"Asia is a growth opportunity; Europe's a distressed opportunity," says former Cognetas LLP managing partner Nigel McConnell, mulling his next move. "If you're positioned correctly and have the courage to pull the trigger, you will make more money in Europe than you ever imagined. Just not right now. Asia's more exciting, longer term, a more interesting growth opportunity. But I do wonder if the returns are really higher."
It's a nice conundrum to toy with, if you have the time and enough money to sit out the next few difficult months while you make up your mind. And McConnell admits that, even with five kids aged 8 to 17 in private schools, he has both.
In fact, it's more than an admission, it's almost a boast. Not so much about the money -- he's been impressed by how sensible and pragmatic his children have been. All have dropped the demands for costly extras to keep up with spoiled classmates since his sudden parting of the ways with European middle-market private equity firm Cognetas in June.
But he does have the time to look around, talk to people and think about what happens next. McConnell will not discuss what happened at London-based Cognetas, although it was reported at the time that he had left over differences in strategy. He does admit to a sense of sadness, but he also relishes his new freedom.
"It makes me not want to be in a rush," he says. "It's very liberating. It's there all the time, even if you are not always aware of it, that sense of responsibility to your investors and your colleagues. I feel completely free. It's a huge weight off my shoulders. ... So before I become not free, I want to look at the many avenues I can go down."
McConnell, 53, trained as a chartered accountant after taking a degree in economics from the University of Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1979. He led the buyout of Cognetas' predecessor, Electra Partners Europe Ltd., in 2000. After leaving Cognetas, he took five weeks off in the summer, then threw himself into researching the possibilities. He has traveled around Asia and the U.S., knocked on doors, sought advice and opinion, talked to people in various fields and kept his powder dry. He wants to stay in the alternative asset space, he says, but could work for a sovereign wealth fund, go back to midmarket private equity, distressed investing or, especially if he plumps for Asia, try his hand at growth capital investment. He could "do something entrepreneurial" or, more likely, invest on someone else's behalf.
And if that sounds like he's waiting for someone to offer him a job, McConnell insists that's not the case. Right now the economic environment is too uncertain for investment in Europe. Even in Asia, the outlook is hard to read. And McConnell says he is in no mood just now to attempt to raise his own fund.
But his time will come again. "If I'm honest, I'm a money maker," says the Belfast native. "Somebody will always want me for that skill."