Air Liquide Considers Sale of Michael Phelps Partner Aqua Lung

  • French firm may sell dive-equipment owner of Aqua Sphere suits
  • Aqua Lung was created after WWII with marine explorer Cousteau

Partner to record gold-medal winning Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and brainchild of a 1940s collaboration with oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, French industrial-gas giant Air Liquide SA is considering the sale of its diving-equipment business, Aqua Lung.

Air Liquide is “evaluating the opportunity to potentially divest” Aqua Lung, the Paris-based gas supplier said in a statement on Wednesday. The sale would be aimed at supporting the company’s “next phase of growth.”

Aqua Lung diving equipment.

Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Aqua Lung, the seven-decade-old specialist in professional and recreational diving apparatus, makes masks, regulators, wetsuits and watches. It owns Aqua Sphere, a triathlete gear-maker that gained recognition in 2014 when it partnered with Phelps, who had ended his relationship with Speedo. The two work together on Phelps’ own MP brand of swimwear.

The consumer-orientated businesses of Aqua Lung, which generated about 200 million euros ($226 million) in revenue last year and also has a range of t-shirts, hoodies and caps, is an outlier within Air Liquide’s operations. The French company is one of the largest global suppliers of gases to big industrial installations like refineries as well as to hospitals and patients.

‘Not Core’

“Air Liquide has a strong historical attachment to the business, but it’s not core,” Liberum analyst Adam Collins said by phone about Aqua Lung. “There is no strategic rationale in being part of the business”

Aqua Lung’s roots date back to the 1940s when naval commander Cousteau was looking to improve equipment needed for underwater breathing. Working with an Air Liquide engineer called Emile Gagnan, they invented a pressure regulator that allowed compressed oxygen in tanks to be automatically and safely released into divers’ mouths for breathing, according to Air Liquide documents.

The duo started a company in 1946 called La Spirotechnique that held the patent for the invention based on wartime technology that allowed for the use of gas for lights and vehicles amid oil shortages. Cousteau and Gagnan called their product Aqua Lung to ease sales in English-speaking countries, although the name of the company wasn’t officially changed until the turn of the century.

Based in Carros, southern France, Aqua Lung now has manufacturing sites in six countries including Mexico and the U.S., with a fifth of its diving business related to the military, according to Air Liquide. It has contracts with 55 armies and navies around the world.

The sale of Aqua Lung comes as Air Liquide, Linde AG of Germany and competitors are facing depressed demand to develop new gas installations at sites like factories and refineries. Air Liquide is also seeking growth from Airgas, the leader of U.S. packaged gas it acquired in May.

Air Liquide “is focused on its gas and services activities” following the acquisition of Airgas, the company said in Wednesday’s statement.

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