Driving growth through bolt-ons in private equity

Over the course of 40 years of investing in growth companies, we have found that bolt-ons can be a powerful way to achieve growth and add strategic value. When portfolio companies decide bolt-on acquisitions are a strategy enabler, ECI can help in terms of both finding the right bolt-ons and making them work.

Finding the right businesses

In our experience, bolt-ons can be an effective enabler of the company strategy. Having clarity on the overall business plan allows the role of the acquisitions to be clearly articulated and executed. Typically, they can support the strategy in a number of ways:

First, they can add scale to an existing platform. For example, CarTrawler’s acquisition of Holiday Autos in 2013 added considerable transaction volumes to the business’ existing B2C operation. The team identified Holiday Autos (a previous ECI investment) as a deal that would provide significant synergies with CarTrawler, as well as a highly valued consumer brand.

Cartrawler and holiday autos
XLN logo

Second, an acquisition can help a business rapidly enter a new product category.

For example, during ECI’s investment in XLN – a provider of telecoms services to SMEs – the business acquired Card Processing Solutions to provide complimentary card processing services to its existing customer base. This enabled the business to broaden its SME proposition.                                    

Finally, the right target company can enable a business to effectively enter a new geography. Clarke Energy’s international growth has been bolstered by acquisitions covering Bangladesh, South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.       

Clarke Energy logo
Fourth logo

Fourth’s acquisition of Adaco in 2012 allowed the business to access the attractive US market. In addition to accessing a complementary product and customer base.

While strategic planning, we have helped teams form a view of what type of acquisition they are looking for. We also identify and approach attractive targets. Using various techniques and tools, alongside our network, we build detailed market maps that provide a close to whole of market view. We then collaborate with teams to triage the company list down to a best targets shortlist. Next, we devise the best approach to unlocking those opportunities. This whole of market view serves as an invaluable framework for assessing the relative attractiveness of various targets. This therefore informs how enthusiastically or otherwise a particular business should be pursued. Rather than getting excited about the one or two businesses being sold right now.

A good example of this was the bolt-ons made during our private equity investment in Citation.

Citation - professional solutions

A central part of the strategy to develop the proposition for SMEs was to make an acquisition in an adjacent, complementary area that would fit well alongside the core health & safety and employment law offering. We identified and screened 106 potential targets, arriving at an initial shortlist of 18. From this list, we prioritised QMS, an ISO certification business. As an attractive target with the brand, product offer, and scale, the board felt QMS would help Citation successfully enter into a new market. The ECI team supported Citation on the initial approach, through negotiation, due diligence and integration planning, culminating in the completion of the deal in May 2015.

Unlocking value

Whilst much work and thought can go into finding and acquiring the right business, unlocking value is hugely important. Thorough planning is critical to making the deal work. Without this, companies can fail to fully realise the benefits. Alternatively, unexpected problems can divert attention from business as usual. We work closely with teams to ensure that this process is robust, well thought through, and well-resourced. The following considerations can help maximise the value of an acquisition.

Clarity around what will deliver value and how the acquisition will run alongside the existing business: Is the deal about cost synergies, or cross-selling products? Are there areas of underperformance or resourcing that need to be fixed? Will the businesses be run as two separate sites or as one office? In some instances, the acquisition can be allowed to run separately and slowly integrated. Whereas in others – for example, if the business is underperforming – conducting the integration quickly is better. With CarTrawler, the rationale behind the Holiday Autos deal was customer base acquisition to run through the existing platform. Therefore, it was important to execute clean website and booking engine switchovers on day one of the deal.

Understand the risks: Of course, the rationale for any acquisition is value creation. However in the early phases, understanding any risks and ensuring a mitigation plan is in place are the most important tactics. Identifying potential issues around the main processes such as cash collection, key customer contract risks, or any service problems before the deal should be the focus early on.

Resource accordingly: It can be easy to underestimate the amount of work or complexity involved in managing an acquisition, especially if it is the first time a company has done one. Planning early, understanding the work required, and being realistic about management bandwidth are critical considerations. This is an area where we at ECI have worked alongside teams to both identify the requirements and help resource accordingly. Over the years we have built both our own experience and an advisor network. Both can provide the necessary focus and expertise to ensure that the integration plan is effectively executed, and the team can still focus on running the business.

In summary, we believe bolt-ons aid businesses to deliver sustainable growth and strategically develop into new markets and product categories. We’re a private equity investor with a strong track record of partnering with teams through this process. We help identify, diligence and integrate target companies to deliver strong returns. Based on our experience, there are a few things to bear in mind:

Well-planned acquisitions can have a big impact on exit valuation

  • They can take longer and require more time investment than is often estimated
  • Planning integration well in advance of the deal closing is imperative
  • It can be easy to over-estimate some of the synergies
  • Make sure the existing business is stable and can provide adequate time and attention
  • And finally…don’t forget the day job!

Please contact Suzanne Pike for further information.

About the author

Suzanne Pike

My role is to make sure we know the best growing and resilient businesses there are, and that they know and want to work with us. Post-investment, my team and I provide hands on support to the businesses we back to develop their M&A strategies.

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