When private-equity firms go “clubbing,” it’s not to the latest hot spot. This past March, seven blue-chip private-equity groups announced that, as a syndicate, they would put up close to $11.3 billion to purchase data-processing and business-continuity specialist SunGard Data Systems Inc. in what is known as a “club” deal.
Although a seven-way deal is a rarity, the group approach is not unusual. In fact, the mergers-and-acquisitions world has been something of a club scene all year. Just days before the SunGard deal, a consortium comprising Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust picked up troubled Toys ‘R’ Us for $6.6 billion. Then, in May, a set of four private-equity groups bid $2.1 billion for appliance-maker Maytag Corp., which received a competing bid from a second consortium in June. And in recent months, two separate heavyweight syndicates were preparing bids for Spanish telecommunications company Grupo Auna SA, valued at more than $14 billion.
The obvious question is, why are so many investor groups banding together when some of the firms have enough capital to do the deals on their own? Industry-watchers point to a safety-in-numbers mentality that has been spreading since the stock market tanked in 2000. That free fall left investors with few good exit options — and gutted investment returns in the process. Others suggest that the best deals out there of late have been the megadeals — which could simply overcommit a single firm and elevate its risk.
“Clubbing affords firms the chance to do exceptionally large buyouts, such as the SunGard deal,” says Daniel A. D’Aniello, managing director of The Carlyle Group. “No single firm would put $3.5 billion in equity into one deal.” Carlyle just closed on a $7.85 billion U.S. buyout fund, and participated with KKR and Providence Equity Partners Inc. in buying satellite operator PanAmSat Holding Corp. last August for $3.35 billion. Thomas H. Lee, CEO of Thomas H. Lee Partners, which is about to raise a multibillion-dollar fund, recently told a Boston business group that while his firm can write a check for up to 30 percent of its fund for any single deal, on average, they put in 5 to 10 percent.
Clubbing among large private-equity firms also allows deal participants to reduce the competition for acquisition targets. “There are a number of multibillion-dollar funds, and they all compete for the same deals,” explains John Rutherford, managing partner of middle-market buyout firm Parthenon Capital, which has $1.1 billion of capital under management. On the other hand, he says, if the firms “all match up into a couple of groups, rather than having six or eight bidders, it may help to get better pricing.”
For CFOs of companies that are on the block, the club deal adds an extra level of complexity when talking with prospective buyers. For starters, private-equity investors are known for conducting painstaking examinations of a target’s financial records. The requests for information are multiplied when a syndicate is involved.