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Reward Offered for Industry "Killers" - Results of Annual Semaphore PE Industry Confidence Survey

Posted by Mark DiSalvo on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 @ 3:15PM  

By Mark S. DiSalvo

It seems my industry colleagues have been wrongly optimistic and also hyper cynical. At least that is the bottom line of the read I get in comparing the analysis of the 2nd annual Semaphore Confidence Survey with last year's results.  And some people have very threatening ways.

Let's start with pay.  At the start of last year 51% of the nearly 500 respondents to the 2009 Confidence Survey believed they would earn more money than the prior year.  The truth was that only 11% of this year's respondents reported they did in fact earn more than the prior year and nearly 67% earned less than the prior year.  But hope springs eternal, just like every investor is certain that they will score a tens strike on the next investment, 78% of this year's respondents believe they will earn more money than last year.  Let's check back a year from now and see whether BMW dealers will be smiling.

My peers demonstrated their optimism with their pocketbooks too (well, their LP's dollars anyway). In the beginning of 2009 8% expected not to do any deals and fully 74% thought they would make up to six investments.  The year proofed strong with no respondents reporting the intent to do no deals and nearly 98% doing up to six deals with 73% closing 1-3 deals. Further, those deals were larger than expected with 62% self reporting their deals were in excess of $25 Million in each discrete investment when they anticipated less than 17% believed their deals would be above $25 Million in size at the time of last year's survey.  As one respondent commented "I smell irrational exuberance". 

And in what are we investing?  We may be either fickle or very nimble as a business class. This year's expected top three industries were not in the top three last year. Health Care, Enterprise Technology and Financial Services were win, place and show as compared to Digital Media, Sustainable Energy/Cleantech and Infrastructure at 1, 2 and 3 last year.   Health Care moved up from 4th last year.  People are apparently smelling money and opportunity in Obama-care. As one person noted, "...when you mess with 16% of the economy something's got to break our way."

The just under 400 who did reply this year were similar to last year's mix of VC and Buy-out pros, with a decidedly higher representation of operating executives responding.  This year's mix of survey takers were very high on themselves believing that 63% were confident in their business and 77% confident in the person they see in the mirror.  Both marked increases to last year's numbers.  They even had more confidence in their bosses with 50% expressing that view - nearly double last year.

This confidence however does not extend itself to America's political leaders.  Respondents were downright, well...down on President Obama and his economic team. Only 11% expressed any confidence in the president with 55% damning his economic team (compared to 37% disapproval for Obama).   The cynicism is markedly clear when literally no one - not a single person - expressed any confidence in Congress with 65% stating no confidence in the folks under the Capital dome. Even state governments and state legislatures earned 12% confidence. This is what happens when you threaten to screw with capital gains taxes, I guess. Interestingly, the survey closed on election eve of the Massachusetts vote to replace Ted Kennedy in the US Senate.  I think we know how the Bay State respondents voted!

Click the link to see the highlights of the results of the this year's Semaphore Confidence Survey results.  If you want to do your own comparison, click the link to see last year's Semaphore Confidence Survey results.

While some might think the survey results rather depressing in either fact or faultily hopeful there was more than a bit of entertainment. Several wondered after the wag who famously noted in the survey comment section last year that, "PE is dead and I wish my boss were too."   Commenter's this year frequently asked after that quote master, speculating if he or she were "on the lam", noting that "if he did murder his boss it would be justifiable homicide".  Our infamous predictor never surfaced - neither admitting to the crime or the prediction. However, a new would-be industry murderer surfaced stating with equal certainty, "‘PE Killer' was wrong. It is VC that is dead. And my boss is comatose..."  I doubt that either PE or VC conclusion reflects the true state of our industry.  That said, apparently at least two of our colleagues have either a morose sense of humor or deserve to be patted down before they go to an industry conference. Maybe we should post a reward to uncover their identity.  Wanna contribute? I'll put up the first half a buck.


Mark S. DiSalvo is the President and CEO of Sema4 Inc., dba Semaphore (, a leading global professional services provider of Private Equity funds-under-management and technology diligence services. Semaphore currently holds fiduciary obligations as General Partner for six Private Equity and Venture Capital funds and advises General and Limited Partners as well as corporations around the world. Semaphore's corporate offices are in Boston with principal offices in New York and London.


Topics: Venture Capital, troubled funds, private equity funds, Semaphore, general partners, limited partners, technology diligence, technology, VC, finance advice

Should GPs support the ILPA Private Equity Principles?

Posted by Mark DiSalvo on Fri, Dec 4, 2009 @ 011:15 AM

By Mark DiSalvo

I have been fielding these same questions from my GP, LP and other industry colleagues:

  •  "What do you think about the ILPA Principles?" (soft voice)
  •  "How do you think it will affect my business?" (worried voice)
  • "They don't matter - we go through this every ten years when LPs try to get the upper hand." (with bravado)

Others are either more certain in their opinion or not so sanguine and believe that this effort will have a long term (and dependent on your perspective) positive or deleterious impact on the industry.  A few LPs, smaller ones and non-ILPA members are even cowed by the impact feeling that the "big dogs" are dictating their ability to enter into funding opportunities.  I've been most surprised by the few on the record comments by industry members and in particular the lack of specific statements by GPs. So...I thought I'd relate some of the conversations I've had these past days and share my expressed opinion. 

 It's pretty hard to disagree with common sense. I see nothing offensively troubling in the document (  In fact, it has offered a kind of first hand self-review opportunity for the industry.  I know.  I know.  We GPs are supposed to rebel instinctively against any proposal by an LP that governs or restricts our ability to do business. Bull!  We appeal to Pension Funds, endowments, banks and other institutions for fund capital and want as few restrictions as possible. After all, this is capitalism, no?  Atlas will not shrug his great burden but rather heave the world as we know it if these so-called Principles become ubiquitous.  Hardly.

OK, let's deal with the objection I most often hear when I mention my general support of the ILPA Principles, "But Mark, LPs are your clients. They give you the opportunity to triage or take over their troubled funds".  True. But no less than they are the client of every other more traditional fund. They give us all the opportunity to use our skills to generate opportunity for entrepreneurs, jobs for citizens, innovation for the public and profits that we GPs and LPs hopefully get to share. Sure, Semaphore's fund turnaround and workout practice depends on good relationships with and performance for LPs (the same as the rest of my GP colleagues) but this is only part of our business. Fully half of our professionals are engaged in the conduct of diligence on people, products, markets, strategy and technology for GPs (yes, those that will never require our turnaround services) who value the independent review of an investment judgment before they risk LP capital and their own carry opportunity.  It is this group of Semaphore clients that one expects has the most objections to the ILPA Principles.  In truth, extended conversation suggests differently.

Beyond the visceral reaction, there is need for deeper understanding of the moment in time in which we now conduct business than ever before.   We must rise above initial response to see our industry at a watershed moment. And we can lose the moment if we settle for the usual ad hoc proprietary negotiations that will get us, collectively, nowhere.  This is true of both PE and VC.    

Somebody once said that people change when they see the light, others when they feel the heat. There has been plenty of heat with the roiling of the marketplace, constriction of fund formation activity, difficulty of capital access and restricted liquidity opportunity.  Nevertheless I believe this is a moment of light more than fire.

I don't intend to take a point-by-point defense of the proposal. There may be one or two particular sentences that may seem to cross a long held and well trod line. But don't let your anathema to objectionable parts dismiss the value in the proposal as a whole. Take a breath then take a fresh read of the ILPA Best Practices enumerated. The Principles provide a "level setting" opportunity across the industry that will enable two things.  One, a fair and open platform between LPs and GPs that will afford, even accelerate, profit opportunity for both parties. And two, the best chance to put what could be a years-long, fund-by-fund battle to change the so-called power relationship between LPs and GPs. 

I'm not talking about GP surrender.  Good fund formation lawyers will and should protect the interests of GPs in negotiating LPA's.  Enlightened LPs know that there is elasticity in how the principles are memorialized in contract. However, if we cede no ground as GPs then disharmony and contention will become the hallmark of fundraising.  Commitments and allocations will both diminish as performance inevitably dips during this unnecessary boxing match.  We are all in a difficult enough environment that has too many of us suspect of "pay for play" fundraising and selfish exploitation of Limited Partner Agreements. 

One thing I do know for certain: I am likely to have fewer turnaround and workout engagements upon the adoption of these Principles.  A large proportion of the funds we take over are a consequence of governance sins committed by GPs and the lack of clarity in LPA's.  I'd rather redirect my company's growth in future years to the prevention of troubled fund situations. After all, when LPs have problem children it keeps them from spending time and money on the good relationships in their portfolio.  Selfishly, it might even help us grow our diligence and advisory practices. 

Francis Picabia is not a richly rewarded GP or powerful LP. Rather he was an artist who famously said "Our heads are round so that thoughts can change direction." Run these Principles around your mind a few times.  I believe you will see the bright and profitable path that LPs and GPs should walk together. I contend that general support of the ILPA initiative will reward the industry with long term - even decades long - "peace" between the parties, a more robust fundraising environment, and opportunity for larger profit sharing for each.

Mark S. DiSalvo is the President and CEO of Sema4 Inc., dba Semaphore, a leading global professional services provider of Private Equity funds-under-management and technology diligence services. Semaphore currently holds fiduciary obligations as General Partner for six Private Equity and Venture Capital funds and advises General and Limited Partners as well as Corporations around the world. Semaphore's corporate offices are in Boston with principal offices in New York and London.

Topics: troubled funds, private equity funds, general partners, limited partners, ILPA, ILPA Principles

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