ATS signals intentions for solar group… finally

After speculating for the past eight months that ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. was a prime candidate for spinning off its solar group in some form, the company finally announced today that it has hired BMO Nesbitt Burns as a strategic advisor to “assist in assessing and pursuing financing opportunities and strategic alternatives” for its growing solar group, which includes Photowatt and Spheral Solar.

“In addition to considering other alternatives, this will include an assessment of the merits of a possible public offering of securities of our Solar Group,” said ATS president and CEO Ron Jutras in a statement. “We’re continuing to execute a deliberate, focused approach to enable us to fund and rapidly grow our Solar business for the benefit of ATS shareholders.”

Earlier calculations by MacMurray Whale, energy analyst at Sprott Securities, has pegged the value of ATS’s solar group at about $1 billion, based on SunPower’s IPO.

The company also announced the hiring of James Kopperson as the first chief financial officer of ATS’ solar group, another indication that the business is being groomed for a spinoff. Kopperson rounds out an executive team being led by CEO Syl Ghirardi.

For a while there I thought ATS had developed cold feet, but I suppose it now doesn’t want to miss the boat after seeing impressive IPOs from the likes of SunPower and Suntech Power, not to mention rising VC investments in solar and huge demand for solar products, all driven by the high cost of fossil fuels and supportive government policies around the world. If the bottom does fall out of this market — as some silly souls are suggesting — then I guess ATS doesn’t want to miss the opportunity of raising money and increasing shareholder value when it had the chance.

One analyst told me that the hiring of a strategic advisor is a clear sign that ATS is now comfortable enough with the status of its solar business, including the readiness of its new Spheral Solar facility and products, to take the operation public or look at selling part of it to a strategic investor. “It’s a great piece of news,” he said.

So far, the company has been operating somewhat secretly. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get any sense of where Spheral Solar is at, what’s being produced, and who the heck plans to buy its flexible solar products. I wrote a feature on the company more than a year ago and since then there have been no updates. All my questions to the company have gone unanswered and interview requests have been denied. Very bizarre. Now that the company will be engaging in a sell job, it will be refreshing to finally get some access.

Stay tuned… more updates are definitely to come.

(Update: Investors appear quite happy that ATS is taking the plunge with a spinoff. Shares are up 10 per cent today and many analysts have new “buy” ratings on the stock.)