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UK still top for US-EU inbound M&A activity, says new report

Despite Brexit, the UK is still the top destination for US-EU inbound M&A activity, representing nearly 40 per cent of EU deals since 2009 – and activity could pick up with greater Brexit certainty.

The report, which gathers the collective thoughts of Akin Gump lawyers and senior dealmakers at global companies to see how Brexit, global trade disputes and this year’s US elections are shaping the deal landscape, also finds that even though M&A now involves additional layers of geopolitical and regulatory complexity brought on by global trade tensions and political turbulence, deals are getting done.

with Republicans and Democrats offering starkly divergent platforms on a number of key policy issues, the report says the results of the 2020 US elections are certain to influence M&A activity in 2020 and beyond.

Following a decisive UK election outcome, the report suggests that deal activity could pick up. “There is an M&A backlog, as some deals went on hold before the election,” says Akin Gump corporate partner Gavin Weir. “This bodes well for activity in 2020 as buyers and sellers return to the market.”

Sebastian Rice, partner in charge of Akin Gump’s London office, adds: “There is recognition that the [deal] process is more complex, but if you address issues early, deals will close.”

Looking at deal activity in the United States, Jeff Kochian, co-head of Akin Gump’s corporate practice, says: “The US M&A market has been very strong for the last several years. In spite of global trade and political volatility, the strong US economy and bullish equity markets have been particularly helpful to strategic buyers. Private equity has also been very active, doing more, albeit somewhat smaller deals.”

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Private equity is dominating the NBA in 2020

Rich guys like to own professional sports teams. Private equity produces a lot of rich guys. So it’s little surprise that buyout billionaires have been snapping up NBA franchises for the past two decades.

In recent years, a few of those franchises have achieved unprecedented success. In fact, private equity tycoons have turned the league’s Eastern Conference into their own personal playground.

During the 2018-2019 season, the four top finishers in the East were all controlled by private equity pros, including the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. As the 2019-2020 season enters this weekend’s All-Star break, those same teams occupy four of the top five spots in the conference.

And all four ownership groups have at least one common factor in how they’ve achieved recent success, a trait that could tie back to their pasts in overseeing portfolio companies: Instead of meddling in every small decision, they’ve developed reputations for hiring the best talent available and getting out of the way.

PE’s basketball jones

The Milwaukee Bucks have been the NBA’s dominant team so far this season, sitting in first place in the East with a sparkling 46-8 record. The Bucks are co-owned by Wes Edens, a co-founder of Fortress Investment, and Marc Lasry, a co-founder of Avenue Capital, who teamed to acquire the franchise in 2014.

At second place in the East sit the defending champion Raptors. The Toronto franchise is owned by a group called Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which is in turn partially owned by Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Kilmer Capital Partners and the longtime CEO of Kilmer Van Nostrand. Tanenbaum represents the Raptors on the NBA’s Board of Governors (the league now eschews the word “owner”), making him the team’s most powerful dignitary.
The Boston Celtics occupy third place in the East standings. Since 2002, the legendary franchise has been owned by an investor group led by Wyc Grousbeck (formerly a partner at Highland Capital Partners) that also includes Steve Pagliuca, a co-chairman at Bain Capital. Grousbeck is the son of Irv Grousbeck, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

And fifth place in the East is currently filled by the Philadelphia 76ers, who in 2011 were acquired by a wide-ranging group of investors that includes Josh Harris, a co-founder of Apollo Global Management, and David Blitzer, global head of tactical opportunities at Blackstone. Harris is the team’s principal owner.


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A buyer for British Steel is welcome but what’s Jingye’s strategy?

It’s hard to see why the Chinese firm wants to take over a loss-making business in a tough market.


Half the woes for steelmakers in Britain derive from dumping into world markets by Chinese producers, or so we have been told for a couple of decades. So it is a strange sort of rescue for British Steel that ownership should pass to a little-known Chinese conglomerate, Jingye, offering a vague promise to invest a large sum.

Any buyer is better than none, of course, since the effects of irreversible closure of the Scunthorpe steelworks would be appalling. Top of the list would be 4,000 jobs, with another 20,000 in the supply chain. Then there would be the huge environmental clean-up costs.

Jingye counts as a more credible owner than Greybull Capital, the private equity outfit that took British Steel into administration. Yet it is still hard to understand why a Chinese group, which is only the world’s 37th largest producer of steel, wants to own a loss-making producer on the other side of the world.


Tata Steel couldn’t make financial sense of what it called its “long products” business, so gave it away to Greybull for £1 in 2016. Industry conditions haven’t notably improved for high-cost European producers since then. The price of iron ore, of the two key raw materials, is high. And complaints about energy and environmental costs, the other half of the industry’s troubles, are constant.

Perhaps Jingye wants overseas assets to balance the volatility in its home market. Or perhaps it calculates that a purchase of British Steel will open up opportunities to export to the UK some of its current products. But those theories are speculative. This £50m purchase may just be a hopeful punt in which the downside risks are deemed tolerable.


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These firms are keying 2019’s record rate of add-ons

Private equity firms are living in the age of the add-on.

Through the first nine months of the year, add-ons to existing portfolio companies accounted for 68% of all private equity investments in the US—the highest annual rate on record—according to PitchBook’s 3Q 2019 US PE Breakdown. With deal multiples spiking across the broader buyout market, this inorganic growth is one of the few ways left for investors to find the potential for value creation to which they’ve grown accustomed.

As with every investment trend, some firms have embraced the strategy more fully than others. In ascending order, here’s a look at the six investors who have been most active in the US add-on market during 2019, according to PitchBook data, along with a rundown of the sorts of deals they’ve been getting done:

T-5. Insight Partners—30 add-ons

Until earlier this year, Insight Partners was known as Insight Venture Partners. That’s reflective of how the firm differs from most of the other firms on this list. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on buyouts and other private equity deals, Insight operates across a much broader segment of the private investment spectrum. It’s just as well known for its venture deals (or perhaps more so) as it is for conducting control investments.

But those control investments are still a major part of its strategy. And this year, it’s led to a spate of add-ons for a number of different portfolio companies, with a seeming focus on deploying new types of software across a range of sectors.

One example is Community Brands, a creator of software for nonprofits and other well-meaning organizations, which earlier this year announced three add-ons in a single day. Another is Enverus, which changed its name from Drillinginfo in August. The developer of software and data analytics for the energy sector has been busy building out its suite of services, acquiring one company that provides maps of the Permian Basin in March and another that makes billing and revenue software for the oil sector in July.

T-5. Harvest Partners—30

Harvest Partners, a New York-based firm that’s been making private equity investments since 1981, has taken a more diverse approach to its add-on activity in 2019, with no single portfolio company dominating its dealmaking.

In recent weeks, it’s been busy with Integrity Marketing Group, a distributor of life and health insurance that Harvest bought into alongside existing backer HGGC in August. (Of note to some, surely, is the fact that the chairman of Integrity’s board is Steve Young, the NFL hall of famer who’s also a co-founder of HGGC). Integrity was already on an add-on binge before Harvest entered the picture, and it’s kept it up in the meantime, acquiring four different insurance marketing companies in October alone, per PitchBook data.

The co-investor relationship with HGGC isn’t rare for Harvest. Some of its other portfolio companies that have been busy conducting add-ons this year are also examples of Harvest investing alongside fellow firms, including recycling specialist Valet Living (which it backs along with Ares Management) and insurance brokerage Acrisure (both Blackstone and Partners Group). That likely lightens some of the sourcing, diligence and dealmaking loads.


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Thomas Cook’s Nordic business lives on after private equity deal

A trio of investors—including two private equity firms—has teamed up to save Thomas Cook’s Nordic business a month after the British travel company suddenly declared bankruptcy, delisted its shares, ceased operations and stranded more than 150,000 customers.

European buyout firms Altor Equity Partners and TDR Capital, along with Norwegian real estate tycoon Petter Stordalen’s Strawberry Group, are slated to assume ownership of the Ving Group, as the Northern Europe unit is called. The group employs 2,300 people across charter businesses in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, along with Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia.

Strawberry Group and Altor will each buy 40 percent of Ving, while TDR Capital will purchase the remaining 20 percent, though no price was revealed. Following the acquisition, the investors will work to secure approximately 6 billion Swedish kronor (about $618 million) in liquidity and guarantees for the business.

Unlike the larger Thomas Cook Group, which was founded in the 1840s to serve the burgeoning British middle class, Ving has recently proved itself profitable. Some of the Ving units will declare bankruptcy in order to facilitate the redirection of all businesses to a freshly established company created by its new owners, but the company’s sale will ensure 400,000 people who have booked upcoming trips will be able to travel without issue.

“[The deal] secures the business and creates a stable foundation for future development,” Harald Mix, a partner at Altor, said in a statement.

Altor, based in Stockholm, has raised five funds since its creation in 2003. It has invested in more than 60 middle-market Northern European companies, worth a total of €8.3 billion (about $9.25 billion).

TDR Capital, founded in 2002, manages €8 billion in assets and is headquartered in London. It also focuses on mid-market companies, with a preference for growth-oriented investments.

Strawberry Group maintains 11 companies and invests primarily across the real estate, finance, hospitality and art industries. Stordalen is a Norwegian billionaire who, along with his three children, also owns the region’s largest resort chain, Nordic Choice Hotels. The brand operates 180 luxury hotels across five countries.

The buyout of Thomas Cook’s Nordic unit may be one of the more dramatic deals in recent memory, but it fits cleanly into the bigger picture of the region’s PE landscape. Nordic dealmakers such as Altor have maintained a relatively consistent slice of the European private equity pie over the past decade. As of September 30, Nordic PE deal value this year totaled about €26 billion, about 11% of overall European deal value, per PitchBook’s 3Q 2019 European PE Breakdown. Through the past decade, the Nordic region’s deals have largely hovered around that same share of the total.


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This day in buyout history: Blackstone closes its biggest fund ever—for now

Blackstone is currently raising its eighth flagship private equity fund, a monstrous pool of capital that’s already collected more than $22 billion in commitments and could ultimately total $25 billion, according to reports. When the vehicle closes, it might be the largest in the history of the private equity industry—and it will almost certainly be the biggest fund Blackstone has ever raised.

But for the moment, at least, a different vehicle holds that title. And it’s done so for exactly a dozen years, ever since August 8, 2007, the date the firm announced a final close for Blackstone Capital Partners V on $21.7 billion.

It was auspicious timing for multiple reasons. One was that the fund close came less than two months after Blackstone went public, raising more than $4.1 billion in a closely watched IPO that’s proved to be a transformative event in the firm’s history. Another was that it came shortly before the global economy began to turn, joining a wave of mega-funds that swept across the private equity industry in the months leading up to the financial crisis, including a $20 billion vehicle from Goldman Sachs.

And when you compare Blackstone’s fifth flagship effort with the vehicles that came before and after, it seems clear that the firm got at least a little caught up in the fundraising frenzy. It was a remarkable step-up in size of more than 3x from Blackstone Capital Partners IV, and both the firm’s fifth and sixth funds fell well short of that $21.7 billion figure. That’s contrary to the general industry trend of firms raising more cash for each successive flagship fund, particularly among private equity’s biggest players.


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The median PE buyout size in consumer products is heading for a decade high

Private equity’s track record in retail has come under some hefty scrutiny of late. And buyout shops are taking the hint. At just over 40 deals closed through 1H, PE firms are set to complete the fewest retail transactions since at least 2013.

Although the headlines are hard to ignore, it’s important to point out that financial sponsors have also helped brick-and-mortar operations in the middle market with the adoption and expansion of digital strategies. This development has been a boon to retailers. Increased investment in digital technologies has made operations more efficient, boosting sales and blending the customer experience online and off.

As a result, some PE firms are finding bright spots in the still-competitive US consumer market, with many omni-channel businesses not only maintaining margins in the face of secular stagnation, but also commanding higher valuations. This dynamic has contributed to the persistent strength of median deal values even as activity cools off.


Digital strategies can provide retailers with valuable metrics on essential data points like customer acquisition costs, which help improve performance. Moreover, marketing campaigns waged across channels have given middle-market retailers an outsized opportunity to track consumers from engagement through purchase in a manner reminiscent of larger rivals. An essential element here has been the swift adoption of direct-to-consumer distribution models by those with a conventional retail presence. Case in point? Cosmetics. And demographics are on their side.


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Apollo nears Arconic mega-deal

In June 2017, a malfunctioning refrigerator sparked a fire at the Grenfell Tower apartment building in London. The blaze quickly engulfed the 24-story structure, ultimately resulting in 72 deaths and one of the largest residential disasters in recent British history.

Later government investigation attributed the rapid spread of the flames to the building’s poorly made cladding, a type of siding, which later tests showed was so combustible that it essentially turned the apartment into one giant, deadly tinderbox. The company that made that cladding was Arconic.

It perhaps wasn’t a surprise when, less than a year later, Arconic announced a strategic review, with reports indicating that it could sell the building products unit that made the aluminum panels involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster. Within months, prompted in part by continuing activist pressure from Elliott Management, talk turned to a wholesale takeover of the company.

It perhaps also wasn’t a surprise that several private equity firms showed interest—despite a number of looming lawsuits, criminal investigations and potential liabilities that could hamstring the business in the future.

Blackstone, The Carlyle Group and KKR were among the heavyweights to sniff around the building products unit, with Arconic describing the potential mega-deal as an effort to refocus its operations on building aluminum components for aerospace and auto companies rather than the construction market. But when the subject changed to a full buyout, Apollo Global Management emerged as the front-runner, with a potential price tag reported to be some $11 billion (or up to $20 billion including debt).

While Arconic’s direct involvement in a tragic, avoidable disaster that cost dozens of innocent lives is almost surely one factor behind the sale, another very obvious one is the presence of Elliott. The hedge fund won representation on Arconic’s board in early 2017 after a pitched battle and the ouster of former CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. The aluminum company’s stock price has continued to slide throughout 2018, which in Elliott’s mind seems to only cement the need for a complete leadership overhaul.

Apollo’s management thought a deal with Arconic could have been signed as soon as December, according to a New York Post report from the final day of 2018. But the buyout’s final hurdle is proving to be the continued tightening of global debt markets, raising doubt as to whether banks would be able to finance a deal as large as what Apollo and Arconic have in mind. Apollo is also believed to be considering a $40 billion move on the GE’s aviation leasing business, an even larger deal that will surely encounter similar concerns. A lack of available funding could very well endanger prospective Apollo deals worth $60 billion in total.

The role Arconic’s shoddy products played in the horrific events at Grenfell Tower make it painfully clear that major changes of some sort are needed at the company. Whether a private equity firm is the correct group to make those changes could be a matter for debate. But if the debt markets cooperate, then Leon Black and Apollo seem poised to be the ones navigating the transformations, lawsuits and reckonings that are almost surely ahead.


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The Pac-12 wants a $500M investment from private equity

Private equity has long made its living turning around distressed companies.

Could the industry revive a struggling college sports league?

The Pac-12 Conference is seeking a $500 million investment from a private equity partner for a 10% stake in the league’s TV network and other commercial assets, according to The Oregonian. A possible deal could reportedly value the new business at between $5 billion and $8.5 billion, per the conference’s plans. It would also include broadcast and sponsorship rights, merchandising, and distribution agreements.

It’s unclear if any formal discussions between the Pac-12 and potential investors have begun.

Embattled Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott presented the plan to Pac-12 leadership last November, per the report, and if a deal is struck, it could provide the conference’s 12 schools with nearly $42 million apiece. The money is much-needed. The Pac-12 Network has struggled to generate revenue comparable to other Power Five conferences such as the SEC and the Big Ten, the latter of which is set to distribute $15 million-plus more annually to its schools than the Pac-12 currently does to its member institutions.

Why would a PE firm be interested in such a deal?

In 2011, the Pac-12 signed a 12-year television contract with ESPN and Fox worth some $3 billion. The deal expires in 2024 and the upcoming contract could provide a nice cash infusion within a typical five-to-seven-year investment timeline. And an investor wouldn’t have to do much in the meantime other than front the money, since a proposed deal from the Pac-12 would see the conference retain operational control.

But any firm would be attaching itself to a league that’s been criticized for spending too much on its conference headquarters in downtown San Francisco, overseen a raft of high-profile officiating errors in football, and failed to produce a team that reached the College Football Playoff in three of the past four years, plus other controversies. The Pac-12 has responded by hiring FleishmanHillard, a PR agency that specializes in crisis management, again per The Oregonian.

When the conference created its own network following the deal with ESPN and Fox, it touted that the Pac-12 Network was independently owned and thus would get 100% of the proceeds. But that arrangement so far hasn’t been very lucrative. The conference has failed to strike a deal with DirecTV because of a disagreement over media rights, costing the Pac-12 millions and hurting its national exposure. Meanwhile, Scott himself has drawn criticism for his $4.8 million salary, per a USA Today report, which was more than double his Big Ten and SEC peers in 2016.

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Is Genstar Capital The Next Private Equity Powerhouse?

Predicting the future is a difficult thing, as private equity investors know all too well. But if the recent past is any indication, Genstar Capital could be on the verge of assuming a starring role on the industry’s stage.

First, there’s the fundraising. Genstar closed its latest flagship buyout fund on $3.95 billion last year, which represented a nearly 100% increase from its previous effort, a $2.1 billion pool from 2015. That vehicle was in turn more than 100% larger than its predecessor. If Genstar keeps doubling the size of its funds—which is admittedly a tall proposition—it won’t be long before those vehicles are among the largest in private equity.

And then there are the deals. Genstar completed 24 investments during 1Q, according to PitchBook data, more than any other PE firm in the US. That continues a recent flurry of activity: Genstar has executed nearly 150 transactions since the start of 2016, more than in the previous nine years combined:

What kinds of deals are driving this rapid rise? Who are the firm’s key decision-makers? And where did Genstar come from?

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