, Comet is stepping up investment to expand the capabilities in data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
As part of focusing on its core business, Comet also decided to review its strategic options for the ebeam business and mitigate the risks associated with it.
In order to strengthen the core business and be able to serve the Asian growth market faster and better, the decision was also made to open a manufacturing site in Penang, Malaysia. The first step, the establishment of the subsidiary as a legal entity, has been taken. These and other measures form part of Boost, the comprehensive improvement program adopted by the Board of Directors in conjunction with the refocusing.
In terms of personnel, too, 2019 was a year of renewal for Comet. Heinz Kundert, Patrick Jany and Christoph Kutter were elected to the Board of Directors and Heinz Kundert became the new Chairman of the Board. On the Executive Committee, Heinz Kundert took over as CEO on an interim basis from René Lenggenhager, who left the Group in June 2019. The succession process to select a new CEO and CFO is well underway. With Heinz Kundert as Chairman of the Board and interim CEO, the necessary stability is secured.
Streamlining of management and Board
As part of its corporate focusing, Comet reduced the size of the Executive Committee from seven members to six. As well, following the decision of Franz Richter and Christoph Kutter not to stand for re-election, going forward the Board of Directors has decided to limit the size of the Board to five members. The remaining five Board members provide a balanced mix of competencies and experience. The Board of Directors thanks Franz Richter and Christoph Kutter for their valuable contributions to the development of the company. Also, in line with contemporary corporate governance practice, the Board will propose at the next Annual Shareholder Meeting to abolish the age limit of 70 years for Board members that is currently specified in the company’s Bylaws.
At the Annual Shareholder Meeting on April 23, 2020, the Board of Directors will propose a dividend of CHF 1.00 per share (2019: CHF 1.20). This represents a distribution of 65% of the Group’s net income (2019: 75%).
Digitalization continues its transformative onward march. The growth opportunities in the semiconductor and fabrication equipment markets are intact. The new 5G standard, logic chips and foundries (contract chip manufacturers) are all on the threshold of a new growth surge. The market for memory chips is progressively recovering, as inventories have largely been drawn down and prices are rising again.
However, in all markets, the impact of the coronavirus on supply chains is still difficult to assess. At the moment there are no major supply bottlenecks for the Comet Group. In the event that supply delays occur, Comet has contingency plans in place that can be activated at any time. Conversely, Comet is also ready to address a strong rise in demand once the coronavirus situation eases. Industry analysts continue to expect a recovery in the semiconductor market compared to last year, although delays in installations cannot be ruled out. In the X-Ray Systems business, Comet is making every effort to bring those systems into operation as soon as possible that currently cannot be installed due to travel restrictions at customers. Some delays are likely, however.
Comet is on track with its focus strategy and is systematically driving forward the implementation of the Boost initiatives to grow sales and improve efficiency.
Due to the coronavirus-related low visibility, Comet currently opts not to issue a forecast for the full year 2020.
The 2019 financial results of the Comet Group will be presented today at 10:00 a.m. CET in a conference call in English with Heinz Kundert, Chairman and CEO, and Nicola Rotondo, Vice President, Group Controlling.
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Format of the Annual General Meeting on April 23, 2020
As a result of the exceptional situation around the coronavirus outbreak, and in reliance on section 6a (1) (b) of Ordinance 2 on Measures to Fight the Coronavirus (as amended March 16, 2020), Comet has decided to hold the Annual Shareholder Meeting of April 23, 2020 without the physical presence of shareholders. All shareholders are asked to issue a written or electronic proxy to the independent proxy with their voting instructions. Further details will follow with the meeting notice.