Posts Tagged ‘Private equity’

The public markets’ competitor

May 11, 2012

Q: Do you ever wish you were publicly traded?

A: Oh God, no. I have the greatest job in the world, because I work for a guy who runs the company for the next 20 years, not the next 90 days. It’s tough being a public company, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

 –  Steve Feilmeier, executive VP & CFO
Koch Industries, Inc.

As investor relations people, we rub elbows mostly with publicly traded companies. We think about how to get our message out to the capital markets in competition with other public companies, especially our peers within narrow industry sectors.

But a whole other class of competitors exists in a parallel universe – competitors for capital and, in our businesses, for customers. Maybe we ought to pay attention.

What started me thinking was Steve Feilmeier, CFO of Koch Industries, who spoke this morning to the Kansas City chapter of Association for Corporate Growth. Known to outsiders mostly for media attention in political controversies, on the business side Koch is a $125 billion company with 67,000 employees – the No. 2 privately held business in America. No. 1 in profitability, Feilmeier hastens to add.

Right at the start, Feilmeier says being privately held is a competitive advantage:

We benefit from not having to report earnings every 90 days. All of our decisions are based on, How is this going to work out in the next 10 years?

And it’s working out just fine for Koch (sounds like “coke”). The firm is doubling revenue every five or six years with a dozen operating companies in agriculture, energy and manufacturing. Although Koch doesn’t report publicly, Feilmeier makes it clear those businesses are delivering even better growth in EBITDA (slides here).

An example of Koch’s presence: AngelSoft, its toilet tissue brand, is the No. 1 SKU in Walmart stores. No. 1. Feilmeier says 60 truckloads a day leave Koch’s Georgia-Pacific subsidiary loaded just with AngelSoft four-packs bound for Walmarts.

The ongoing shift in institutional investor preferences among asset classes is the other thing that got me thinking. I keep hearing about pension funds, endowments and real people putting more money into alternative investments – capital that isn’t flowing to publicly held companies represented by IR pros.

Consider these stats: In 2001 U.S. pension funds held 65% of assets in equities, but that dropped to 44% by 2011, according to the Towers Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2012. in those 10 years, the “Other” category in asset allocation – real estate, private equity and hedge funds – quintupled from 5% to 25%. Apply those changes to $16 trillion in U.S. pension assets and you’re talking real money.

Without getting in over my head further on macro views of the capital markets, my point is that public companies ought to think strategically about their investors. Institutions and individuals don’t have to invest in any particular public company. They might even flee the stock market, with some of their funds, for “alternatives.”

And this brings me back to Koch. Feilmeier’s description of why Koch keeps growing at the top line – and especially the bottom line – holds lessons that public companies and IR people might take to heart. A few interesting ideas:

  • Do investors see management-by-quarterly-numbers, or something like Koch’s “patient & disciplined” creation of wealth? How do we discuss performance?
  • Can we demonstrate how our incentive pay turns managers into entrepreneurs, who get paid when they deliver (and not when they don’t)?
  • Do we have real accountability? Koch doesn’t believe in subsidizing any of its businesses, so operating execs are responsible for balance sheets and P&Ls.
  • How do we make decisions? Koch demands rigorous comparison of every capital project with alternatives – will this investment deliver the best return?

Koch, of course, is a giant company. There are well-managed and poorly managed firms of every size in both the public and private arenas. But the principles Feilmeier discussed are common private-equity approaches to driving performance.

Private vs. public is a common debate among CEOs and finance folks. Some private companies long for public status – and a fortunate few make it through the IPO process to get listed. On the other hand some micro-cap and even mid-cap public companies wish they were private, to escape the hassles of quarterly reporting.

Whether public or private, maybe we need to get back to basics of running companies by rigorous disciplines of wealth creation. And public companies need to communicate how those disciplines create real shareholder value.

What do you think?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.


The American way

July 2, 2010

Going into Fourth of July weekend, a friend who has helped raise capital for privately owned businesses – and a couple of public companies – offered his theory about why capital isn’t flowing into enterprises that could reignite our economy.

There’s “plenty of money” sitting in private equity funds and other investors’ stashes, this serial CXO and strategic thinker suggests. But people with the wherewithal to fund growth companies, mostly, aren’t taking the plunge right now.

The reason is the way investors feel about Washington, he opines. Not the place, but the US government’s massive extension of its legislative and regulatory reach. Government is seeking to govern so much more: new rules to prevent the next bubble or flash crash or oil spill, new agencies, health care mandates, too-big-to-fail bailouts, tougher penalties, stronger stimulus … public-sector stimulus.

And higher taxes to pay for it all. Bush-era tax rates will yield to higher rates. Revenue enhancement is in vogue. We’re even looking at the value-added tax.

But the worst part? “It’s the uncertainty” – not knowing what the rules of the game will be in one, two or three years. Washington is pressing its ongoing expansion of control in all areas of business – at a time when the economy is fragile.

So investing in a long-term way today means taking on risks of yet-unwritten mandates and so-far-incalculable costs from tomorrow’s “hope and change.”

Before long, this discussion begins to sound uniquely American: complaints from independent-minded business people against an overly ambitious government.

Which brings me around to one of my annual rituals: re-reading the Declaration of Independence around the Fourth of July. The words soar to rhetorical heights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It’s a reminder of why we’re here – in America. And, apropos of my lunchtime conversation about the uncertainties of government on steroids, this time my eye catches on another line, one of the founders’ grievances against King George III:

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

No doubt some CEOs, CFOs and even investors feel a bit like that. We’re wondering how much this reform or that Act will eat out “our substance,” how ramped-up regulation will hinder access to credit and raise costs of capital, or what new taxes will come unbidden out of the Beltway.

Not suggesting a revolution – only that we need to give thought to capital formation, to investing and a climate that enhances confidence in the American system. We need investors to resume funding the small and mid-sized firms that, after all, must hire those unemployed workers and create real, sustainable growth.

The American way isn’t negotiated by politicians or codified in 2,000-page bills. It’s not put out for public comment in the Federal Register. Instead, it is thrashed out in the competitive, pressurized, sometimes Wild West openness of the market. The market-driven approach is what, once, put US business on top of the world.

Let’s keep in mind that the American way – still – is about freedom.

Have a great Fourth of July!

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Before doing that IPO …

June 30, 2010

Think twice – maybe you should even take a third, fourth or fifth look – before going public, Erik Birkerts advises private-company owners in a piece called “Hey, Where’s My Gulfstream?!” in the July 2010 issue of Mergers & Acquisitions.

Birkerts, a veteran of venture-backed companies that did IPOs in 1999 and 2007, now is a partner in Evergreen Growth Advisors, which consults on growth strategies. His reflections on the process offer some useful insights for investor relations professionals and senior management – before or after an IPO.

“The initial public offering of stock – the IPO – holds a mythical place in American business,” Birkert observes. “Employees consider the IPO to be synonymous with windfall riches. Company founders envision the IPO as the ultimate validation of their genius after years toiling on their ideas. Venture capitalists finally look forward to full nights of sleep with the anticipated returns from the IPO ‘exit’ juicing their portfolio. The siren call of the IPO for company lawyers, bankers and accountants is so loud and obvious that no further comment is needed.”

With the IPO market showing some signs of reviving in the first half of 2010, it may be prudent for management teams to – well, look twice before leaping. The M&A journal (which may have a bias as implied in the publication’s name) is available only to members of the Association for Corporate Growth, a private equity and deal-oriented group, so I’ll summarize the steps Birkert advises:

  • Carefully dissect arguments for why the company should go public
  • Have a specific plan for using the capital & communicate it early and often!
  • Challenge your thinking with independent, objective outside advisers
  • Operate from your worst-case financial scenario
  • Select your investment bankers wisely

Birkert notes that management may think of “many terrific reasons to go public,” but “there are as many or more reasons why going public should be feared.” IROs and IR counselors already know these reasons – distractions for management, Sarbanes Oxley burdens, expenses of legal, auditing, IR and other costs, etc., etc.

I particularly appreciate two pieces of Birkert’s advice aimed at not disappointing investors who buy in the initial offering:

  • Communicating your plans for use of the capital. “Although public filings may have generic language, it is best to be explicit during the road show so that the Street accounts for this spending [of the money raised].” If capital goes toward expenses, the early earnings as a public company may disappoint, he says. Worse yet, if management doesn’t have a clear plan, there will be pressure to do something, which sometimes leads to an ill-considered acquisition as a strategic but risky deployment of that capital.
  • Using a worst-case financial secenario. “The temptation is to make the financial forecasts sparkle so as to make the road show pitch compelling to potential investors. … However, if there is one time that Murphy’s Law can be counted on it is during the first year of being a public company. … Be conservative with financial forecasts. Set yourself up to succeed – not to fail.” Leaving a little money on the table during the IPO is better than setting yourself up for a bruising stock-market experience – and litigation.

Not trying to be negative here. I love public companies and the whole relationship with capital markets. But Birkert’s cautionary words echo the sentiments of many small cap IR people – and CEOs and CFOs – who are public but look longingly at privately held peer companies whose “exits” or “liquidity events” kept them private.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.