France's biggest private equity shop, AXA Private Equity, has been put on the block by its insurance parent AXA SA, a move that puts about $28 billion of PE assets in play.
The decision to sell the business is at an extremely early stage, "and there is no telling what form the sale will take, whether it will be sold to a rival or if they are looking for someone to back a management buyout," said a source close to the company. A second source confirmed that the business had been put up for sale but declined to comment further.
Paris-based AXA SA has hired Credit Suisse Group to conduct the auction.
A sale could draw interest from the larger listed private equity shops, such as Blackstone Group LP, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. LP or Carlyle Group, or from a large pension fund or money manager looking for a ready-made PE unit, according to a Paris-based PE professional.
The reason for a sale was not immediately clear and sources were unable to give an estimated price for the business, though Sky News, which first reported the auction, said AXA was hoping to fetch between €230 million and €457 million ($310 million and $617 million).
AXA spokesman Guillaume Borie declined to comment. Jeremie Delecourt, AXA PE's head of corporate development and communication, was not immediately available.
AXA PE, which operates largely independently of its insurance company owner, was established in 1996 by its current CEO, Dominique Senequier. Under her guidance the buyout shop has grown to become France's largest PE outfit and one of the biggest in Europe. A spinoff of the unit would be a relatively simple affair, as it has always maintained a separate management and accounting structure to its parent.
AXA PE has spent much of the past few years expanding its stable of private equity assets by snapping up buyout funds owned by other investment groups. In June, it spent $740 million on a stable of limited partnerships and co-investments in a PE fund owned by Barclays plc and a further $1.7 billion to take over Citigroup Inc.'s private equity assets.
In June, a source at AXA PE said that its parent company was raising a further $3 billion for a vehicle that would invest in private equity fund assets.
AXA PE employs about 251 people in its offices in Paris, Frankfurt, London, New York, Milan, Zurich and Vienna. It has just over 160 companies in its portfolio and about 600 funds in its fund-of-funds portfolio.
AXA shares traded Friday at €8.15, marginally lower than their previous close.