In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Comet Group proved to be robust and flexible. By rapidly deploying pre-emptive measures, the company protected the health of its employees and maintained the undiminished ability to serve its customers. While Comet grew sales and significantly improved its operating income, it also made good progress in the implementation of key strategic initiatives such as the sale of the ebeam lamp business to Tetra Pak and the acquisition of the Canadian software developer Object Research Systems (ORS).
In 2020, the Group benefited from the vibrant strength of the semiconductor and electronics market. The pandemic accelerated the already robust demand for cloud services, video conferencing, gaming, 5G, and other tech solutions. This boosted demand for semiconductor chips and helped to offset the structural and pandemic-related slump in the automotive, aerospace and security sectors.
Net sales rose by 6.5% from the prior year to CHF 395.8 million (FY 2019: CHF 371.6 million) thanks to a strong performance in the Plasma Control Technologies division. With good cost discipline, and including one-time income of CHF 4.0 million from the divestment of the ebeam lamp business, Comet grew EBITDA to CHF 58.6 million, an increase of 46.6% compared to CHF 40.0 million in the previous year. The EBITDA margin increased to 14.8% from 10.8% in 2019. Net income increased 130.8% to CHF 27.7 million from CHF 12.0 million, while free cash flow improved to CHF 41.6 million compared to CHF 30.1 million in 2019. The higher free cash flow was achieved mainly by rigorous control of net working capital. Comet ended 2020 with a sound financial position, with an equity ratio of 50.1% and net debt of CHF 7.1 million (2019: CHF 25.0 million). Return on capital employed (ROCE) more than doubled to 13.6% compared to 6.5% in 2019. This solid footing coupled with the progress in executing the strategic Boost initiatives, Comet is moving forward an even stronger entity.
PCT: Supercycle in semiconductors and significant progress in strategy implementation
With the opening of the new production site in Malaysia, the Plasma Control Technologies division (PCT) made an important step in its strategy to tap the rapidly growing Asian semiconductor market and to improve its cost position. To meet the buoyant current demand, the division expanded vacuum capacitor production at the Flamatt site in Switzerland by nearly 50%. Thanks to the company's strong market position and the strong market environment, PCT delivered 48.1% higher sales of CHF 224.7 million compared to the previous year's CHF 151.7 million. Even with the favorable market environment, PCT maintained its focus on cost and efficiency gains. Combined with the double-digit top-line growth, operating earnings at EBITDA level more than tripled to CHF 49.3 million (FY 2019: CHF 15.4 million). The EBITDA margin increased to 22.0% from 10.1% in the prior year.
IXS: structural weakness in end markets coupled with Covid-19 - Repositioning in full swing
Despite the rapid introduction of countermeasures, the structural downturn in the automotive market combined with the impact from the pandemic on the automotive and aerospace industries weighed on the results of the X-Ray Systems division (IXS). Sales declined 23.5% to CHF 106.8 million (2019: CHF 139.6 million) and EBITDA fell to a deficit of CHF 1.0 million, compared to a CHF 12.0 million profit in the prior year. The EBITDA margin amounted to -0.9% (prior year: 8.6%). In order to improve profitability IXS redirected its focus and most of its R&D efforts to accelerate its position in the semiconductor and electronics sectors. An important milestone was the acquisition of the Canadian software developer Object Research System (ORS) that will allow the division to offer their customers new capabilities in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to assessing their production processes and improving yield.
IXM: Solid results in a challenging market environment - Ready for the upswing
In a difficult market environment, the X-Ray Modules division (IXM) remained focused on its long-term strategy. The division used the downturn to continue to develop and launch new products into its served markets in anticipation of the post-Covid-19 economic recovery. The new products launched in the last twelve months were met with good uptake by the market. In 2020, IXM achieved solid results thanks to cost-cutting and efficiency-enhancing measures. Following a sharp decline in demand in the first half of the year, business stabilized in the second half, albeit at a lower absolute level. IXM achieved annual sales of CHF 61.4 million (prior year: CHF 78.1 million), a decrease of 21.4% compared to 2019. The EBITDA operating result reached CHF 9.0 million (prior year: CHF 21.7 million), while the EBITDA margin was 14.6% (prior year: 27.8%).
EBT: Sale of ebeam division completed with a net EBITDA income
In execution of the focus strategy, the ebeam lamp business was sold to Tetra Pak in 2020. In its final year as a member of the Group, the Division contributed an EBITDA of CHF 3.3 million (including a one-time divestment gain of CHF 4 million) on sales of CHF 14.6 million.
New executive leadership
Comet's realignment was initiated by Heinz Kundert as Chairman of the Board and interim Chief Executive Officer in 2019. In September 2020, he passed the CEO baton to Kevin Crofton, who brings more than 30 years of leadership experience in the semiconductor industry. The management team was completed with the addition of Lisa Pataki as Chief Financial Officer in October and Keighley Peters as Chief Information Officer at the end of December.
At the Annual Shareholder Meeting on April 22, 2021, the Board of Directors will propose a dividend of CHF 1.30 per share (prior year: CHF 1.00). This represents a distribution of 37% of the Group's net income (prior year: 65%).
The pace of digitalization and the growth in the processing of large amounts of data have accelerated. Thus, SEMI, the semiconductor equipment and materials industry association, projects near double-digit growth in global semiconductor manufacturing equipment sales in 2021, following a record 2020. There are also modest signs of an upswing in the automotive, aerospace and security industries. While the market situation remains challenging after the renewed tightening of restrictions to combat the pandemic at the beginning of 2021, progress in the world's vaccination programs suggests a gradual return to normality lies ahead. This should also improve the situation for the x-ray business in its core markets.
In this dynamic environment, Comet will press ahead with the focused expansion of its already strong market position and continue to invest in innovation and in the expansion of its product portfolio. As in 2020, Comet will give absolute priority to the safety of all employees and customers.
The market setting remains subject to uncertainty. Provided the macroeconomic situation does not deteriorate significantly, the Comet Group expects net sales between CHF 430 million and CHF 460 million and an EBITDA margin between 17% to 19%.
Publication of 2020 full-year results
Due to the restrictions related to Covid-19, the Comet Group is not physically holding its usual media and analyst conference. Instead, the detailed full-year figures will be presented today, on March 18, in a conference call by Kevin Crofton, CEO, and Lisa A. Pataki, CFO. The conference call in English will be held at 10:00 a.m. CET.
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English, 10:00 a.m. CET, March 18, 2021: https://78449.choruscall.com/dataconf/productusers/comet/mediaframe/43241/indexl.html
For more information please refer to our online Annual Report available at https://reports.comet-group.com/20/en/
Format of the Annual General Meeting on April 22, 2021
As a result of the exceptional situation around the coronavirus pandemic, and in reliance on Article 27 of the Federal Act on the Statutory Principles for Federal Council Ordinances on Combating the COVID-19 Epidemic (COVID-19 Act) of March 2021, Comet has decided to hold the Annual Shareholder Meeting of April 22, 2021 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.