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Corporate & Private Equity

Why private equity should not be feared

Ragavan Arunachalam argues that private equity investment should be an appealing option for businesses, rather than something to fear, and describes how retail banks and private equity can work in partnership to help companies through difficult times.

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Watching the actor playing Stewy in HBO’s hit Succession do his vaudeville villain act, I was moved to remark to my partner that not all who work in private equity are like that.

While it is true that there are instances which might justify the rapacious reputation of private equity, I imagine there are many more instances where businesses have successfully partnered with private equity investors to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.

When deciding how best to fund the growth of your business it is safe to say that getting private equity onboard is not always viewed as the optimal course. The perception is that private equity is money which comes with some pretty onerous obligations attached. In particular, businesses understandably worry that their long-term goals might be put in jeopardy by the shift in focus to achieving a successful exit.

However, the reality is that not all private equity is the same, and the idea that if you let private equity in, they will steal your crown jewels, is somewhat misguided. The trick is to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned from the outset. Do that, through asking the right questions and documenting the correct responses, and you will avoid difficult conversations.

The key, as in many cases, is understanding from the outset where you want to end up. If you sleepwalk into a partnership with private equity I have no doubt you will end up in trouble. However, if you have a clear idea of what the private equity money is going to help you achieve, and the upside for all parties, then the journey will be much smoother.

It is critical that you do understand that an alignment of interests is at the heart of all successful private equity investments – namely, the money provided enables the business to grow and therefore whilst your individual share of the pie may reduce, the pie itself is much, much bigger.

Part of the alignment stems from having realistic expectations on both sides. This includes the business taking the private equity money appreciating that a good exit must be part of the plan.

This focus on having an exit is not necessarily a bad thing, as invariably the greater professionalism and scrutiny that having a sophisticated private equity investor on board brings can be harnessed to drive the growth of your business. With the injection of capital and focus that the correct Private Equity investor can bring to the table, the financial trajectory of a business can be supercharged.

The trick is to find the correct private equity investor. An investor who knows when to leave well alone and when a steadying hand on the tiller is needed. The most successful partnerships between Private Equity and business tend to be those where each side sticks to what they know best. The private equity investor does not interfere in the minutiae of the business, and the business appreciates when it needs to leverage the business acumen and resources of its financial backer.

The good thing about Private Equity investors is that they are good at taking risks. Their need for super-sized returns is built upon the fact that they know some of their investments will not quite make it. In these uncertain times, businesses would do well to ally themselves with investors who do not have the same aversion to risk that a bank might have.

The correct private equity investors will enable a business to continue to grow in circumstances where ordinarily it would struggle to obtain debt funding. Indeed, often a bank will be more inclined to extend credit (or more credit) to a business which has a sensible Private Equity investor in its corner.

The current economic climate is less than benign for most businesses. However, it is still true to say that there is a lot of private equity money out there chasing too few genuinely good businesses. If you happen to run a business which has a clearly defined pathway to growth, yet needs money to achieve that growth, then seeking private equity investment might be a sensible option, particularly if your business is struggling to raise money from traditional debt providers.

The key issue for the business will be understanding that private equity backing comes at a price. The original owner, or owners, of the business will need to be realistic about how much control they will continue to exert over the destiny of the business.

However, if both sides go into the investment process with open eyes, and alignment on the business plan, including exit, then the likelihood of the relationship working will improve dramatically. Both sides need to trust that the other will make good on the promises made when they first met. One way to ensure this is by spending a bit of time on the detail of the legal documents, as these will set the narrative of future negotiations. However, most importantly, will be picking the right Private Equity investor – not all are as sinister as Stewy.

This article was originally published by International Investment on 4 January 2021: https://www.internationalinvestment.net/opinion/4025300/comment-private-equity-feared

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Ragavan Arunachalam

Senior Associate

ragavan.arunachalam@collyerbristow.com