When powertool giant Hilti Group was looking to expand its North American presence last year, it didn't beef up its old industrial production base. Instead, Hilti followed a growing and lucrative trend in manufacturing: solar power parts.
The 70-year-old, Lichtenstein-based company, known for hammer drills, firestops and power saws, spent $140 million nine months ago to buy solar photovoltaic (PV) firm Unirac. It is now selling the New Mexico company's solar racking systems as part of the Hilti product portfolio.
In taking over Unirac, the tool powerhouse is doing for itself something it could not possibly have accomplished alone — becoming an instant competitor in the clean energy economy.
Albuquerque-based Unirac came with 13 years of experience in making aluminum and steel mounts for rooftops and ground arrays, as well as a client list that includes some big solar spenders, such as the Google Campus in Mountain View, Calif. and Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Hilti insists its solar business is already paying off. In a financial report released last week, the company said that its mounting systems for PV panels made "a considerable contribution" to its total sales of around $4 billion in 2010, up 7 percent from 2009 results.
"This expansion was driven by the strong rise in installed capacity in Europe and the USA," according to the report.
Recent customers include Port Chester, N.Y.-based Mercury Solar Systems, which makes PV panels and thermal systems, and Kyocera Solar, a subsidiary of the Japanese global technology firm Kyocera Corporation, who will use Hilti parts in residential solar kits worldwide.
Hilti 'Coming Out a Winner'
Globally, total clean energy investments reached a record $243 billion last year, thanks in large part to solar rooftop installations in Europe, according to figures published last week by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Barclays Capital, the investment banking arm of Barclays, reported earlier this month that in the United States, solar installations in 2010 increased 111 percent, or 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar power, and are projected to grow another 125 per cent by 2.25 GW in 2011.
"If you're Hilti, you are probably coming out a winner for any investment that uses PV racking" systems, Nathaniel Bullard, a lead North American solar analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told SolveClimate News.
Racking systems involve almost everything needed to keep heavy PV panels in place — from the support beams that form the basic structure to the frames that brace the individual panels.
Because these parts are needed in any kind of solar configuration, Bullard said, the Unirac buyout was a smart play. "Is there demand to support an acquisition of a dedicated piece of technology that only serves one purpose?" he said. "The answer is yes."
Bullard noted similar deals that took place recently, including the acquisition of RayTracker, a tracking technology and PV products manufacturer, by thin-film solar giant First Solar last week for an undisclosed sum, as well as last September's $305 million purchase of San Francisco-based solar power developer Recurrent Energy by Sharp, the Japanese electronics manufacturer.
Acquisition is Boon for Unirac, Too
Hilti, which has its North American headquarters in Tulsa, Okla., employs about 20,000 people in 120 countries and boasts annual sales in the $4 to $5 billion range, ranking it among other big tool producers like Stanley Black & Decker, a fortune 500 firm.
Its North American push into solar was well timed.