An introductory article from Tim Hames.

David Rubenstein, the co-founder of The Carlyle Group and all-round Wise Old Bird, once informed a private equity audience that the two most effective words in advertising were “free” and “new”. If so, then Equity FD will be on to a winner with a wonderful reformulated website which is coming soon. It certainly is not “free” for Equity FD itself, but will be for everybody who wants to click on it. As for “new”, if it were any shinier, one would have to don sunglasses before opening the laptop.

In a sense I am new too. It falls to me to attempt to follow in the footsteps of Richard Young who for many years was the writer-at-large for this fine institution now that he has made the admirable and brave choice to retrain as a History teacher. I will have met many of you during my ten years or so at the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA) where I was ultimately Director General from 2013-2019. That came after spells as a Lecturer in Politics at Oxford University and Assistant Editor, chief leader writer and a columnist at The Times newspaper. All of this, though, was BC (Before Covid). I am now in the early stages of AD (After Diversification) having abandoned the capital city in favour of coastal Essex and a single role for “going plural”. Richard Young, I can tell you, is not alone in his mid-life crisis. The exciting consequence of all this is that I am free to write about life, business, work, the realm of private equity or the latest craze in cocktails on this website.

Which is a treat for me if not necessarily any other individual. I have watched the Equity FD empire expand along with the private equity sector that (among others) it services so effectively. Indeed, if recent media reports and speculation are realised then Sarah Hunt and the team might soon be opening another specialist sub-section to recruit the senior management teams of supermarkets. The already extended Equity “family” could eventually reach a size to rival that of Boris Johnson’s.

An interesting aspect of all this novelty, to me at least, is its timing. September has long had the sense of “new” about it, what with it being the start of the school year (in England) and the higher education year but the buzz around it has intensified in recent times. Maybe that is because more of the UK has adopted the continental norm of seeing August as a period in a lower gear and hence September is when motors roar again. Before the pandemic, September was the month with the highest number of conferences, meetings and events of the year. September is the time to do “new”. It has thus become the new January.

Which makes me wonder whether we should recognise this and change the calendar formally.

If that sounds utterly insane can I point out that for almost 600 years from 1155 to 1752 March was what January is now, in that legally the year started on March 25th and not January 1st. This only changed with the enactment of The Calendar (New Style) Act, 1750. Precedent is not a problem.

Now, let me be clear that I am not actually suggesting either for myself, let alone as an official policy for Equity FD, that we legislate to remove January 1st as the start of the year and pick a date within September itself. Such a proposal would be condemned as too disruptive (although when compared with Brexit and Covid-19 the impact could be considered incremental). What I am asserting is that it would be a very smart move for all of us in our personal and professional lives to act right now as if September was the beginning of the year and refocus our energies away from January accordingly.

In specific terms, making resolutions, be they private or for a business, would be better done in September than January when there is a greater chance of maintaining the mood to meet them. Targets would be best set at this time as well. Do not join a gym in the depths of winter when the thought of freezing merely to get to the exercise equipment will put you off the journey, but do so instead once refreshed from the summer holidays. It is a doomed exercise to initiate a diet at the outset of January when your body’s natural instinct is that it needs more food for fuel. Wait until September when you have an enhanced prospect of sticking to your chosen regime thereafter. And if you absolutely have to entertain a dry month without alcohol at all (which I do not recommend) then do not do so in January, which is often such a miserable period that you really need a drink, but go for it in the more benign climate of September (besides which, it is a day shorter than January).

The evidence is that private equity and the portfolio companies that it supports are more than set to meet this challenge. I have never known a moment when the means and the will to invest has been as striking than it is now. Sections of the media may never be willing to portray the sector in its real light, but there will be, literally, hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of employees who will benefit from new ownership in the weeks ahead of us. All that energy is essential if the economy is to bounce back better. This September could well prove to be one like no other for acquisitions.

Which should be welcomed. It will involve challenges for those who find themselves the chairs, the chief executives and finance directors of new portfolio companies across the United Kingdom. The common themes, nonetheless, will be dynamism and growth as 100-Day plans start to be enacted. My time at the BVCA left me constantly struck at the determination of private equity houses and individual entrepreneurs to embrace change and take calculated risks to make progress. Further to which, it made me appreciate that while there is a strong association of the sector with “numbers”, the key to the vast majority of what would turn out to be really successful investments was, in the end, people not the spreadsheets. The right hires in the right places at the right times would almost always be the single most significant factor. Private equity is about people, not IRRs in the abstract. 

So, this year, of all years, we need to summon up the spirit of what has become the contemporary September. Embrace the “new” whether returning to the office on a full-time or part-time basis or working from home on what might be a permanent arrangement. The extraordinary success of the Vaccine Taskforce and the vaccination campaign itself should inspire us to have confidence in the future.  Happy New Year.

TIM HAMES.