In the traditional fund model (the “committed” or “blind pool” model) a management team or “sponsor” will organize a fund and serve as its general partner. The sponsor will then raise binding capital commitments from a group of passive investors (who will make up the fund’s limited partners) in a private placement of the fund’s ownership interests.
Typical fund investors include public and private employee benefit plans, university endowments, insurance companies, banks, sovereign wealth funds, family offices and individual accredited investors.
Taking a step back, a private equity fund is like a mutual fund except that (a) instead of accepting investment funds from just about anyone, PE funds only accept investment funds from accredited investors; and (b) instead of pooling the money from their investors to buy large stakes of publicly traded companies, PE funds invest in (or buy outright) privately held companies.
In addition, an investor’s relationship with a fund (be it a VC or PE investment fund) is, as you will read below, quite similar.
PE and VC funds also share quite similar life cycles, generally consisting of four basic periods: (a) the capital raise, (b) the investment period, (c) the holding period, and (d) the harvesting period.
As mentioned above, the traditional fund model seeks commitments from potential investors, to invest in a fund. Once committed, the investors are “limited partners” of the fund.
By example, you might agree to invest $50,000. You do not write a $50,000 check the day you commit. Rather, you commit to write checks, up to a total of $50,000, when instructed. Thus, you make a “binding capital commitment.”
Later, when you receive such an instruction, it is called a “capital call.” Once a fund has secured a sufficient level of binding capital commitments, it moves from the capital raise period to the investment period.
During the investment period, with the assistance of an investment management firm or investment advisor (who typically is an affiliate of the fund’s sponsor), the fund seeks out companies to invest in (in the case of a VC fund) or companies to purchase (in the case of a PE fund). As the fund executes investments, the sponsor makes capital calls on its investors. The investment period typically spans the first three to five years of a fund’s life.
Following the investment period, and during the holding period, a fund will maintain the investments in its portfolio for a period of five to seven years while they develop and appreciate in value. While both VC and PE funds actively help their portfolio companies, PE funds tend to be more hands on. It is also common for funds to support their portfolio companies in making “follow-on” investments during the holding period or in making them themselves.
By example, if PE firm X buys an eyeglass frame manufacturer during the investment period, it may end up buying a second eyeglass frame manufacturer or, perhaps, a contact lens manufacturer, or a chain of optometry shops later, even if it’s during the holding period. Or it may help its original portfolio company to buy it by providing the funds to do so.
Lastly, during the harvesting period, a fund will liquidate its portfolio of investments and distribute proceeds to its investors. To be clear, these four periods do not have rigid lines and, in fact, overlap a great deal.
The private equity firm of today, it is generally agreed, traces its origin back to American Research and Development Corporation, founded in 1946. As explained in the book Private Equity, History, Governance, and Operations (Wiley Finance, 2008), however, the industry had forerunners in the form of U.S. governmental institutions that were created to address needs brought on by the two world wars and the intervening Great Depression.
The golden age of the leveraged buyout (LBO) came in the late 1980s when players like KKR and Michael Milken engineered large leveraged buyouts. Since then, as superior returns encouraged more investment in the asset class and as the number of funds proliferated as a natural consequence of fund managers leaving one firm to found a new one, the industry continued to grow into what it is today. A good example of this can be seen by looking at the legendary PE firm, Golder Thoma & Co.
Established in 1980 by Stanley Golder and Carl Thoma, Golder Thoma & Co. originated the “consolidation” or “buy and build” investment strategy, which sought to combine the best of venture investing with the best of leveraged buyouts. This was done by investing in a “platform” business (an acquisition in a new area of business intended to be a ‘platform’ onto which to add other businesses, in order to build something new) in a fragmented industry and then working with management to transform it into a larger and more profitable business through internal growth and a series of strategic, industry consolidating acquisitions.
Golder and Thoma worked together at First Chicago Corp. before founding Golder Thoma & Co. Looking at one branch of the genealogy, Golder Thoma & Co. eventually split into Thoma Bravo and GTCR. Looking at a different branch, John Canning took Stanley Golder’s place at First Chicago Corp. and Canning ultimately left to form Madison Dearborn. These three firms are now among the largest and most prominent PE firms.
The fund type described above is the traditional model. There are other models that you should be aware of.
In the world of middle-market buyouts, non-traditional funds (or fund-like groups) are playing an increasingly active role in the private equity domain. They include family offices, accredited investors making direct investments in businesses, and pledge funds.
Private equity groups identify, source, and execute deals using capital committed by their investors. By contrast, fundless sponsors (also sometimes called “pledge funds,” though we think that term is misleading) do not raise a committed fund, and thus do not charge up-front management fees. They may charge a fee to their portfolio companies, but only after an investment is in place.
Fundless sponsors build a network of investors and present opportunities to them on a deal-by-deal basis, to gain capital commitments to specific deals, rather than through an aggregate pool of money. Fundless sponsors operate like private equity groups in most other ways with respect to trying to create value for their portfolio companies through operational and strategic guidance.
In recent years, there has been a trend among limited partners to push back on large up-front fees. As a consequence, there are far more fundless sponsors today than there used to be. The difference between having a committed fund and operating as a fundless sponsor has a number of implications for both the investing process and investors.
A private equity fund of funds does not invest into companies directly. Instead the fund of funds takes the assets of its participants and invests them into portfolios of other private equity funds. These private equity funds are often boutique and top-tier funds, investing in diverse privately held companies.
An advantage of investing in a PE fund of funds is that doing so can provide you with managers of underlying private equity funds who are otherwise not accessible to individuals or even to family offices and small institutional investors. A fund of funds also offers reduced administrative burdens for investors by providing consolidated reporting and capital calls.
Private equity funds employ varied investment strategies for choosing a company to invest in (to be clear, PE funds usually buy an entire company or at least a controlling interest in a company). And, once a PE fund decides to buy a company, the way it structures its purchase will vary based on a variety of factors.
A PE firm’s investment strategy starts with its investment “mandate.” That is, a specific set of investment strategies and diversification policies. These can usually be found on a PE firm’s website. A PE fund’s LPA (limited partnership agreement) will usually contain more detailed information in this regard, commonly in a section titled, “Investment policy guidelines.”
How, when, and in what fashion a PE firm chooses its portfolio companies can be categorized in several ways. For example:
All these factors influence how a PE firm narrows the range of potential portfolio companies. Once the company has been selected, private equity firms begin negotiations and conduct due diligence. Finally, the PE firm decides whether or not to invest in a particular company.
Steven M. Davidoff identified the four main kinds of private equity deal structures being used by PE funds in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Writing for the New York Times’ DealBook blog, Davidoff described these four structures:
Read the full article by Davidoff (a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law), which provides actual examples of each structure.
As an investor in a PE fund you do not own companies that a PE fund invests in and you have no claim against them. Other similarities to a VC fund concern fees structure and a limited partnership agreement. The details are as follows:
The fees you will pay to a fund manager in the PE context work the same ashey do in the VC context. You will recall from our discussion in Section 6.6.1 that “2 and 20” is the basic rule. That is, that the general partner (“GP”) charges: (a) an annual fee equal to 2% of assets under management plus (b) 20% of the profits of the fund (that is, after the limited partners are paid back their initial investment plus, sometimes, a preferred return, or “hurdle”). The preferred return, when there is one, typically is in the 5-10% range.
Details vary from fund to fund, with more established and successful sponsors being able to dictate compensation terms that are more favorable to them. Likewise, newer sponsors will often offer better terms to their investors to attract them. For example, some sponsors set up funds that require the sponsor to pay back the 2% management fee before the sponsor can receive its carried interest.
According to the Economist:[Private equity transaction fees] went up by at least 25% on average for 2009-10 deals that were $500m or larger, compared with deals done between 2005 and 2008. Deals between $500m and $1 billion, for example, had an average transaction fee of 1.24% of the deal amount in 2009-10, compared with 0.99% in 2005-08. “Monitoring”fees, which portfolio companies pay their private-equity owners each year for advisory services, also went up.
Managers of funds of funds typically charge a one percent annual management fee and a performance fee of five percent. This is in addition to management fees and performance fees of the underlying funds.
PE funds, like VC funds, are commonly set up as limited partnerships in which the sponsor is the general partner and the investors are all limited partners. LP agreements in the PE context read much like their VC cousins. See Section 6.6.2.
Investing in PE is inherently less risky than investing in VC because PE investments, by definition, involve purchases of business of reasonably large in size that have real revenue whereas VC investments often involve minority investments in new businesses that have no revenue or a limited track record of revenue. Like VC, however PC is subject to limited government regulation and oversight as compared to, for example, an investment in a publicly traded stock.
Another key consideration before committing to an investment in a PE fund is your investment horizon. That is, how long are you prepared to let your invested money sit in a given investment? A PE fund typically requires its investors (that is, its limited partners) to agree to tie up their money for an average of 10 years.
Why is this? Well, first the typical holding period of a portfolio company (the total amount of time between the purchase and sale of a portfolio company) is three to five years. And, it can take several years for a PE fund to locate suitable companies to purchase, conduct due diligence, negotiate transactions, and complete the purchase. Then, when a PE fund decides to sell a portfolio company, it cannot do so in the blink of an eye.
[Editors’ Note: You may be interested in the following webinars:
This is one in a series of articles dedicated to the 95% of people in the U.S. who have never invested in a startup, a venture capital fund, a private equity fund, or a hedge fund even though they are permitted to do so and even though doing so may make sense to achieve property diversification. While we encourage you to read this series in order, you certainly don’t need to. Each installment is designed so it can be read as a stand-alone article. Here they are in case you want to skip around:
You will notice that throughout this series, I use the term “we.” This is done to acknowledge the great editorial assistance of the Financial Poise Editorial Team. This series is based on my book The Investor’s Guide to Alternative Assets: The JOBS Act, “Accredited” Investing, and You.
©2021. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.
Jonathan Friedland is a senior partner in Sugar Felsenthal Grais & Helsinger LLP’s Chicago office. He is ranked AV® Preeminent™ by Martindale.com, has been repeatedly recognized as a “SuperLawyer”, by Leading Lawyers Magazine, is rated 10/10 by AVVO, and has received numerous other accolades. He has been profiled, interviewed, and/or quoted in publications such as Buyouts…
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