It is a common misconception, often driven by media hype, that private equity investors ruthlessly generate outsize returns by squeezing, or even pulling apart / asset stripping a business. This is a largely unfair and a hugely unrealistic perspective of PE investments. Gone are the days of corporate raiders - whilst returns generated by PE funds can often be larger then the general public would perceive as fair, this typically does not occur any more. Between 2004 - 2008 or thereabouts, the PE industry, and indeed the financial services industry experienced a boom. Credit was cheap, and companies were underutilising many of their assets. As a consequence PE funds were able to do deals at valuations and multiples (both buying and selling) beyond levels they are able to now (2011).
PE funds historically have generated value by:
- Deploying businesses cash flow more effectively - this could be through borrowing capital against a businesses cash flow, acquiring the business, then using the capital as a base for growing the business
- Improving operations: Often older, cash generative (businesses that are cash businesses like food retailing businesses), businesses tend to be complacent. They continue to operate with relatively little growth, and relatively little pressure to grow. PE funds will have specialists in those industries who are experienced in turning complacent businesses into growing businesses
- Providing expertise: PE funds may simply attract or bring capabilities that a business didn't previously have
- Provide access to capital: PE funds may be able to provide access to capital that businesses may previously have not had access to
- Merger to exploit synergies: PE funds may often orchestrate relationships across businesses to improve the position of a business e.g. merge the 3rd largest and 5th largest business in a sector, creating the largest business in a sector
It is important to know that asset stripping is one method for generating value for a PE fund, but typically they are able to generate value as they are able to simply force a business to operate or use its assets more efficiently