Carlson Marketing Sold to Groupe Aeroplan for $175 Million

Canadian Loyalty Marketing Agency Seeking Larger U.S. Base, Access to 'Sticky' Client Roster

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CHICAGO ( -- Minneapolis marketing-services giant Carlson Marketing has been sold to Montreal-based Groupe Aeroplan, merging the two top global companies in the loyalty-marketing category.

Groupe Aeroplan paid $175.3 million for Carlson, which ranked as the No. 15 agency company in the world, with an estimated $367 million in revenue ($265 million inside the U.S.) in Ad Age's 2008 Agency Report.

Carlson Marketing, which grew out of the hospitality and restaurant behemoth Carlson Cos., has expanded beyond its hospitality roots in recent years as companies have become more interested in running loyalty programs in pursuit of one-to-one consumer marketing. It has worked with the likes of Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Sun Microsystems, Amtrak and AT&T in addition to 12 airlines (including Northwest Delta) and 52 financial institutions (including American Express).

Carlson Marketing's growth has been fueled, in part, by astounding success in client retention: Its top 10 clients have been with the agency for an average of 14.7 years. Carlson executives candidly attribute part of that "stickiness" to the complexity of untangling its clients from the various database systems the company offers.

But now it seems to be returning to its data roots. Carlson Cos. CEO Hubert Joly said the divestiture would allow the company to invest more resources in its travel, restaurant and hotel businesses. Carlson, one of the largest private firms in the U.S., owns the Radisson and Regent hotel chains, owns and operates more than 1,000 restaurants under the TGIFriday's and Pick Up Stix brands and owns most of the Carlson Wagonlit Travel business-travel management group. Physically, Carlson Marketing is already somewhat separate from the other units, as it is located in a hangar-like space more than a mile removed from the company's sprawling campus and towers on a former horse farm on the outskirts of Minneapolis.

U.S. footprint
Groupe Aeroplan runs major loyalty programs in Canada, the U.K. and the Middle East, but it wanted a larger footprint in the U.S. Its executives said acquiring a company of Carlson Marketing's scale, with its entrenched client relationships, was a far more efficient way to achieve that than trying to build a new unit here.

"This acquisition is a logical extension for our company as we diversify our business model to include a broader range of services within the loyalty management space in the U.S. and internationally," Rupert Duchesne, president-CEO of Groupe Aeroplan, said in a statement. "Acquiring a proven leader in the loyalty-marketing space is the most cost effective and timeliest route to broadening our loyalty-services offering. Carlson Marketing is widely recognized for their innovative thinking when it comes to understanding consumer behavior, rewards and data analytics, areas that are pivotal to driving future growth in the global loyalty arena."

According to the announcement, Groupe Aeroplan intends to keep Carlson's senior management, led by CEO Jeff Balagna, in place and allow the company to continue operating independently. Carlson Marketing is expected to contribute roughly $560 million in marketing fees to Aeroplan in 2010, with EBITDA margins of 6% to 8%.

"We look forward to joining forces with Groupe Aeroplan and significantly strengthening the scope of our loyalty marketing, program management, and engagement and event offering for customers, employees and distribution channels," stated Mr. Balagna. "Together we become the world's leading loyalty management provider, able to offer a vastly-expanded network of loyalty marketing capabilities."

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