5 questions every private equity investor needs to ask

Jul 09, 2012

By Tyler Newton, contributor        

Many institutional investors are convinced that the days of easy money are over in private equity. Managers need to distinguish themselves through their ability to add actual operating value to the underlying portfolio companies.

Private equity firms are generally active board members of their portfolio companies. Nearly every investment firm spends a great deal of time monitoring the tactical performance of their portfolio companies: Performance vs. budget, sales pipeline analysis, cash flow monitoring, margin assessment, capital structure optimization, valuation, etc. The tactical performance of a company is important, of course. Ultimately, however, as an investor and board member, a private equity investor's role should be more strategic than tactical. It is easy for investors to get lost in the tactical minutia and forget to ask themselves the big strategic questions.

The following are five key strategic questions private equity investors should ask themselves about each of their portfolio companies -- or prospective portfolio companies -- at least every 3 to 6 months.

1. What is the company’s core strategic plan? Investors need to evaluate tactical performance within the context of strategic goals. The lifecycle of a company or operating division is basically a series of 3- to 5-year strategic plans. The plan may be to develop a prototype product and win some key first customers. It could be to expand internationally, scale revenues and cash flow or expand the product set into adjacent markets. It could be to manage the transition from a growth to a value orientation by rationalizing the cost structure, or to successfully transition a company from a corporate spinoff to a standalone entity. It could be to narrow the company’s focus to a core set of products in a declining market. There are numerous core strategies that are potentially appropriate 3- to 5-year plans for a private equity or venture-backed company. Investors must also consistently evaluate whether the strategic plan remains appropriate if there have been changes in the portfolio company’s operating and competitive environment. Companies that clearly identify their core strategic plan almost always execute better than those that do not.

2. Are we the right owners to execute on the strategic plan? This is perhaps the hardest question for investors to ask themselves, but it is fundamental. Private equity firms are generally pretty good at screening deals that don’t fit their strategies at the time of acquisition but they don’t always recognize when the strategic environment has shifted post-investment. A growth equity firm with a company that has shifted into slow-growth maturity; a company in a consolidating industry that would better off as a product or division of a larger company; a company embarking on a new 5-year product strategy with an investor near the end of their fund life…

These are all situations in which the right decision may be to seek a new owner. Sometimes answering this question requires admitting relative defeat on a certain investment but that is preferable to spending years working on a portfolio company that is outside a firm’s investment strategy.

3. Does the company have the right CEO to execute on the strategic plan? Most private equity investors are good at figuring out when a CEO is underperforming. It’s more difficult to determine whether a good CEO is in the wrong role, particularly if the core strategy has changed. Sometimes a company needs an entrepreneurial visionary, other times it might need an operational “Mr. Fix-It.” Sometimes a company may need a turnaround specialist, other times it may need a sales and marketing expert. A visionary’s talents are not appropriate for a turnaround strategy, nor should a sales and marketing guy be focused primarily on operational efficiencies.

4. Is the company earning an appropriate return on invested capital? The key unit economics of the company’s products must be earning more than a sufficient return on invested capital. The ROIC methodology varies by industry (a mature product manufacturer needs to monitor different metrics than a growth-stage online software company, for example), as does the cost of capital. No matter what the stage of business, however, at some point the core business must be able to profitably generate revenue. There is no point investing in revenue growth if the unit economics won’t work.

5. Is the company gaining market share? If the unit economics are working, a company must assess its total addressable market and its share within that market. If the competition is growing more quickly (while also earning sufficient returns on invested capital), then the investor must figure out why and help look for solutions. It could be a sales and marketing execution problem, or a product problem. It may be a market power problem that can only be fixed by pivoting to a different or more specialized niche. If a company is having difficulty  gaining market share in a certain market, then it has to question how long it should remain in that market.

Investors with the discipline to consistently ask these five strategic questions will have a framework to evaluate a company’s tactical performance, which in turn will enable the investors to create more portfolio company value. After all, creating portfolio company value is what private equity investors are paid to do.

Tyler Newton is a partner and research director at Catalyst Investors, a growth private equity firm focused on tech-enabled services. He is based in New York City and blogs at www.tylernewton.com

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