The joint may not be jumpin' but it's moving.
With the announcement of a $500 million deal to buy Dallas adult skills training company ATI Career Training Center on Nov. 10, London buyout shop BC Partners Ltd. signaled its fourth investment in six months.
In mid-October, after months of trying to put together one doomed deal after another, private equity firm CVC Capital Partners Group agreed to pay as much as $3.03 billion for nine Central and Eastern European breweries from Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, raising financing from a dozen banks.
The following day CVC walked away from a $1.2 billion takeover of British bus and train operator National Express Group plc.
In the midmarket, Montagu Private Equity LLP recently completed the acquisition of Siemens AG's Brussels-based airfield lighting business ADB Airfield Solutions LLC. The price was undisclosed, but Montagu did confirm a debt package of €73 million ($109 million), financed by Bank of Ireland, WestLB AG, Siemens Financial Services, Fortis and KBC Bank NV.
And Bank of Ireland's Frankfurt-based team was also at work in the financing of Montagu's sale this summer of German sausage casings maker Kalle GmbH. Silverfleet Capital Partners LLP, yet another London firm, bought the company for €212.5 million.
And just in case it seems that all the London firms can do is invest outside the U.K., midmarket buyout shop HgCapital LLP recently saw off a rival bid from Israel's Fuhrer family to back a management buyout of Croydon, England, generic pharmaceuticals maker Goldshield Group plc with a fully financed £178 million ($297 million) offer.
Signs of life in the private equity market at last? Bankers ready to lend? The mood has shifted, that much is clear.
BC's managing partner, Andrew Newington (pictured above), told a British Venture Capital Association conference last month that his firm had committed more cash in the past 12 months than in the previous 24. A clear decision has been taken to put more money to work.
BC started the ball rolling this summer with what was little more than a bailout of one of its own distressed portfolio companies, joining co-investor Electra Partners LLP in the injection of €100 million into the merger of their jointly owned U.K. boiler maker Baxi Group Ltd. and Dutch heating company De Dietrich Remeha Group. That was more or less a forced investment, but it broke the logjam after a period of deliberate restraint that started long before the credit crunch.
The firm has since invested $350 million in a minority stake in listed office products supplier Office Depot Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla.
Like its midmarket peers, BC has been using much less leverage than before the bust -- the ATI deal was done with 50% debt, and it is not clear how much of that was rolled over from the company's previous private equity owners. HgCapital's Goldshield deal will be financed with less than 50% leverage.
BC also expects to start fundraising late next year, when its €5.5 billion 2005 fund will be more than 80% invested. It hopes to whet the appetites of limited partners with the initial public offerings of four previous investments -- German chemicals carrier Brenntag AG, Spanish online travel agency Amadeus IT Group SA, German cable company Unitymedia GmbH and Spanish healthcare business Centro Médico Teknon, of Barcelona.
Given the reawakening of private equity interest in Europe, BC may be able to sell its holdings in these companies to other buyout firms after all. What may be happening is that after so many months of hesitation and uncertainty over whether the market has bottomed, some private equity buyers are now more confident of their valuations. Sellers' expectations may still be higher than their own, but buyers no longer worry they may overpay for an asset likely worth much less in six months.
This is by no means a universal phenomenon. As Newington pointed out to the BVCA, other companies may still have too many issues with their own portfolios and their investors to go out and buy.
But where the strongest players lead, the more timid may soon follow. And if Britain one day follows Germany, France and the U.S. out of recession, London firms may be looking harder than before at their home turf, too.