Private equity needs to come in from the cold

Private equity needs to come in from the cold

A few years ago, reporter Becky Pritchard tried to go a week without private equity. No consuming, no perusing – all products backed by investment companies were off the menu.

While Pritchard managed it, the task wasn’t easy. The private equity universe is so vast that it touches everything from where you get lunch to how you chat to your friends. Pritchard even had to stop tweeting her progress when someone pointed out Twitter had received backing from a venture capital fund.

The reaction to the piece – you can see the video here – was revealing. While those who were au fait with the finer points of private equity grasped the size of Pritchard’s task, many were surprised.

This is telling of a private equity world which has remained in the shadows, while the very products it owns have basked in the spotlight.

Fast-forward to today and little has changed.

Indeed private equity only really enters the national consciousness when something has gone wrong. Consider when the OpCapita-backed Comet fell into administration in 2012.

As thousands of people lost jobs, OpCapita and Elliott Advisors, its fellow investor, collected nearly £117 million. Journalists across beats, from business to consumer, led the public opprobrium.

Things have since been quiet. Devoid of notable private equity-backed failures, most investment companies have been seemingly happy with their spot on the side-lines. They harbour the hope, if not the confidence, that the next public private equity crisis will not involve them. So they will continue to quietly go about their business.

But is this a sustainable strategy?

The private equity world does a lot of good. For its portfolio companies, it generates jobs and increases production, thereby bringing growth to the wider economy. It can help small companies grow their market share domestically, or take larger businesses abroad for the first time.

Meanwhile it provides returns for its investors. Wealthy families and sovereign funds among them, granted, but also thousands of employees on pension schemes.

This means there’s a good story to tell. But few are trying to deliver the message.

Most private equity companies will have bad investments. Portfolio companies may not fail, but the very nature of running so many businesses will often land you in unwanted situations which can play out publicly.

This is exacerbated by an increasingly relentless media landscape, where a single tweet or Facebook post can quickly become front page news at outlets fighting for clicks. Even in the good times, companies are under a growing spotlight.

So what’s the answer?

You don’t need to become a poster child for the industry, but start telling your story now to build credit in the bank. Champion your portfolio companies, develop relationships with the wider business community, showcase your own sector expertise.

Build a digital presence so that when journalists and other important stakeholders, even the general public, search for you they find an engaging website or social media presence which gets your message across, or they find articles which do the same.

For every failure, companies will have many more successes. Talk about them. These help in the bad days, but also in the good ones. Companies are raising record amounts from investors and so standing out as a business partner, or as a firm which can generate returns, is more important than ever.

This new digital landscape has brought about a world hungry for information, in both the good times and bad. Sooner or later, private equity needs to become a little less private. Otherwise someone else will tell its story instead.