Buyout Firms Bet Smaller is Better With Covid Trimming Deals

Private equity bosses have found a way to keep deals flowing during the economic crisis: going small.

With blockbuster buyout activity hit by the pandemic early in the year, the industry has turned to smaller acquisitions that are aimed at expanding their stable of companies. These purchases are another tool in the arsenal that private equity firms have to build their portfolio companies before selling for a profit.

Add-on transactions from firms including Cinven and HarbourVest Partners comprised 51% of global buyouts in the third quarter, a new high, according to data compiled by PitchBook. These transactions, where private equity-backed firms acquire businesses using their owner’s capital, are also on pace for a record year.

“You’re seeing most investors working more closely with their existing relationships, focusing on assets and segments they know,” Brian Gildea, head of investments at alternative asset manager Hamilton Lane, said in an interview.

Buyout Firms Bet Smaller is Better With Covid Trimming Deals

Cinven of London has been among the most active European firms in this arena this year. The 34 portfolio companies in its fifth and sixth funds have made more than 300 add-on deals since the funds began, according to a company spokeswoman. In October, Cinven almost doubled the size of Dutch ingredient distributor Barentz International with the purchase of Maroon Group, a North American supplier of specialty chemicals.

Investcorp has completed 23 such transactions this year globally. Among them: portfolio company Fortune International, a seafood and specialty food distributor, acquired Neesvig’s Inc., another seafood, meat processor and distributor.

HarbourVest, based in Boston, has done 33 add-ons this year through the third quarter, a record pace, according to managing director Ian Lane.

These purchases are becoming popular because they can be less risky than larger deals. They don’t require obtaining outside financing and they allow executives to capitalize on trends in their industries.

Buyers can also take advantage of a value arbitrage as smaller target firms often trade at lower multiples and there’s less competition for their assets.

“Market leaders are seeing it as a window to consolidate market share and snap back very hard when the macro environment returns to normal,” Sam Shah, Macquarie Capital’s co-head of U.S. industry coverage and global head of software and services, said in an interview.

The trend of longer lasting funds has also accelerated interest in add-on deals because fund manager agreements with investors usually prohibit buyout deals after a set period of a fund’s life. An exemption is often included for a small number of additional deals, said Whitney Lutgen, a lawyer at MJ Hudson in London.

Steve Pierson, managing partner at middle-market private equity firm Lovell Minnick Partners, said small companies were more open to deals this year because the coronavirus crisis stressed their balance sheets and tested their business plans. His firm closed about 22 add-on transactions and is seeking to do more.

In November, one of its companies, Foreside Financial Group, a provider of outsourced compliance services, made its fourth acquisition since 2019, buying Integrated Compliance Solutions Group.

“Think about March and April, everyone was pretty nervous about the state of the world,” Pierson said. “If you don’t know what’s going to happen over the coming months, it’s logical to turn to an existing relationship.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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