Early history and the development of venture capital
The seeds of the private equity industry were planted in 1946 with the founding of two venture capital firms: American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC) and J.H. Whitney & Company. Before World War II, venture capital investments (originally known as “development capital”) were primarily the domain of wealthy individuals and families. ARDC was founded by Georges Doriot, the “father of venture capitalism” and founder of INSEAD, with capital raised from institutional investors, to encourage private sector investments in businesses run by soldiers who were returning from World War II. ARDC is credited with the first major venture capital success story when its 1957 investment of $70,000 in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) would be valued at over $355 million after the company’s initial public offering in 1968 (representing a return of over 500 times on its investment and an annualized rate of return of 101%). It is commonly noted that the first venture-backed startup is Fairchild Semiconductor (which produced the first commercially practicable integrated circuit), funded in 1959 by what would later become Venrock Associates.
Origins of the leveraged buyout
The first leveraged buyout may have been the purchase by McLean Industries, Inc. of Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company in January 1955 and Waterman Steamship Corporation in May 1955. Under the terms of that transaction, McLean borrowed $42 million and raised an additional $7 million through an issue of preferred stock. When the deal closed, $20 million of Waterman cash and assets were used to retire $20 million of the loan debt. Similar to the approach employed in the McLean transaction, the use of publicly traded holding companies as investment vehicles to acquire portfolios of investments in corporate assets was a relatively new trend in the 1960s popularized by the likes of Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) and Victor Posner (DWG Corporation) and later adopted by Nelson Peltz (Triarc), Saul Steinberg (Reliance Insurance) and Gerry Schwartz (Onex Corporation). These investment vehicles would utilize a number of the same tactics and target the same type of companies as more traditional leveraged buyouts and in many ways could be considered a forerunner of the later private equity firms. In fact it is Posner who is often credited with coining the term “leveraged buyout” or “LBO”.
The leveraged buyout boom of the 1980s was conceived by a number of corporate financiers, most notably Jerome Kohlberg, Jr. and later his protégé Henry Kravis. Working for Bear Stearns at the time, Kohlberg and Kravis along with Kravis’ cousin George Roberts began a series of what they described as “bootstrap” investments. Many of these companies lacked a viable or attractive exit for their founders as they were too small to be taken public and the founders were reluctant to sell out to competitors and so a sale to a financial buyer could prove attractive. Their acquisition of Orkin Exterminating Company in 1964 is among the first significant leveraged buyout transactions. In the following years the three Bear Stearns bankers would complete a series of buyouts including Stern Metals (1965), Incom (a division of Rockwood International, 1971), Cobblers Industries (1971), and Boren Clay (1973) as well as Thompson Wire, Eagle Motors and Barrows through their investment in Stern Metals. By 1976, tensions had built up between Bear Stearns and Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts leading to their departure and the formation of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in that year.
Private equity in the 1980s
In January 1982, former US Secretary of the Treasury William Simon and a group of investors acquired Gibson Greetings, a producer of greeting cards, for $80 million, of which only $1 million was rumored to have been contributed by the investors. By mid-1983, just sixteen months after the original deal, Gibson completed a $290 million IPO and Simon made approximately $66 million. The success of the Gibson Greetings investment attracted the attention of the wider media to the nascent boom in leveraged buyouts. Between 1979 and 1989, it was estimated that there were over 2,000 leveraged buyouts valued in excess of $250 million.
During the 1980s, constituencies within acquired companies and the media ascribed the “corporate raid” label to many private equity investments, particularly those that featured a hostile takeover of the company, perceived asset stripping, major layoffs or other significant corporate restructuring activities. Among the most notable investors to be labeled corporate raiders in the 1980s included Carl Icahn, Victor Posner, Nelson Peltz, Robert M. Bass, T. Boone Pickens, Harold Clark Simmons, Kirk Kerkorian, Sir James Goldsmith, Saul Steinberg and Asher Edelman. Carl Icahn developed a reputation as a ruthless corporate raider after his hostile takeover of TWA in 1985. Many of the corporate raiders were one-time clients of Michael Milken, whose investment banking firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert helped raise blind pools of capital with which corporate raiders could make a legitimate attempt to takeover a company and provided high-yield debt financing of the buyouts.
One of the final major buyouts of the 1980s proved to be its most ambitious and marked both a high water mark and a sign of the beginning of the end of the boom that had begun nearly a decade earlier. In 1989, KKR closed in on a $31.1 billion dollar takeover of RJR Nabisco. It was, at that time and for over 17 years, the largest leverage buyout in history. The event was chronicled in the book (and later the movie), Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. KKR would eventually prevail in acquiring RJR Nabisco at $109 per share marking a dramatic increase from the original announcement that Shearson Lehman Hutton would take RJR Nabisco private at $75 per share. A fierce series of negotiations and horse-trading ensued which pitted KKR against Shearson Lehman Hutton and later Forstmann Little & Co. Many of the major banking players of the day, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Salomon Brothers, and Merrill Lynch were actively involved in advising and financing the parties. After Shearson Lehman’s original bid, KKR quickly introduced a tender offer to obtain RJR Nabisco for $90 per share—a price that enabled it to proceed without the approval of RJR Nabisco’s management. RJR’s management team, working with Shearson Lehman and Salomon Brothers, submitted a bid of $112, a figure they felt certain would enable them to outflank any response by Kravis’s team. KKR’s final bid of $109, while a lower dollar figure, was ultimately accepted by the board of directors of RJR Nabisco. At $31.1 billion of transaction value, RJR Nabisco was by far the largest leveraged buyouts in history. In 2006 and 2007, a number of leveraged buyout transactions were completed that for the first time surpassed the RJR Nabisco leveraged buyout in terms of nominal purchase price. However, adjusted for inflation, none of the leveraged buyouts of the 2006 – 2007 period would surpass RJR Nabisco.
By the end of the 1980s the excesses of the buyout market were beginning to show, with the bankruptcy of several large buyouts including Robert Campeau’s 1988 buyout of Federated Department Stores, the 1986 buyout of the Revco drug stores, Walter Industries, FEB Trucking and Eaton Leonard. Additionally, the RJR Nabisco deal was showing signs of strain, leading to a recapitalization in 1990 that involved the contribution of $1.7 billion of new equity from KKR.
Drexel Burnham Lambert was the investment bank most responsible for the boom in private equity during the 1980s due to its leadership in the issuance of high-yield debt.
Drexel reached an agreement with the government in which it pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to six felonies – three counts of stock parking and three counts of stock manipulation. It also agreed to pay a fine of $650 million – at the time, the largest fine ever levied under securities laws. Milken left the firm after his own indictment in March 1989. On February 13, 1990 after being advised by Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas F. Brady, the SEC, the NYSE and the Federal Reserve, Drexel Burnham Lambert officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Age of the mega-buyout 2005-2007
The combination of decreasing interest rates, loosening lending standards and regulatory changes for publicly traded companies (specifically the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) would set the stage for the largest boom private equity had seen. Marked by the buyout of Dex Media in 2002, large multi-billion dollar U.S. buyouts could once again obtain significant high yield debt financing and larger transactions could be completed. By 2004 and 2005, major buyouts were once again becoming common, including the acquisitions of Toys “R” Us, The Hertz Corporation, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and SunGard in 2005.
As 2005 ended and 2006 began, new “largest buyout” records were set and surpassed several times with nine of the top ten buyouts at the end of 2007 having been announced in an 18-month window from the beginning of 2006 through the middle of 2007. In 2006, private equity firms bought 654 U.S. companies for $375 billion, representing 18 times the level of transactions closed in 2003. Additionally, U.S. based private equity firms raised $215.4 billion in investor commitments to 322 funds, surpassing the previous record set in 2000 by 22% and 33% higher than the 2005 fundraising total. The following year, despite the onset of turmoil in the credit markets in the summer, saw yet another record year of fundraising with $302 billion of investor commitments to 415 funds. Among the mega-buyouts completed during the 2006 to 2007 boom were: Equity Office Properties, HCA, Alliance Boots and TXU.
In July 2007, turmoil that had been affecting the mortgage markets, spilled over into the leveraged finance and high-yield debt markets. The markets had been highly robust during the first six months of 2007, with highly issuer friendly developments including PIK and PIK Toggle (interest is “Payable In Kind”) and covenant light debt widely available to finance large leveraged buyouts. July and August saw a notable slowdown in issuance levels in the high yield and leveraged loan markets with few issuers accessing the market. Uncertain market conditions led to a significant widening of yield spreads, which coupled with the typical summer slowdown led many companies and investment banks to put their plans to issue debt on hold until the autumn. However, the expected rebound in the market after Labor Day 2007 did not materialize and the lack of market confidence prevented deals from pricing. By the end of September, the full extent of the credit situation became obvious as major lenders including Citigroup and UBS AG announced major writedowns due to credit losses. The leveraged finance markets came to a near standstill. As 2007 ended and 2008 began, it was clear that lending standards had tightened and the era of “mega-buyouts” had come to an end. Nevertheless, private equity continues to be a large and active asset class and the private equity firms, with hundreds of billions of dollars of committed capital from investors are looking to deploy capital in new and different transactions.
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