How private equity grows companies, acting as lifeblood for the economy Featured

9:39pm EDT June 30, 2013
Jackie Hopkins, managing director, Sponsor Finance Group, FirstMerit Bank Jackie Hopkins, managing director, Sponsor Finance Group, FirstMerit Bank

Private equity firms use pools of capital that are raised from a variety of sources. This capital comes not only from wealthy individuals, but also from insurance companies (that pay retirement plans and annuities) and pension funds.

As a result, school teachers, police officers and others often have a portion of their retirement assets allocated to private equity, which bolsters the overall investment returns of the fiduciaries that run these funds. These higher returns are increasingly important in today’s low interest rate environment. Private equity firms use this capital to invest in all sorts of companies, creating jobs and economic growth along the way.

“Private equity firms are easily and inaccurately portrayed as corporate pirates,” says Jackie Hopkins, managing director, Sponsor Finance Group, at FirstMerit Bank.

“But these firms are willing to invest in businesses that need capital to grow as well as companies that might go bankrupt if not supported with new capital in exchange for ownership. In order to induce them to accept the risk of these investments, private equity firms need high returns. Sometimes the returns are very large. Sometimes the firms lose their investment. Either way, they provide critical capital that allows the economy to grow.”

Smart Business spoke with Hopkins, who lends to private equity firms, about how these serial entrepreneurs operate.

How does the private equity world work?

Private equity companies use pools of capital from investors, called limited partners. The general partner of the private equity firm is tasked with finding good investment opportunities to generate above average returns. The partner is usually paid operating expenses and a portion of the profits earned. In most cases, the general partner buys a controlling interest in a company with a leveraged buyout (LBO), and uses his or her expertise to improve revenue and profitability, such as helping a Midwest firm expand product sales internationally. After three to seven years, the company is typically resold.

What is a leveraged buyout?

In an LBO, an investor uses debt to finance a portion of the purchase price of a company. Depending on the underlying business risk of the transaction, the amount of debt can be very low or up to 65 percent of the purchase price. Using debt allows the investor to amplify his or her return. In addition, interest costs are deductible while equity capital is not, providing a built-in bias toward debt financing in the capital structure.

The debt to equity ratio changes depending on market conditions — today, the average equity investment for a middle market company is 40 to 45 percent in a LBO. For larger companies, it is usually less, because a bigger company can absorb more financial risk.

How is private equity financing different than traditional middle market bank loans?

Traditional middle market loans focus on the balance sheet —assets, inventory, receivables, equipment, real estate, etc. — so if the company  is unable to service its debt out of earnings, the collateral can be sold to repay the debt.

Private equity financing tends to be enterprise value loans, looking at the company’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). Financial institutions look at selling the entire company as an enterprise for a multiple of EBITDA. They consider how sustainable the EBITDA is to figure out how much debt the company can safely carry. So, if you think the average multiple of a middle market company is six times (that is, its total value is six times its most recent EBITDA), the bank might lend up to three times. The inherent risk is the possibility that EBITDA will decline or that the prospects for the company or the industry lead to a lower multiple. So to qualify for this type of enterprise loan, a company should have a sustainable level of EBITDA that is not too concentrated in terms of customers, products or suppliers, and is not prone to cyclical swings.

Jackie Hopkins is managing director of the Sponsor Finance Group at FirstMerit Bank. Reach her at (312) 429-3618 or jacqueline.hopkins@firstmerit.com.

Website: Get information about FirstMerit’s Sponsor Finance Group services.

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