In conversation with CLS
The partnership that built a worldwide leader in satellite data analytics
CHRISTOPHE VASSAL CEO of CLS
CAROLINE PIHAN Director at Ardian Expansion
CLS – Provider of location and data collection satellites
We originally decided to work with Ardian back in 2013 because when we met them they had done their homework and understood our business, which is to analyze satellite data for geographic areas such as climate-change, biodiversity and fishery management. As an institutional investor and with its international presence, Ardian was a very reassuring presence for our main shareholder, the French space agency CNES, as they had never accepted a private equity company as a partner before.
When we discovered CLS, we were actually looking at one of their suppliers, but we immediately became very interested. They had longserving employees with huge technological expertise, and they were leaders in several fast growing niche markets with high barriers to entry. But we could see they needed to accelerate their external growth strategy, and we knew we could help.
build-ups under Ardian investment
We had already done five small acquisitions, but they recommended we should accelerate and target larger companies to increase our footprint outside Europe. We started talks with Horizon Marine and Woods Hole Group in the US right after Ardian invested and we also approached TRE in Italy. Ardian’s financial means and expertise were essential. Our main shareholder was very strong strategically and technically but they did not have the money for us to invest in larger acquisitions nor the financial expertise to evaluate deals and do the due diligence. The advantage of having Ardian with us was that they would challenge us in areas where CNES would not, like our financial assessment of the companies we looked at.
We developed a very productive and trusting relationship with Christophe and his team because they have always been very open-minded and willing to listen to our suggestions. That allowed us to make a lot of progress together. We brought different skills to the partnership focusing on areas like financial reporting and acquisitions that are not so common in public-sector organizations.
employees in 26 offices covering 198 countries
That’s true. Our processes were very basic before they invested, so they’ve helped us tremendously with our financial reporting and in strengthening our finance team. Another major change we owe to them is our focus today on sustainability and social responsibility. Even though our business is to protect the environment and the earth’s resources, we had not formalized our company policy on social and environmental responsibility. With the aid of several consultants, Ardian helped us to address certain issues and explain our mission as a company more clearly. That was an Ardian initiative.
Obviously we wanted to help Christophe and his team expand the company and become more financially successful, but another major attraction was CLS’s role in areas like environmental protection and climate monitoring. This was very much in line with our focus on sustainability across all our activities. This has become a central part of our mission over the past 20 years and in CLS, we found a company that was perfectly aligned with our agenda and one with whom we could collaborate to carry it forward.
€ 130 M
in turnover vs. €90 million at investment
I think we really saw the quality of our relationship with Ardian in 2016 and 2017. We had reached a point where we felt we needed to change things internally and transform ourselves to meet growing competition and accelerate innovation. Satellites are global and so are our customers’ needs. We needed to get closer to them and become more agile. We reorganized into five divisions addressing specific markets and we invested in our offices to create a nicer environment for our people. We couldn’t be sure our plan would work, and a lot of other investors might have walked away, but Ardian supported us. Although the changes we made had a short-term negative impact on our figures, they ultimately worked and the past two years have been very rewarding.
When Christophe told us it was time to rethink the organization and take a more commercial approach, it was obviously a risk for us, but we trusted his judgment. Christophe and his team implemented the new structure very effectively and that led to the excellent performance we saw in 2018 and 2019. Overall, this was really the perfect investment for us because the company was very strong on the technology side, its markets were fast growing, and we were able to contribute other skills and to support a buy-and-build strategy that created a lot of value. It was a very complementary relationship with a lot of trust on both sides.