Tuck’s 13th annual Private Equity Conference brought together nearly 250 professionals and students to discuss current trends in the industry and to share best practices in a competitive environment. I’d like to highlight a few themes from the conference, and thoughts from our impressive and inspiring speakers.
We kicked off the conference on Thursday evening with a fireside chat moderated by Dean Matthew J. Slaughter with keynote speaker Vikrant Sawhney D’92, senior managing director & COO of Blackstone, who highlighted a key issue prevalent across the industry today, competition for deals—multiples are high, GDP growth is low, and there is no shortage of buyers. He encouraged investors to seek companies where there is a way to create value through operational improvements, where they have a compelling angle, and to only invest in businesses that generate cash.
Dotty Bollinger of GPB Capital encouraged us to approach sectors in different, creative ways. Her health care services team, for example, is backing a management team with operational expertise to pursue a roll-up strategy in the physical therapy sector by approaching sellers in a different way than the larger players do. The team has been thus far successful, having completed and integrated several acquisitions.
After discussing her best deal and the one that got away, keynote speaker Susan Carter, former president and CEO of Commonfund Capital, Inc., reminded us that you don’t need to do every good deal, but every deal you do has to be a good one, and not to invest in anything you don’t understand.
Finding proprietary deals in this market is a challenge. Jake Colognesi T’11 of Volition Capital discussed the importance of connecting with founders and management teams, encouraging us to make outreach something executives cannot ignore. His team differentiated itself in front of the CEO of Chewy.com, a leading e-retailer of premium pet food, by flying to Ft. Lauderdale within 24 hours of speaking to him. Volition Capital ultimately had great success with the investment.
Bill Christ T’08 of TA Associates echoed Jake; he spends a significant amount of his time visiting with executives, and often finds a company second. In the case of Skinny Pop, his team found a great executive who helped grow the company from four to over one thousand employees, and launched a broader, better for you snacking platform.
In an industry that has historically been male-dominated, several speakers were pressed on what their companies are doing to attract, train, and retain diverse candidates. Both Susan Carter and keynote speaker Marc Wolpow, co-CEO and co-founder of Audax Group, shared that the heterogeneity of thought is critical to finding a wider set of solutions and making the best business decisions.
Susan Carter discussed the importance of building the pipeline of female talent (which she helps further through the organization Girls Who Invest), and strengthening the culture at firms to improve retention. She encouraged the men in the audience to be willing to listen without interrupting, engage in discussions, and to be a sponsor around the promotion table. As a woman in private equity, it was great to hear her call to action and advice.
With students making up nearly half the audience, many young professionals were eager to hear advice on how to break into the industry, and build long-term, successful careers. Bill encouraged students to stand out by developing a thesis on an industry, learning as much as you can, and selling it to an investment team. And when you do make it, Susan advised us to surround ourselves with a team that has expertise where we don’t.
After a long and successful tenure in the industry, Marc Wolpow said he still loves the business, even though he doesn’t do deals anymore. And finally, I thought Vikrant Sawhney gave great advice that we should all remember—If you want to be excellent at something, you have to work really hard.
Thanks to all the speakers for joining us (despite the snowstorm!), and the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship and the Tuck Private Equity Club for sponsoring the conference. Looking forward to learning more in 2019!