Josh Harmsen – How private equity can support growth, not just provide liquidity

Josh Harmsen

Josh Harmsen, principal, Solis Capital Partners

I was recently having lunch with a private company CEO and the topic of private equity came up. When asked if he had ever considered seeking a private equity partner to fund and support his planned growth initiatives, his answer was expectedly, “No, we don’t want to sell the business yet. We want to focus on growing the business.”

While I can certainly appreciate his perspective, that opinion is consistent among many business owners and leaders. Namely, that private equity is primarily a liquidity mechanism, not a preferred tool to fund and support company growth. Moreover, many business leaders often see their growth plans as incompatible with private equity, which they associate with high leverage and limited financial flexibility.

This perspective of incompatibility was also on display during the recent presidential election. Private equity firms were broadly characterized as opportunistic value extractors, rather than enablers of company growth and job creation.

While the purpose of this article isn’t to defend private equity (there certainly are some firms worthy of this negative characterization), significant evidence exists to suggest that, in general, private-equity-backed companies experience proportionally greater growth. This is particularly true for small-to-medium-sized businesses.

Private capital a key to growth

According to studies performed by GrowthEconomy.org between 1995 and 2009, U.S. private-capital-backed business grew jobs by 81.5 percent and revenue by 132.8 percent, compared to 11.7 percent and 28.0 percent, respectively, for all other companies.

In California, over the same period, the story was even more favorable to private equity.  Private-capital-backed businesses grew jobs and revenues by 123.1 percent and 155.2 percent respectively, compared to 11.3 percent and 26.4 percent for all other California businesses.

While each situation is unique, there are many reasons why private-equity-backed companies experience greater growth.

Access to capital

With the continued tightness in the credit market for small-to-medium-sized businesses, private equity can be a source of capital to support growth initiatives.

Additionally, private equity firms often have preferred relationships with lenders, giving businesses more access to attractive and flexible debt financing where appropriate. With greater access to capital, companies can more quickly, nimbly and opportunistically implement growth initiatives.

Strategic guidance and ongoing operational support

A private equity partner can provide much-needed strategic and operational resources to support the company’s growth initiatives and ongoing operations. This often leads to more thorough and refined growth strategies, as well as more effective plan execution and implementation.

Private equity firms often have large networks of industry experts and experienced operators that they can bring to bear to support company growth and operations.

Increased capacity for acquisitions

Private-equity-backed companies are significantly more acquisitive than other private businesses. Acquisitions can be an attractive source of growth, allowing companies to increase their customer footprint, expand geographically, create greater scale and enhance capabilities in a relatively short time frame.

However, successfully identifying, executing and integrating acquisitions can be very difficult. Many business leaders don’t have the time or experience to effectively pursue acquisitions. Private equity firms generally have expertise executing acquisition strategies and can be valuable partners in supporting companies as they identify, negotiate, execute and integrate acquisitions.

Private equity can be a compatible and effective tool to support and achieve company growth — not simply a mechanism to achieve liquidity. While private equity is not appropriate in every situation, and not all private equity firms are growth-oriented, business owners and leaders should carefully consider a private equity partnership when evaluating their ongoing growth initiatives and funding options.

Josh Harmsen is a principal at Solis Capital Partners (www.soliscapital.com) a private equity firm in Newport Beach, Calif. Solis focuses on disciplined investment in lower middle-market companies. Harmsen was previously with Morgan Stanley & Co. and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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