The story of ASV illustrates some of the trends that have made Minnesota’s list of public companies much smaller than it once was.
Before the Grand Rapids company was acquired 10 years ago for nearly $500 million, ASV had annual revenue of about $246 million, good enough for 65th place on the list of the state’s 100 largest publicly held companies.
Now it’s back, thanks to its 2017 initial public offering. Yet because the ranks of publicly held companies in the state have thinned so much, ASV is up to No. 47 on the recent list of 50 biggest public companies — and that’s with annual sales that were half what they were when it was last ranked.
The challenges cited by those in charge of ASV when they elected to sell the company and leave the public market a decade ago — the inherent risk of going it alone in a global industry and the burdensome costs of being publicly held — have only become greater since then.
It’s no surprise leaders of other small public companies have chosen to give up being publicly held.
Because it’s getting rarer, though, it’s always fun to see a new public company emerge in our region.
ASV’s 3.8 million shares were priced at $7 each, lower than the range the company had once projected, and more shares were sold when an overallotment option was exercised.
In all, more than $30 million worth of stock was sold to the public, but the company received a little less than $10.5 million in net proceeds.
It turned out to be less an offering to raise money to fund growth than a way to get its two industrial owners some cash for their equity.
Cashing out wasn’t the thinking when ASV first went public. That 1994 offering was an old-fashioned Minnesota growth story, sold without much of a track record but a whole lot of promise.
ASV got its start as All Seasons Vehicles in the little town of Marcell, north of Grand Rapids in northeastern Minnesota. In a way, it was just another chapter of a fantastic entrepreneurial story, as its founders were veteran innovators in Minnesota’s snowmobile industry.
Co-founder Edgar Hetteen had been instrumental in creating both Polaris Industries and Arctic Cat. His co-founder, entrepreneur Gary Lemke, had operated a snowmobile dealership in the region during the snowmobile industry’s go-go years of the 1970s.
They knew how to build and sell small vehicles, and they saw an opportunity in versatile little trucks with far better traction than wheeled vehicles. Their big idea was to replace the wheels with rubber snowmobile tracks.
It was the second product line, though, that really took off, a tracked utility tractor that could be used in construction, landscaping and farming.
The advantage of these ASV machines wasn’t just better traction in sloppy conditions, it was that ASV’s loaders didn’t tear up the ground. They drove on top of the ground rather than through it, as a wheeled skid-steer loader did.
Funded by friends and neighbors at first, ASV by the time it went public was profitable with annual sales of about $4 million.
Today it wouldn’t even occur to anybody to take public a manufacturing company that small. But back then it looked like an opportunity to Summit Investment Corp. of Minneapolis, the kind of small brokerage firm that was once abundant here.
The offering for ASV raised close to $3.4 million in net proceeds.
Then the company amply rewarded its new investors’ faith. The company grew, in part by starting to supply its rubber track undercarriages to Caterpillar, which should have known all about how to make the best tracked equipment.
ASV went on to some big growth years, particularly as the broader economy perked up after the 2001 recession. Annual sales approached $250 million.
In 2006, though, a big projected jump in sales didn’t materialize, and its growth rate rounded to zero. That was the year, according to securities filings, that executives started talking with financial firms about maybe buying out the shareholders and going private, as being publicly held maybe no longer made sense.
There were other concerns, too. One story told was that everybody realized just how risky it was to be so small. At that time, it looked like more consolidation in the industry was coming. Its competition was already much bigger.
Executives starting talking to others in the industry about relationships that might strengthen the company’s market position, like maybe a distribution deal.
No one yet knew about the coming Great Recession.
Terex Corp. ended up offering the best deal, billed as a $488 million, all-cash purchase. ASV’s board agreed for reasons you would expect, including that cash at closing was a certainty and there was nothing certain about going it alone.
Terex owned ASV for years, but in late 2014 it sold 51 percent to Manitex International, an Illinois-based producer of cranes, boom trucks and other equipment. Manitex at that time was trying to grow. An industry slump soon had it reversing course. It started to sell assets to pay off debt.
The public offering of ASV only netted Manitex about $13 million, but the company’s announcement from last year made it clear that another goal was just to get ASV off its books.
Last week, ASV shares traded at about $6 each, down from the IPO price, but this company and its team have performed far better than the stock price might suggest.
When Terex cut it loose, ASV relaunched its brand with no dealers and has since had to rebuild a dealer network from scratch. Sales growth its first quarter approached 7 percent, with machine sales in North America growing much faster than that.
But as an industrial company with a $60 million market capitalization and a thinly traded stock, it’s not the kind of company that is going to find it easy to get the attention of analysts and institutional investors.
And of course, what was true in January 2008 is true now. ASV had just a 4 percent market share, according to its IPO filings last year, and matching big competitors’ distribution clout in a global business will forever be a challenge.
And, gosh, it sure costs a small company a lot to be publicly held.