Cincinnati is a long way from Nanjing, China — 7,300 miles and a world apart from the reassuring conventions of business, American style. That was a big worry for Jonathan C. Dill, CFO of Ampac Packaging. Dill visited China in 2002 as part of a team seeking to open a factory that would substantially reduce manufacturing costs for his company, which had been making shopping bags and other packaging in Ohio since the 1960s. Once in China, though, the sheer size of the country and its cultural differences seemed overwhelming to him.
That’s why, he now says, he was so grateful for the advice he got from the executives at Asimco Technologies Ltd. The auto-parts company had been a business pioneer in China since an American launched it there in 1993. Asimco’s executives reassured Dill that he’d made the right decision in choosing a factory site in Nanjing, a port city with lower labor costs than other fast-growing cities in China. Asimco also helped Dill make sense of perplexing tax regulations and introduced him to key vendors in China. “This was our first offshore venture, and they were a great sounding board,” says Dill. “They helped educate us on the basics of doing business in China.”
So why should an auto-parts maker share its wisdom with a packaging company? Not from goodwill alone. The two share an investor, Key Principal Partners, or KPP, a middle-market private-equity and venture-capital firm based in Cleveland. Partners at KPP, the private-equity arm of Key Bank, introduced the executives of the two firms and encouraged them to share strategically important information.
Fostering such relationships among portfolio companies is a high priority at the firm these days. “We want to distinguish ourselves as guys who bring a lot more than just money to the table,” says Timothy Fay, a managing partner at KPP. “We invest in passionate, headstrong entrepreneurs, and we want to offer them not only capital, but also our expertise and our network of business veterans all over the world.”
KPP isn’t the only firm lavishing its portfolio companies with love these days. Once satisfied to play a limited role in their companies — mostly as money machines — many venture capitalists and other investment firms now are providing them with a variety of services and benefits. Among other things, they are trying to forge relationships among portfolio companies so all may benefit from a broader network of contacts with customers, suppliers, vendors, government officials, and Wall Street. Venture capitalists and private-equity firms also are helping portfolio companies recruit talented executives and negotiate strategic alliances. They even help pinch pennies — by negotiating cut-rate group deals with outsourcing companies or other vendors on behalf of portfolio companies.
Return to Keiretsu
KPP’s policy suggests a return to keiretsu. A practice much in vogue in the 1980s, keiretsu refers to the network of interlocking relationships among powerful companies in Japan. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm, was one of the first to put in place a uniquely American version of keiretsu. It created a network within its portfolio linking hundreds of companies and thousands of executives. The term fell out of favor during the deep Japanese recession in the 1990s, but the concept has grown increasingly popular among U.S. venture-capital firms. “Whether you call it a network or whatever, it is something that entrepreneurs crave,” Ray Lane, general partner with Kleiner Perkins, said at a recent roundtable.