Pressure from Above

With new deals falling off, private-equity firms are hovering over portfolio-company CFOs like never before.

In your face. That’s the new game plan at many private-equity firms as deal volumes decline and the focus shifts to maximizing the efficiencies of the companies they already control.

Through April, deal activity was down to levels not seen since the beginning of 2005. U.S. private-equity firms bought 429 companies in the first four months of 2008, down from 561 for the same period in 2007. The drop in dollar value is even more telling; those deals were worth only $26.5 billion compared with last year’s $171.4 billion.

That doesn’t mean, however, that P-E managers are sitting idle. On the contrary: with financing harder to come by and deal flow slowing, they are taking a much harder look at portfolio-company performance. Hands-on management has long been a hallmark of P-E ownership, but these days they are kicking it up a notch. “These guys never stop working on the old deals,” says Bob Tormey, a partner with Tatum LLC and a seasoned portfolio-company CFO. “They’re always working really hard, they’re always overextended, and they never have time on their hands in any environment.” Take new deals out of that environment and the stage is set for some intense micromanaging.

And no wonder. The same factors that are keeping deal volume low — tighter credit, enormous leverage, and a widespread economic slowdown — are also dragging down portfolio companies. In this climate, P-E managers expect CFOs to be laser-focused on cash flow. “They have their portfolio companies leveraged up and they need cash flow to cover their fixed charges,” says George Bilek, who has been CFO of two portfolio companies, most notably Juno Lighting from 1999 to 2005.

Did we say laser focus? Make that laser foci. Private-equity bosses also expect portfolio CFOs to drive strong returns, and take any and all steps necessary to drive long-term value. That’s a lot of pressure, but as Robert J. Gold, CFO of United Plastics Group Inc. in Oak Brook, Illinois (which is owned by Aurora Capital Group), says, if you’re delivering results, their level of involvement will be less.

Meet the New Boss

In these troubled times, P-E firms are increasingly adding a new layer of management, a hands-on executive to aggressively shake things up. “These are people with significant industry experience” who are given equity stakes and either function as consultants or hold positions within portfolio companies, says James H. Sullivan, a partner with Alston & Bird LLP. For example, Oak Hill Capital Partners brought in former Spectrum Brands CEO David Jones as senior adviser, and other P-E firms, including Tricor Pacific Capital, WL Ross, and KPS Capital Partners, have all hired ex-CEOs recently.

For the CFOs at these portfolio companies, dealing with these new executives can ratchet up the pressure because the CFO automatically becomes the incoming executive’s best resource for information. These CEOs often have a short list of action items they intend to act on immediately, too, things like paying down debt, consolidating operations, reducing excess overhead, and improving global sales. But in their zeal to get results fast, says Bilek, who now runs his own accounting firm in Chicago, P-E executives “sometimes recommend things that can cause as much damage as value.”

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