By Jason Kelly,
Author of The New Tycoons: Inside the Trillion Dollar Private Equity Industry That Owns Everything
Standing in Legoland in Carlsbad, California in 2011, fulfilling a promise to my then eight-year-old son William, it hit me. I was strolling around a Blackstone-owned property. We'd woken up in a Homewood Suites, owned by Blackstone-backed Hilton. We'd driven to the park in a rental car from Hertz, owned by private-equity firms Carlyle and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. Practically every time I'd opened my wallet that day, it had been to a company owned by private equity. Even on vacation, I couldn't escape.
A few months later, I had dinner with Greg Brenneman, who'd held top positions at Continental, Burger King, and Quizno's, all private-equity-owned at the time he was involved. Brenneman is now the chairman of CCMP Capital, whose investments have included 1-800-Flowers.com and Vitamin Shoppe. We talked at length about the ubiquity of PE ownership -- my J. Crew sweater, the Dollar General store in my wife's hometown in the Catskills. I started a running list on my BlackBerry that quickly grew to dozens of examples. Brand names piled up, from Toys "R" Us to Petco. The more I looked, the more I found it.
The numbers are staggering. Private-equity firms globally and collectively had almost $3 trillion in assets at the end of 2011.1 The companies they own account for about 8 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by one estimate.2
Contemplating how they got all that money in the first place triggered another thought, a memory of a colleague mentioning that her mother was a teacher in suburban Toronto and had her retirement account in the hands of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. I'd profiled that pension for Bloomberg Businessweek in early 2010 -- they were pursuing a strategy of buying companies directly, like vitamin retailer GNC. Thousands of other pensions, endowments, and government funds, from California to Singapore, were committing hundreds of billions to the likes of Blackstone and KKR. I thought of my in-laws, each with a pension. They, and millions of folks like them were, usually unknowingly, owners of dozens of companies on my ever-growing BlackBerry list.
While the business of buying and selling companies is far from new, the emergence of these players was relatively sudden. What began as a cottage industry known as bootstrapping and leveraged buyouts in the 1970s and 1980s, had blossomed in the 1990s as a handful of small players started to grow rapidly and others, eyeing a huge opportunity, hung out their own shingles. Somewhere toward the turn of the twenty-first century, the more genteel "private equity" became the chosen descriptor. The name may have changed, but the basic business model was the same: collect money, pair it with debt, and buy a company with the intent of selling it down the line for a profit.
The period from 2000 to the present changed everything. Small private partnerships accustomed to rounding up a few hundred million dollars suddenly were raising funds well in excess of $10 billion, accepting huge sums of money from pensions and endowments eager for investment returns topping 20 or 30 percent a year. Wall Street became an eager lender, developing new ways to provide the debt financing in order to get the associated fees. Big investment banks took to investing alongside their clients.
All that money meant that almost nothing was out of bounds for private equity, and 2005 to 2007 saw a spate of deals for companies deeply entrenched in the infrastructure of our everyday lives, from hospital giant HCA to credit card processor First Data to hotelier Hilton. My own introduction was a baptism by fire; I began covering the industry in February 2007. During my first week, news leaked of the biggest-ever takeover, the leveraged buyout of power producer TXU.
What happened next was a different sort of education. Deal making came to a screeching halt with the credit freeze of 2007 and 2008 that triggered the broader global financial crisis. The private-equity managers generally hunkered down, and tried to soothe their own anxious investors pummeled by the public markets -- investors who also were worried about what they owned through their buyout funds. Unlike hedge funds, where a bad trade can mean huge losses, an ill-conceived private-equity deal can linger. When the dust settled, private-equity firms still owned all of the companies they'd bought in the boom.
Emerging from the crisis, existential questions abounded. My Legoland epiphany demonstrated just how embedded private equity was in our everyday lives. What seemed like an arcane corner of finance when I arrived was actually central to all of us and very few people actually knew who they were or what they did.
Reporting and writing about business, especially finance and especially in New York, can sometimes feel like a demented sports beat, simply keeping score and tracking rich people getting richer or marginally less rich. But in this case, that's just scratching the surface. What these guys are doing matters to all of us in some form or fashion.
Private equity by its nature and design, is secretive, a breathtakingly wealthy corner of the world where the names only occasionally escape the business pages, names like Stephen Schwarzman, David Bonderman, and David Rubenstein. The relatively small firms they've created, by virtue of what they were able to buy with those ever-growing pools gave them outsized influence as owners and employers. Blackstone, Schwarzman's firm, alone counts almost a million employees through companies it controls. They are modern day Wizards of Oz -- the men behind the private-equity curtain.
The best way to understand these men is to look at what they've created, and it's startling how much each of the largest private-equity firms are mirrors of the founders themselves. There's an egotism at the center of the whole exercise. After all, each of these men, some more willingly than others, ditched successful careers because they deeply believed they saw something that only a handful of others did. And then they went a step further. They decided to build what have become massively influential institutions meant to outlast them.
To understand what they created and what it means to have them so entrenched in our lives, I decided to follow the money to reveal through their words and actions the implications of their activities to fix actions. The trail begins in the sanitized meeting rooms of public pensions, moves to palatial suites in skyscrapers with top-of-the-world views, and on to discount stores and pizza chains and hotels, before it comes all the way back to those same vanilla pension offices and eventually to the retirement checks of teachers and firefighters and, in one of several twists, even some workers of the companies owned by private-equity firms.
Along the way, that money finds itself augmented by debt and pushed into companies that may thrive, implode, maintain, or simply fade away. The money befuddles Washington lawmakers and regulators, in a debate sharpened by the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. His private-equity career has brought the industry into the public consciousness in a never-before-seen way, prompting its largest players to explain themselves with at times surprising candor.
Their contemplation stems not only from a bright spotlight but from their own personal situations. Having created unbelievable amounts of wealth for themselves, they're mulling their own legacies, in terms of the empires they've built and what they'll ultimately do with their riches.
With all the talk of retirement, it's easy to forget the relative youth of the industry. I've come to think of private equity as a teenager with a lot of potential, but still struggling with adolescent tendencies -- at times unresponsive, rash, selfish, and fluctuating between arrogance and self- doubt. By virtue of some hard work and a lot of luck, it's ended up in a position to potentially be an upstanding member of society. To ignore it or wish it away is foolhardy. It's here and the influence is growing. And whether it's the price of your morning cup of coffee, your bed sheets on a business trip, or the size of your retirement check in the mailbox, you're involved.
1. Paul Hodkinson, "Logjam Gives Buyout Firms $1.2 Trillion Hangover," Financial News, March 19, 2012. http://media.eﬁnancialnews.com/story/ 2012-03-19/logjam-gives-buyout-ﬁrms-hangover
2. Katie Gilbert, "New Green Portfolio Program Could Change Private Equity," Institutional Investor, September 6, 2011. www.institutionalinvestor.com/Article/2895315/New-Green-Portfolio-Program-Could-Change-Private-Equity.html
The above is an excerpt from the book The New Tycoons by Jason Kelly. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The New Tycoons, by Jason Kelly. Copyright © 2012.
Jason Kelly is a writer covering the global private equity industry for Bloomberg News in New York and the author of The New Tycoons: Inside the Trillion Dollar Private Equity Industry That Owns Everything. He's a frequent contributor to Bloomberg Television and Bloomberg Businessweek. During his tenure at Bloomberg, he's written about issues ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to economic development during the war in Afghanistan. Prior to joining Bloomberg in 2002, he was the editor in chief of digitalsouthmagazine, a publication focused on technology and finance in the Southeast and Texas. He earned a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University.