/How once mighty Bombardier became politically toxic in Quebec

How once mighty Bombardier became politically toxic in Quebec

There was a time when, if the going got tough for Bombardier, it could count on a helping hand from the Quebec government. Those days might be over.

Bombardier is in debt, big time, to the tune of almost $10 billion US, according to an estimate from September. Last month, the company issued a profit warning, with analysts projecting that cash flow would be weak for the foreseeable future. 

As its share price plummeted, a report emerged this week that Bombardier is looking at selling its business-jet unit.

It was already trying to get a decent price for its train division and was considering dropping out of the mid-range jet program it spent more than a decade developing.

In Quebec, where Bombardier is as much a historic institution as an economic one, it seemed to many like a fire sale was on. What would be left of the global empire that began in a Valcourt, Que., repair shop 83 years ago?

That sense of panic would normally be enough for politicians to begin discussing throwing a lifeline. Investors, though, might not want to hold their breath.

Can it survive?

“The government has already invested a lot of money in Bombardier,” Premier François Legault said Wednesday, when asked, for the second straight day, whether a bailout was in the cards.

One day earlier, his economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, offered the company some tough-love advice.

He told reporters in Quebec City that Bombardier’s current debt is unsustainable and the company will likely have to sell off at least two units in order to have a future.

Bombardier Inc. is, for the moment anyway, composed of the A220 mid-range jet program (a joint venture with Airbus), a business-jet division (Bombardier Aviation) and a rail division (Berlin-based Bombardier Transport). 

‘The government has already invested a lot of money in Bombardier,’ Premier François Legault said Wednesday, when asked, for the second straight day, whether a bailout was in the cards. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

“Can it survive with the three business units it has today? The answer is no,” Fitzgibbon said.

He took it for granted that Bombardier will have to leave the joint venture, but that that won’t free up enough cash.

“That leaves two operations. Can they co-exist? That will be difficult, because they have a lot of debt,” Fitzgibbon said. 

It was a blunt assessment that underscored just how politically toxic it’s become for Quebec politicians to signal openness to a bailout. 

The Parti Québécois has gone so far as to say it won’t back any financial aid to the company as long as it remains under the leadership of CEO Alain Bellemare.

“We don’t have any confidence in Bombardier’s management,” the party’s interim leader, Pascal Bérubé, said last month.

Exasperation with Bombardier is becoming widespread. In the Montreal newspaper La Presse, an editorial ran under the headline, “Bombardier: their failure, your bill.” In the Journal de Montréal a headline warned, “Bombardier: Boondoggle in sight.”

The C Series gamble

It wasn’t so long ago that Bombardier elicited more sympathy from Quebec’s political class. 

The company gambled big in the 2000s by betting it could develop a mid-range jet that would allow it to compete with aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing.

Bombardier had never built that kind of plane before; its expertise was in the sleek business jets favoured by high-rolling executives and celebrities.

The Parti Québécois says they won’t support further aid to Bombardier if CEO Alain Bellemare, pictured in 2016, is still in charge. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

 

The jet program — dubbed the C Series — was more expensive and took longer to develop than expected. It brought Bombardier to the brink of bankruptcy in 2016.

That was untenable for the then Liberal government of Philippe Couillard, which feared another Quebec company getting poached in a foreign takeover. 

So Quebec slapped down $1.3 billion Cdn for a 49.5 per cent stake in the C Series program. The company and thousands of high-paying jobs were saved — or so went Couillard’s reasoning. 

But that goodwill soured when, a year later, Bombardier approved $32 million US worth of bonuses for its executives, who had just laid off 14,500 workers worldwide.

Under pressure from both the public and the government, Bombardier delayed the payout.

The last straw?

Though the C Series jets were well-received when they finally arrived on the market, sales were initially slow, not helped by a massive tariff imposed by the U.S.

Bombardier, faced again with a cash crunch, sold a controlling stake of the C Series program in 2018 to Airbus for $1, which renamed the jet the A220. A short time later, Bombardier announced 2,500 layoffs in Quebec.

Quebec politicians were furious and wondered what exactly the province was getting in return for its $1.3-billion investment. On Wednesday, Legault called his predecessor’s investment a “mistake.”

The A220 is now selling like hot cakes. But in order to meet demand and build enough units to make a profit, the joint venture needs to increase production capacity.

That requires money Bombardier simply doesn’t have and which the Quebec government isn’t willing to spend — a set of factors that likely marks the end of the company’s attempt to play with the big boys of aerospace.

But if helping Bombardier remains toxic in Quebec, Bombardier’s need to sell assets could turn urgent in a hurry.

With only so many parts left to sell, it may not be long before Bombardier is a shell of its former self.

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