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Bruce Evans, a managing partner at Summit Partners, discussed private equity's past, present and future during his keynote address at the Feb. 21 Private Equity Conference.

Investing in the future

Industry leaders, academics trade knowledge at Private Equity Conference

By Aubrey Henretty

2/26/2007 - “There are storm clouds on the horizon,” said Summit Partners Managing Partner Bruce Evans.

Despite the dark imagery, Evans, who delivered the morning keynote address at the sold-out Feb. 21 Private Equity Conference, was unconcerned about the future of investing.

According to Evans, increased scrutiny by the government and the public — and expensive new standards such as those outlined in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — may yield lower returns for investors in the short term. But like any storm, Evans told the students, staff and alumni assembled in the James L. Allen Center’s Tribune Auditorium, this one will blow over in time. Returns will level out and rise again, and then the cycle will repeat, he said, just as it does every few years.

Evans said successful firms must budget and plan carefully at every stage of the cycle, resisting the urge to implement drastically different strategies as returns rise and fall: “You have to come up with a strategy and stick with that strategy.”

The conference also featured eight panel discussions comprising four breakout sessions, as well as a networking reception. Topics included “Emerging Markets and Globalization,” “Large-cap vs. Mid-cap Private Equity,” “Consumer Products” and “Hedge Funds and Private Equity,” where panelists discussed everything from proper definitions of the term “hedge fund” to the changing role of private equity in company turnarounds.

“I would consider a hedge fund more a structure than a strategy,” said Atalaya Capital Management Managing Director Joel Holsinger. “It’s an open-ended fund structure.” Where the scope of most funds is limited to “the size of the box” allowed by their design, he added, with hedge funds, “there effectively isn’t a box.”

Panelist Eben Perison, managing director of Fortress Investment Group, said the buzz surrounding hedge funds has drawn attention away from the strong partnerships private equity firms have been forging with fledgling companies. “There’s been an evolution in private equity where it’s not so much financial engineering as genuine improvement,” said Perison. When a private equity firm buys a company, tweaks its finances, and sells it in the course of a few years, he said, “you haven’t added a lot of value.”

Magnetar Capital Founder and CEO Alec Litowitz and Cerberus Capital Chicago Vice President Andy Mitchell also contributed to the panel, which was moderated by Kellogg Clinical Associate Professor David Stowell.

In his afternoon keynote address, Madison Dearborn Partners Chairman and CEO John Canning discussed the rapid growth of private equity over the past 20 years and the challenges its leaders are facing — challenges that include the industry’s public image.

“Private equity has replaced hedge funds as everyone’s piñata,” he said, noting that he had recently seen industry leaders described in print in as opportunistic and worse.

Then too, the new Democratic majority in Congress may bring stricter regulations to the industry, said Canning, adding that increasingly negative mentions of private equity in the press may garner public support for such Congressional measures.

Though the Kellogg School is considered by many to be a “marketing school,” conference co-chair Ian Wijaya ’07 said that is hardly the full story. Opportunities abound to pursue an education in the school’s “robust finance and private equity curriculum, professional recruiting pipeline, alumni network and level of student interest,” according to Wijaya.

Many conference organizers and volunteers are also involved with the student-run Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Kellogg club, which boasts 700 members.

Wijaya, also says the negative image of private equity in the press is due for a turnaround: “Private equity investors’ historical reluctance to respond to the popular press’ negative accounts has unfortunately limited the amount of accurate information about private equity investing. However, I think you'll see private equity investors become increasingly vocal, given their enormous and growing stake in the market for corporate control."