Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc. (HLX) is turning into a takeover target after streamlining the company to focus on its expanding operations for offshore oil-well support.
The Houston-based company agreed last month to sell its oil-and-gas unit and earlier exited a pipe-laying business, helping Helix reduce debt and center its operations on deepwater vessels and robotics for well maintenance. The divestments make the $2.2 billion company more appealing to a potential suitor such as Aker Solutions ASA (AKSO) or Technip SA (TEC) that may want to expand in marine contracting, said Capital One Financial Corp.
Helix also may attract other oilfield-services providers, according to Stephens Inc., while Iberia Capital Partners LLC says a rig owner such as Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. (DO) could be interested. Even after Helix’s moves led to a 31 percent gain in 2012 that beat U.S. energy equipment and services stocks, the company trades at a 23 percent discount to its closest competitor Oceaneering International Inc. based on this year’s estimated earnings, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“It’s a cleaned-up company,” Trey Stolz, an analyst at Iberia Capital in New Orleans, said in a telephone interview. “Helix would be attractive as an add-on for existing offshore service providers to immediately get a head start on the well intervention side. It’s the next step forward in further specialization of the offshore equipment.”
Terrence Jamerson, director of investor relations at Helix, didn’t return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment.
Helix, which traces its roots to a group of oilfield divers in the 1960s, evolved into an offshore energy company with operations spanning deepwater construction, oil-and-gas production and well maintenance and repair.
The company in October said it sold off its pipe-laying vessels and in December announced that it had agreed to sell its oil-and-gas unit as part of a plan to shift its focus toward so- called well-intervention services. This business, which encompasses undersea well maintenance, salvage and repair using floating vessels and robotics, is more profitable than pipe- laying while requiring less capital outlays than are needed for exploration and production, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Tripodo told investors during a presentation in November.
The asset sales spurred gains in Helix shares that contributed to the biggest advance last year among the 11 members in the Standard & Poor’s Midcap Energy Equipment & Services Index. The stock closed yesterday at $20.86.
By helping to center Helix’s operations on a single, growing business, the disposals also have bolstered the company’s allure as a potential takeover target, said David Streit, an Appleton, Wisconsin-based equity analyst at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. The firm oversees about $76 billion in assets, including Helix shares.
“This focuses the company and provides potential acquirers with a much more focused and simpler package of assets,” Streit said in a phone interview. The sale of the oil-and-gas unit “removed the last major impediment to an acquisition. The balance sheet will be net cash positive after the divestiture of the business is complete. And beyond that it’s a very straightforward and clean business.”
Including its current net debt of $589 million, Helix’s enterprise value as of yesterday was 6.64 times its 2013 estimated earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The multiple for its Houston-based rival Oceaneering International (OII) was higher at 8.64 times this year’s estimated Ebitda, the data show.
“It’s trading at a multiple out of whack with other offshore asset-based service companies,” Iberia Capital’s Stolz said.
In its streamlined form, Helix may appeal to some contractors already operating in deepwater oil fields, Stolz said. The addition would give them a leg up as demand grows for well-intervention services, which use equipment sent down from vessels on the water’s surface to tap into aging wells on the sea floor and boost production.
Well-intervention vessels are in demand because they’re a cheaper alternative to drilling rigs, which have long been the standard and are now able to charge near-record leasing rates due to higher oil prices, Stolz said. The market for well intervention could experience growth similar to the past five years, when the number of aging wells nearly doubled to 3,500, he said.
Aker Solutions, a Lysaker, Norway-based oil-services company with well-intervention operations, could be a potential suitor for Helix, said Joseph Gibney, a Houston-based analyst with Capital One. The $5.8 billion company has a fleet of three deepwater well-intervention vessels, according to its website.
Paris-based Technip, with a market value of $13 billion, also could be a logical buyer because of its experience working in deep waters offering construction and engineering services for oil fields, Gibney said.
Ivar Simensen, a spokesman at Aker Solutions, declined to comment on whether the company is interested in Helix. Christophe Belorgeot, a spokesman for Technip, didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
Other oilfield-services companies may want to buy Helix to augment their businesses and gain technical expertise, said Michael Marino, an analyst at Stephens Inc. in Houston. Rig contractors such as Diamond Offshore may be interested in Helix as a way to recapture some of the work lost to lower-priced well-intervention vessels, Gibney and Stolz said.
Darren Daugherty, a spokesman for Diamond Offshore, declined to comment on whether the company is interested in Helix.
With Helix now focused on well intervention, the company could look to stay independent or even seek out acquisitions itself, said Todd Smurl, president and chief investment officer of Houston-based Ascendant Advisors.
“It might put them in play down the road but now they might actually be strong enough to be an acquirer as opposed to being acquired,” Smurl said in a phone interview. What’s more, after the stock rose 19 percent in the past month alone, “it’s not the screaming bargain it was,” he said.
Still, Stephens’s Marino estimates the company could fetch $25 in a takeover, a 20 percent premium to yesterday’s close.
“A takeout at those levels doesn’t seem crazy,” said Marino, who recommended that investors buy the stock after Helix announced plans to sell its oil-and-gas unit. “It makes a lot of sense for someone who wants to increase their presence internationally and offshore.”