One of the biggest recent security divestitures in the news was the sale of Mercury Security to HID Global, which occurred around a year ago. The seller in that transaction was ACRE (Access Control Related Enterprises), also the parent company of Vanderbilt and ComNet. We recently spoke to founder and CEO Joe Grillo, a 30-year industry veteran, about the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) market, ACRE’s future, and new opportunities opened up by the Mercury sale.
Q: What’s new with ACRE?
Grillo: We have an opportunity to have organic growth and to have some scale on a global basis to be a decent size player" ACRE is a company I founded in 2012, and since then we have had six acquisitions and one divestiture. We’ll never focus on ACRE as a brand, but we currently have more visibility of ACRE as a parent company with our two strong brands, ComNet and Vanderbilt. Last year was a very busy year [with the sale of Mercury Security to HID Global] because it takes as long to sell a brand as to buy one, maybe more so.
Q: What’s next?
Grillo: What you are seeing from us this year is that we are again in a buying mode. No announcement yet, but we expect one by the end of the year. We are well-funded, have great partners, and see an opportunity to continue to grow acquisitively as our highly fragmented space of access control continues to consolidate. From the standpoint of ACRE, with the ComNet and Vanderbilt brands, we are also doing more integration on the backside – not what the customer sees.
We will continue to grow toward a $200 million business. We were there when we owned Mercury, and we will get there again. We have an opportunity to have organic growth and to have some scale on a global basis to be a decent size player. Because ACRE are owned by a private equity company, we are brought into every opportunity: ComNet is a good example"
Q: Do you see the M&A market being more competitive – more companies looking to acquire?
Grillo: There’s a lot of money chasing not-so-many deals, so evaluations can get expanded. But as interest rates creep up, it is definitely a challenge to find the right valuation, the right financing and the right strategic fit. It is a very strategic market.
Q: There have been some big acquisitions lately. Were you guys involved at all in evaluating those opportunities?
Grillo: Because we are owned by a private equity company, we are brought into every opportunity. An example of that was ComNet. I would not have been aware that the founder passed away two years ago and that there was this opportunity to own the business. So we look at everything; anything that’s out there we look at. The biggest recent announcement in our world was S2 (being sold to UTC/Lenel), and, yeah, we looked at that.
It didn’t fit our profile – it was too expensive. Great business, and it’ll be interesting to see how it fits into the UTC environment. There was also Isonas [which was recently sold to Allegion], but the size didn’t add enough scale, but I like the technology.
ComNet sells communication networking solutions and products, which is more attractive than video systems for ACRE
Q: So what are you looking for in an acquisition?
Grillo: It’s hard for us to find something that moves the needle, and you have to find that right balance. Is it something we can digest and have the financing for, and also is there room on the back end? We are private equity-owned, so we know there will be an exit for our investors, too. So we have to find the right balance, good valuations, the right size and digestible. If you look at our acquisitions, we have done two “carve outs.”
The Vanderbilt name didn’t exist until we bought the business from Ingersoll Rand, and then we bought the [intruder] business from Siemens. That’s how Vanderbilt came about. You get a lot of value when you carve out a business, but there’s a lot of work. In the case of Mercury or Access Control Technology (ACT) that we acquired; they were growing and profitable but they stretch your finances a lot more. So you have to find the right mix in there.
Q: Does video interest ACRE at all?
Grillo: We have to find the right balance, good valuations, the right size and digestible"ComNet is our video play. ComNet sells communication networking solutions and products, and 70 to 80 percent of that is used for video systems. But unlike cameras, which don’t interest us, it’s actually good margins, highly specialized repeat business and with good channel partners. So where are we going to play? Cameras – no (because of commoditization). We have some recorder technology (from the Siemens acquisition) and we have the communication networking technology (with ComNet).
On the software side, we have looked at a lot of the VMS companies, and a lot of them have been on the market. But the valuation expectations can be high because they are software companies. And we really believe in partnering as a good thing, too. If we integrate to Milestone or Salient or some of these companies, we will never lose an access control client because they chose a particular VMS.
Q: ACRE is also looking to grow organically, isn’t it?
Grillo: From a technology perspective, we are a product company and we are continuing to bring new products to the market with the ComNet communication networking business and the access control business. And in Europe, we have a third leg of the stool, which is the very successful intrusion and burgular alarm business we acquired from Siemens (SPC products now sold under the Vanderbilt brand). That business continues to do well and is now one of the highest performing segments in our portfolio.The intrusion and burgular alarm continues to do well and is now one of the highest performing segments in our portfolio"
Q: But you don’t have to own a company to make it part of your solution.
Grillo: An important word is integration. We have to integrate to all the wireless locks. We have to integrate to the VMS systems. But we don’t have to own them.
Q: How has the Mercury Security divestiture impacted the rest of your business?
Grillo: It has opened up the opportunity for us to look at Mercury partners as possible acquisition targets without worrying about conflicts with the very good business of Mercury. We have more flexibility now compared to the Mercury era.
Q: How will the economic cycle impact the security market?
Grillo: Interest rates are a much bigger issue than the overall economic cycle. We talk a lot about it with our owners – clearly interest rates are tightening up. If you go out to do acquisitions or to borrow money to do something with your business, it will be tougher than it was two years ago, and it may get worse in the next two years. Security is less impacted by the economic cycle than some industries.