By Dan Primack
January 23, 2012

How private equity can improve its public image

Private equity investors are not evil. Some individuals may be greedy jackasses, but most industries have their fair share of those.

What private equity investors are not, however, is savvy about how to present their industry to the public at-large. It’s like people went into the business because of the “private” qualifier, as if it’s a business of financially-literate shut-ins. Kind of amazing no one has called a firm “Six Cats Capital.”

But I want to help. Not only because a number of readers have told me they’re upset by the recent scrutiny, but because it could have real consequences down the road. Remember, there is no larger supporter of private equity than public pension funds, which means that private equity cannot allow itself to become the investment equivalent of chewing tobacco. If you want to hang on to that “private equity is private for a reason” mantra, that’s fine. But you know how that shut-in with six cats story usually ends, right?

So what follows is my 5-step prescription for private equity’s PR problem. And don’t worry: None of them involve a caravan from Park Avenue to South Beach, in vehicles outfitted with Newt Gingrich phone banks.

1. Carried interest concession: Look, you know what I think. And I know that you, as an industry, aren’t going to concede your loophole without a fight. So perhaps it’s time for compromise. Go for a hybrid. Argue that carried interest is neither capital gains nor ordinary income. You may still lose the fight legislatively, but it will at least demonstrate that you’re trying to be reasonable – something that might help if Congress begins looking at the tax-deductibility of corporate debt interest (the tax break that private equity truly cannot survive without).

2. Tell us what you’re doing: Private equity investments always are based on an underlying thesis about how the company can become more valuable. Many of the specifics may not survive past the initial board meeting, but the broader concepts should. So upon announcing a deal, publicly explain your game-plan in broad strokes. Don’t just say it’s an exciting market or product. What is it that you’re going to do differently from the last folks (who had the same market and product)? And then let people eventually judge if you were good, bad or lucky. Don’t demand respect for enacting positive operational change without explaining it. And if you’re going to do layoffs, be very clear as to why. No one likes getting dumped, but it’s worse if it comes without explanation.

3. Enlist your CEOs: One of the best PE speeches I ever saw was from David Brandon, CEO of Domino’s Pizza, at a Wharton PE Conference. He made a very compelling case for the value of PE ownership, but such appearances are few and far between. One reason VCs don’t suffer the same PR fate as PE pros is that VC portfolio CEOs regularly attest to the values their investors bring (such as Staples’ Tom Stemberg with Romney). But where are the PE-backed CEOs? Where are their Washington Post editorials? No one cares to hear a PE pro defends his peers, or have his lawyers or lobbyists do the same. Get the actual job creators out there.

4. Enlist your limited partners: Would public employees or certain churchgoers have a different opinion of private equity if they knew their financial/spiritual benefactors benefited from private equity investment? At least ask the largest LPs to allow identification upon new fund closings.

5. Not about jobs: A big complaint I’ve heard from PE investors – including from some at Bain Capital – is that Romney chose to emphasize job creation over managerial execution. Don’t make the same mistake (as Carlyle’s David Rubenstein just began to do). Creating jobs isn’t your job. There’s no shame in that. It’s not my job either.

So that’s it. Time to take your medicine. Consider it preventative…

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