High asset prices and less confidence in market beta to lift returns in recent years have greatly narrowed the margin of error for private equity firms to deliver acceptable returns. Some general partners have looked back at the past decade of trials and errors to identify lessons and patterns that will shape their next approach to value creation. They have drawn up playbooks consisting of detailed, sequenced actions taken over time to maximize value from each investment.
The application of a playbook to a target company will depend on three factors. The first is the industry, as specific cost bases and capabilities have more or less relevance to individual industries. Manufacturing optimization clearly looms large in the chemical industry, and marketing and branding figure prominently in consumer products.
The second factor is the investment thesis: A playbook suited to a target company that has solid operations and is poised for growth may not work with a bloated company in distress. Third, the playbook should accommodate the target’s strategy to move the business forward. Companies competing in the same market can have very different strategies, and strategy determines where a PE firm can cut costs and where it should double down on investment.
Given these factors, PE firms with the most highly developed playbooks today tend to define their deal sweet spots narrowly. They may focus on investments in a single industry or on businesses across industries but with similar investment theses and opportunities for creating value.
Vista Equity Partners, which invests primarily in software and technology-enabled companies, applies a set of more than 50 proprietary standard operating procedures in areas such as product development, sales and marketing, customer support, professional services and general administration. Vista’s in-house consulting group works with investment professionals and portfolio company executives to apply those best practices. In a recent case, Vista sold TransFirst, a payment processor that Vista had acquired for $1.5 billion a little more than a year earlier, for $2.35 billion. PE Hub reported that Vista focused on building out TransFirst’s back-end settlement capability while enhancing its sales channels.
3G Capital has a well-defined playbook that applies zero-based budgeting to consumer products or retail companies. This differs from traditional budgeting processes by examining all expenses for each new period, not just incremental expenditures in obvious areas. A zero-based approach puts the onus on managers to justify the costs that need to be kept—a subtle but powerful shift in perspective from what should be removed. Teaming with Berkshire Hathaway to acquire Heinz, 3G eliminated roughly 7,000 lower-value positions and rationalized corporate and manufacturing footprints. 3G’s plays raised EBITDA margins from 18% to 26%. After aggressively expanding margins, 3G ran another play from its book, successfully merging Heinz with Kraft.
While many playbooks started with a focus on cost reduction, the most successful ones today contain a strategic blend of cost and growth moves. Cost cutting is no longer sufficient on its own to generate strong returns. To reliably create value and obtain the desired multiple upon exit, a portfolio company must be set up to achieve profitable growth over the long term.
Audax, for example, focuses exclusively on finding solid middle-market companies that it can transform, through add-on acquisitions, into market leaders. Since its inception, Audax has invested $4 billion in 101 platform investments and 534 add-on acquisitions, often in fragmented markets. In one example of its buy-and-build playbook, Audax bought Advanced Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, a US physician practice with a strong presence in Florida and Ohio. Some 40 add-ons and five de novo clinics later, Audax had built the business into a national platform and invested in centralized support services, resulting in expanded relationships with payers and higher clinic utilization rates. Since its initial investment in 2011, revenue quadrupled to more than $200 million, and Audax sold the asset to PE firm Harvest Partners in 2016, retaining a minority stake.
All PE firms want to create value as quickly as possible—to grow revenue and take out cost—and a strong playbook helps to accomplish that.