Wednesday 25 September 2013

Venture capitalist in the frame for Millbrook

The latest word on the street suggests a venture capital company has moved into first place as the most likely business to acquire the assets of Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire.

These rumours come at a time when JaguarLandRover (JLR), once a strong candidate tipped to take over Millbrook, is now enmeshed with its own new state-of-the-art research facility where it is the lead partner in the project to invest £50m, along with Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC), WMG and the UK Government's Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE).

With the new National Automotive Innovation Campus (NAIC) as JLR’s first focus, the prospect of an investment in Millbrook inevitably takes a back seat, paving the way for other possibilities.

One possible name that comes to the fore as the potential principal owner of Millbrook is Rutland Partners LLP of Regent street, London, which describes itself as ‘a turnaround and restructuring investor with a difference’. It is an organisation best known recently for its investment in Bernard Matthews alongside family interests. Rutland also describes itself as a ‘catalyst for change’; earlier this year it was nominated for the Turnaround House of the Year Award.

One of the most publicised British venture capitalists is Jon Moulton, best known for leading Alchemy Partners’ bid to buy MG Rover from BMW in 2000. So if the rumours about Rutland are true, then there can one reason and one reason only for the acquisition: to sell the business on at a later date for a handsome profit.

 Had Millbrook been placed under JLR’s umbrella, then the UK car maker’s engineers and managers would have been familiar with all the capabilities offered by the proving grounds extensive portfolio. The purchase in that case would then be more about adding value to JLR products. The site in Bedfordshire would, in theory, have made an ideal bedfellow for JLR's own engineering facilities at Gaydon, Oxfordshire and Whitley in Coventry. However, for any venture capital company, all such aspects of Millbrook’s business will represent completely new territory.

But the fresh intellect afforded by a venture capital company could well open up new possibilities for the Bedfordshire proving ground with its formidable range of facilities and experience, while still leaving JLR open to hire the resources that Millbrook has to offer without making the large financial commitment that such an acquisition would require.

But at the end of the day, whatever Rutland Partners, or any other venture capital company might choose to do with Millbrook Proving Ground, its depth of experience remains with wheeled vehicles and it would seem that it will have to remain that way for a time to come. Its unique asset is the high-speed track and off-road facilities.

Inevitably, the popular impression of any venture capital company is one of a collection ‘turnaround men’ charged with generating wealth from the assets it has acquired, most likely by selling them on (as a whole or in parts) at a later date at an enhanced price. Sometimes this process can be completed in a matter of three years; on other occasions it takes longer until the ‘right’ partner comes along. And so it may turn out to be in the case of Millbrook.

As far as the owner of Millbrook Proving Ground is concerned, namely General Motors, senior officials at its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, may have mixed feelings. While keen to maximise the return on their own investment, they will perhaps be equally keen to see that the proving ground does not fall into the hands of any serious competitor. By the same token, it has to be assumed they will naturally wish to seek the best long-term interests of their staff at Millbrook.

JLR is, day by day, growing on the world stage. While not by any means at this point any threat to GM, the UK-based automaker is nevertheless a fast developing vehicle builder and one that has the enthusiasm of India’s Tata Motors behind it.

The net effect might be that GM would be happy to see Millbrook pass to a venture capital company rather than to JLR, or any other automaker for that matter. Thus anything that GM in Europe can do to thwart JLR’s progress around the world might perhaps be viewed in Detroit as an advantage to the US company that describes itself as passionate about the design, building and selling of the world’s best vehicles.

Meanwhile, as already mentioned here, the expected signing over of the Millbrook Proving Ground could take place by the end of November or early December, with public disclosure shortly after.

In the meantime, an air of uncertainty hangs over the Bedfordshire facility as the process of due diligence seemed unnecessarily long and the mists of autumn begin to cling to nearby trees and rolling countryside.      

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