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What’s it like to work in private equity?

6 December 2017

The article at a glance

Two Cambridge MBA graduates, David Brassard, and Becky Hooley tell us what it takes to work in private equity. A recent Economist …

Category: News Programme news

Two Cambridge MBA graduates, David Brassard, and Becky Hooley tell us what it takes to work in private equity.

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A recent Economist article on private equity (PE) noted that the PE model has proved amazingly robust throughout the past four decades, standing firm as storms have swept through the rest of the financial industry.

In fact, says the Economist, ‘its record redefines resilience’. Global growth in PE companies of 143 per cent since 2000* with 24 companies extant in 1980 and over 6000 by 2015* – the numbers tell the story, and also highlight that a career in PE is arguably the most sought-after job in finance today.

But what’s it really like to work in PE? We asked two Cambridge MBA alumni. David Brassard (MBA 2013) and Becky Hooley (MBA 2013) both took roles in PE soon after completing their MBA – David with leading Canadian PE firm, Novacap and Becky with UK/Australia, and soon to be US-based, Livingbridge.

Becky’s career path to PE includes roles in corporate finance with Ernst and Young, as finance director for the Ancient Sands Golf Resort in Egypt and a stint with venture firm Spire Ventures, before joining Livingbridge in 2015. After two years based in London she is now heading to Boston to set up the company’s first US operation.

“We have 25 per cent of our portfolio in the US already but this will be the first time we are physically present in the market there, so this is a really exciting time for the company and for me professionally. Our immediate goals are to accelerate growth in our US portfolio, with a big focus around markets and acquisitions.”

It’s a role that plays to her strengths and interests within PE. As part of Livingbridge’s Value Strategy group she focuses on value creation, post-investment in a business. This involves sitting on the boards of five or six companies at any one time, covering a range of industries – a variety she relishes.

Building relationships

“You get very broad exposure and I love that as I’m allergic to routine and predictability! I enjoy the challenge of working with management teams to effect change. Many people think PE is just a transactional financial industry, but it’s really all about building relationships and unlocking value by creating the right teams. So I do a lot of work with Chairs and CEOs and I effect a lot of C-suite change. The businesses we’re working with usually need professionalising – I often find myself hiring the first CFO a business will ever have had. If you get the right team in place that is your best chance of success – with the right team anything is possible.”

It’s a sentiment with which David Brassard concurs. David’s path to PE has taken him from PwC Corporate Finance to Persistence Capital Partners, a PE firm focusing on the healthcare sector and from there to the TMT team of Novacap, one of Canada’s largest and fastest growing PE firms. Like Becky, it’s the people side of the business that keeps his interest:

“I like working with teams of smart people – it is a fascinating process, debating and coming up with an investment thesis for an opportunity. Your colleagues constantly challenge you and that keeps you on your toes.”

For David, the key skills required to meet the challenges of working in PE are a sharp focus at all times, an ability to learn fast and the development of acute and trustworthy judgement:

“The biggest challenge you face in PE is that you don’t come from inside the industries that you are buying out so you have to be able to get smart quickly and understand a company in 20 days instead of 20 years. You need to get to grips with the metrics, the KPIs and the specific market dynamics really fast. At the end of the day, you need to make an investment decision and put your money where your mouth is – you are valued above all for your judgement – for putting together an excellent case for your colleagues in a limited time.”

The ideal skill-set also includes an aptitude for the people side of PE, emphasises Becky:

“Character and personality will get you a long way in PE because it’s all about building relationships – just being a very analytical, spreadsheet junkie isn’t enough.”

Skills from the Cambridge MBA

They both praise the MBA experience for giving them skills invaluable in their roles. David says:

“The MBA is highly collaborative – we work in teams all the time and you get to know your cohort really well. I did my Global Consulting Project with a team of five for six weeks in South Africa and you get to know how people think, work and understand cultural differences, and this is incredibly valuable in the world of PE. My background is in technology and finance, but less on the operational side, so I learned a lot about business strategy, market strategies and general management and people skills.”

Becky adds: “The MBA sets you in really good stead for all the influencing and collaboration you have to do in PE. And I got my role with Venture Spires when they saw my biog in the MBA profile book – so it can have great practical value as well!”

What other advice would they offer MBAs thinking of a role in PE? David advises finding a role in “a PE firm specialising in industries which you really like. For me that was technology. Find an industry which appeals to you within the PE sector and you’ll have a fascinating career.”

Becky stresses the importance of building a network:

“PE firms are quite private and it can be hard to figure out what types of people they are seeking so you need to talk to as many people as you can in the industry and understand the culture of different PE houses, because some of them can be very tough places. Decide what culture you want to work within and try to find that through networking.”

Whatever the market may do in the future, both David and Becky’s hearts lie very firmly with PE. David wants to continue investing and helping grow companies – “I feel completely absorbed and passionate with what I’m doing right now – it’s a lot of fun!” Becky is eagerly anticipating her US challenge – “really looking forward to getting over there and getting on with building a team and the business”.