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How PE firm Blackstone used an unorthodox pitch to land the $1.2 billion Spanx deal—and keeps turning female founders into billionaires

December 16, 2021, 6:50 PM UTC

Ann Chung believed in Spanx. And why not? The shapewear business had loyal, repeat customers; high brand awareness; and untapped potential to expand into new corners of the apparel market. But some of her bosses at Blackstone, where she works as global head of consumer for the growth division, were less certain.

She understood the root of their hesitation. “Apparel is a difficult category,” Chung admits. So as she and her four-woman team readied to pitch the firm’s investment committee on doing a deal with Spanx, she asked herself how they could sell their colleagues on the brand’s true potential.

“What are we talking about? What was the technology, the fabrication that made something that spoke to women?” says Chung. “How could we make sure those in the room who were not target customers understood why there was so much passion and excitement around the product?” The answer: The whole team would pitch in Spanx’s signature pants.

Blackstone team that closed the Spanx deal
The Blackstone team that closed the Spanx deal—all wearing the brand’s pants (from left): Jessica Parry, Rosa Morona, Kelley Morrell, Ann Chung, and Katie Storer.
Courtesy of Blackstone

Their unorthodox pitch process paid off. In November, the firm closed a deal taking an undisclosed-size majority stake in Spanx, valuing the business founded by Sara Blakely 21 years ago at $1.2 billion.

It was the latest high-profile deal Blackstone made with a female founder—a constituency that the firm, an industry giant with $731 billion in assets under management, has become highly interested in pursuing. Its efforts appear to be paying off, as Blackstone has become, according to executive Kelley Morrell, the “institutional capital partner of choice” for female founders.

A network effect

If the marriage of Spanx and Blackstone feels like an odd match (Blakely herself jokes about how wildly Spanx’s HQ, festooned with art featuring bras and butts, differs from the private equity firm’s stuffy Midtown Manhattan offices), Blackstone is hoping it won’t seem that way for long.

The firm’s dealmaking with a certain type of female founder—high-profile, with a strong consumer brand often closely tied to her own leadership of the company—goes back to 2019, when Blackstone took an 80% stake in Bumble, the dating app business led by Whitney Wolfe Herd. At the time, the app was part of parent company MagicLab; MagicLab’s founder, Andrey Andreev, had been the subject of reporting about a toxic work environment, and Wolfe Herd was looking for a new backer.

“So many people were like, ‘Oh, don’t go with a private equity firm,’” Wolfe Herd recalls. As the first of this new breed of founders to make a deal with Blackstone, Wolfe Herd had to trust her gut. She connected with Morrell, a former Obama administration official who led work on auto bailouts and is now Blackstone’s global head of asset management for tactical opportunities. Under Morrell’s guidance (she served as Bumble’s president while Wolfe Herd was on maternity leave), Bumble built a new board of directors (featuring Blackstone execs Christine Anderson, Jon Korngold, and Jen Morgan, the former co-CEO of SAP); rebranded its parent company as Bumble Inc.; and elevated Wolfe Herd to CEO of the entire operation. Then, in February, the firm exited via an IPO that valued the business at $13 billion, $10 billion more than when Blackstone invested. “They have been this remarkable engine behind us with resources, with expertise, with leaders with passion,” Wolfe Herd says.

Founders considering a deal with Blackstone aren’t going in blind anymore. Several of them have reached out to Wolfe Herd, who has served as a reference check on the firm. In August, actor Reese Witherspoon inked a deal with Blackstone that valued her media business, Hello Sunshine, at $900 million. By the time Blakely was considering selling Spanx—a major decision after two decades rejecting investor backing—she had a veritable network of Blackstone-backed founders to reach out to.

“They both had really similar things to say about the people there,” Blakely says of her conversations with Wolfe Herd and Witherspoon. “They really want to let you do what you’re best at and be there for additional support.” It didn’t hurt that Blakely has a long-standing relationship with Oprah Winfrey, who coinvested with Blackstone in the oat milk brand Oatly (and, more recently, in Spanx)—or that Blakely was impressed by the all-female team working on her deal.

BIL.0122.Blackstone Team Deal
Spanx CEO Sara Blakely and Blackstone managing director Ann Chung at Nasdaq.
Courtesy of Blackstone

Those reference checks have been critical, but Blackstone’s work building a reputation as a good partner for women-led businesses is ongoing. Shortly after the firm announced the Spanx deal, Blackstone cofounder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman said at a conference that the firm had had trouble recruiting and retaining women in the past because “they were scared of us.” For founder-led businesses like Bumble, Hello Sunshine, and Spanx, with gender equity at the core of their brands, a partnership with a private equity firm can be a tricky thing to communicate to customers and fans. (Indeed, Oatly faced a boycott by climate and political activists after receiving its Blackstone investment, in part because of Schwarzman’s donations to Donald Trump.)

“Once a few of these entrepreneurs have joined the system, it makes the other partnerships a much more natural extension,” says Korngold, who leads Blackstone’s growth division. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Competitive advantage

So what’s in it for Blackstone? “Strong female founders with a point of view,” are an asset, Morrell says—as evidenced by the firm’s return on its Bumble investment. Korngold joined Blackstone to build Blackstone Growth from scratch in early 2019, and he credits the opportunity to build something new, rather than try to overhaul a long-standing growth equity structure, with allowing him to hire a diverse team. (The “majority” of staff within Blackstone Growth are women and people of color, he says.) Korngold, Morrell, and Chung say that having a diverse team has enabled them to spot opportunities some of their private equity competitors might have missed.

In addition to being led by women, the businesses Blackstone has pursued also have other characteristics in common. “Ironically, none of them need your capital,” Korngold says. “They’re fast-growing, proven businesses—you’re not taking venture risk. These are regional champions that are aspiring to be big, global leaders. If we can bring our resources and serve as an extension of the management team’s bandwidth, we can help them pursue transformational growth opportunities without the execution risk sometimes associated with hyper-growth environments.”

Blackstone will likely follow a similar playbook with Spanx as it did with Bumble—build a board of directors and management team, capitalize on growth opportunities (for Spanx, that’s apparel, digital, and international), and ready for an exit. And there’s interest at Blackstone in growing this strategy—which is part of the firm’s overall focus on “thesis-led investing”—working with more founder-led businesses and diversifying from the typical public-to-private transactions that dominate the world of PE.

Blackstone’s work with women-led businesses goes beyond Spanx, Bumble, and Hello Sunshine. The firm also backed geolocation compliance technology startup GeoComply, cofounded by Anna Sainsbury; fiber-based telecommunication services business Hotwire Communications, led by CEO Kristin Johnson; and clinical research cloud platform Medable, led by CEO Michelle Longmire.

“It’s about having women on our team with the lens to be able to see these opportunities,” says Chung, “and then investing in these businesses because of the pure merit of the business.”

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