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Saturday, Jun 3, 2023

The Public, Private Divide

There is an interesting dynamic at work involving local public companies. Kind of a fundamental one. The really big keep getting bigger … and, well, the smaller seem to keep dropping off our Valley 50 list. The latest evidence: Amgen Inc., the Thousand Oaks biopharmaceutical behemoth, made yet another big acquisition last week, while Walt Disney Co. – which seems to have its tentacles in every corner of the entertainment industry – got approval to build a half-million square-foot studio at its Golden Oak Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley. Amgen scooped up a San Francisco area cancer drug maker called Onyx Pharmaceutical for $10.4 billion after a summer-long courtship, while Disney’s facility will allow the Burbank media giant to film movies and dramas for its ABC television arm. Then there’s National Technical Systems Inc., a Calabasas company that does all sorts of sophisticated testing and engineering work for the aerospace, defense and transportation industries. It was bought for $267 million by L.A. private equity firm Aurora Capital Group. In itself that’s certainly not a bad thing. Aurora is local itself and has plans to grow NTS, which apparently is a leader in the growing field of electromagnetic compatibility testing. We’re told that involves making sure devices that send out electromagnetic pulses do not interfere with each other. NTS investors got a great deal. Even before the buyout, its stock was on a roll. Then, Aurora offered $23 a share, a nearly 40 percent premium. If only I could be so lucky. Here’s the lament. Wouldn’t it be nice for the Valley if more growing companies would stay public? As much as private companies are fundamental to economic growth, they lack the stature and recognition that public companies bring to a local economy. • • • In this issue, we feature an op-ed by Agi Kessler, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley. In it, she argues for support of SB 4, a bill introduced by Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills. The bill would regulate hydraulic “fracking,” a method of oil extraction that has revolutionized the energy industry by releasing previously unreachable deposits of oil and gas. The problem has been that the process requires injecting vast amounts of water laced with toxic chemicals to create underground fissures. This has led to groundwater pollution at some sites. Oil and gas drillers have resisted fracking regulations, especially the public disclosure of the chemicals used to create the fissures. They consider it proprietary. Pavley’s bill would seem to do the sensible: require companies to get a fracking permit, notify local residents, test groundwater and publish the names of its chemicals on a public website. The idea is to create transparency and promote scientific research into a process that has made natural gas cheap and hastened our economic recovery. Not surprisingly, the industry doesn’t like the bill, but here’s the more ironic part: neither do elements of the environmental movement, who staged protests outside Pavley’s Agoura Hills office. Why? Well, her original bill called for moratorium on fracking while science and regulators caught up with industry practices. Pavley took that out of her bill, lest it die like other bills that had been introduced which also called for bans or moratoriums. So I ask: Is this not an obvious case where a half a loaf is probably the best outcome? • • • Finally, I find that I can’t help but admire Robert Maguire, the irascible real estate developer who shaped downtown by building the U.S. Bank Tower and other steel behemoths. Like many in his industry, he overextended himself badly during last decade’s real estate boom, buying an Orange County-based real estate portfolio for $2.9 billion at the height of the market. It proved to be his undoing. Loaded with debt and facing declining rental incomes, he ultimately lost control of Maguire Properties, the public company he built. He didn’t do much better when he decided to get into the aviation business in 2006, buying up leaseholds for fixed-based operators at Van Nuys Airport. He invested more than $100 million into the business but the tanking economy again left him unable to service his debt and he faced several lawsuits from creditors. Last week, word broke that Maguire Aviation, the largest tenant at Van Nuys Airport, was sold to national aviation operator Signature Flight Support for $69 million. It seems certain Maguire’s foray into aviation was not a money maker, but here’s the kicker: In the same way that Maguire is still trying to build more offices downtown, the Signature deal apparently includes a provision to do joint developments on the airport property. Maguire may have made some huge mistakes in his business career, but approaching 80, he is still showing the same tenacity and restlessness that was a key part of his original success. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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