Six questions CEOs ask us

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At ECI we’re fortunate to meet a lot of CEOs and founders, and for those contemplating raising investment, they often have similar questions or anxieties they’re hoping to address. Here we’ve pulled together the six most common questions that are front of mind for CEOs:

1. What impact will investment have on my team, and how can I incentivise them?

First of all, we see helping businesses to build their teams for future success as one of our most important roles. We often work with investee companies to help them identify areas where they need more strength – they might need to appoint a chief technology officer for the first time, for example – and we have access to a broad network of talent that might be a good fit.

As for incentivisation, our deal structures typically contain “sweet equity” – share options and other instruments that enable the business to reward key individuals with shared ownership. A chunk of this will typically go to the CEO, with the remainder available for other members of the senior team, and where relevant a provision for new hires and rising stars.

One thing we’ve observed over the years is that CEOs often feel they have to allocate most of this equity straight away. Our advice would be to keep back a proportion of the pot to reward staff who deliver over time; those allocations may go to the same staff who received the initial awards, but if you don’t keep some back, it is difficult to reward performance/contribution on an ongoing basis.

Another way we can help business leaders prepare the team for the future is by helping them with succession planning if it’s something they’re considering. Whether it’s identifying top talent within your business and creating a roadmap for them or exploiting our network to help you identify potential candidates, succession planning is often something front of mind for CEOs as they consider the next investment round. For example, in 2017 we delivered a succession buyout for Jonathan Elliott, CEO of Make it Cheaper, allowing him and his co-founder, Chris Cole to gradually transition towards a Non-Exec position and introducing CEO, Paul Galligan, former CEO of Comparethemarket. Jonathan and Chris were still active in the business they had built, the newly rebranded Bionic, and as well as value from the initial sale had a significant minority stake at the next exit which delivered a very strong 4.8x return.

Finally, it is worth saying that some teams can worry that investors such as ECI will put pressure on the company to grow more quickly. They may worry about what happens if they don’t deliver? Our view is that it’s the CEO’s role to make those decisions, just as it was before the investment. We can share our insights from a wider market view, but our advice tends to be that the CEO should trust his or her instincts.

2. Will I stay in the business until the next exit?

Our experience is that most CEOs stay on at the business after we’ve invested, continue through to our exit, and are still there well beyond that point. Those looking for investment usually recognise the exciting growth trajectories of their businesses, and they want to be part of that for the long term.

CEOs may have heard that private equity firms look to change leadership teams, but that couldn’t be further from the truth from our perspective. We make investment decisions based on our belief in the CEO and their ability to deliver on their strategy. It’s true that investment will accelerate the pace of the business’s growth, but most CEOs thrive in that environment and don’t just deliver but outperform their objectives.

CEOs can worry about knee-jerk reactions to bumps in the road. At ECI we don’t make snap reactions to challenges, as we take a long-term perspective. It’s also worth saying that we’ve been investing in businesses for over 46 years, so we know that growth is not always linear. There will be challenging times, but we stay calm in the face of adversity – we pride ourselves on not overreacting when problems come up; we work with the team to solve them.

That said, there are a number of CEOs we have worked with who proactively wanted to move into a new role during our investment. For those that plan to exit at the same time as we do that might mean moving into a Non-Exec role, but for others, we sometimes see they want to refocus on what made them fall in love with the business from the start.

For example, at insurance broker, Clear Group, the CEO, Howard Lickens, had successfully delivered 24 acquisitions before our investment. As the business scaled, he recognised that he wanted to carry on focussing on that M&A strategy and leveraging his network in the insurance space. We introduced a new CEO to support that transition, and Howard’s renewed focus significantly accelerated Clear’s rate of M&A, delivering fantastic results by the time of exit. Similarly, Mobysoft founder Derek Steele had founded and developed Mobysoft’s predictive analytics software product and wanted to pivot back towards product. Derek is now loving his role as Chief Innovation Officer at Mobysoft, continuing to develop best in class technology to support Mobysoft’s Tech For Good proposition.

Whatever the case, we can help work with the CEO to plan a smooth transition for the company, and for those looking for succession planning, we work together to make sure they are benefiting from the growth of the company and ensuring a sustainable future.

3. If you take a minority stake, will I retain more control?

At ECI we are happy to take both majority and minority stakes in businesses – and the latter is becoming more popular. All investments will contain some rights, whichever private equity firm you choose. What we tend to see is that the impact of that depends far more on the approach of the firm and how they work with management teams. It’s why we’re agnostic as to whether we’re a minority or majority investor. We see our role as providing support to the management team as it pursues growth.

We will provide challenge, and we have some important capabilities that we can share, such as our Commercial Team, who can provide support on projects that drive value. But we work with our investee businesses to agree what will maximise value, and we don’t have a playbook we roll out as standard – you know best for your business.

In specific circumstances, it may be that you want additional help. For example, we have lots of experience managing M&A transactions, so if that’s part of your growth strategy, you may look to us for a more proactive approach. That strategy has worked really well at Moneypenny, for example, where our New York office has supported them to complete two US acquisitions in Atlanta and Colorado. Similarly, for teams that want to leverage data to enhance decision-making, we can provide hands-on support using best-practice data science. At MiQ we worked closely with the team to build a high-performance global BI team from scratch in 100 days – find out how they did it here.

Whatever it is you’re looking for though, the aim is always to support the business rather than control the process.

Slice of cake

4. What happens in the first year after you invest?

First, we always hold strategy sessions following an investment. The idea is for everyone to share their experiences and observations from the deal process and to collectively agree strategic priorities. These are easily some of the most impactful and valuable days. They get everyone involved so that we can work out together what will move the needle and set a trajectory for the investment period.

From the strategy day, we develop roadmaps together in key priority areas – new hirings, product launches or technology investments, say. The sooner those plans can be defined the quicker we can help you make an impact.

You will have already met your ECI team during the deal process. We introduce you to our investment, origination and commercial teams – we call this the “power of three teams” – from the get-go, rather than parachuting people in after the transaction is completed. However, in the first year, we’ll also make sure you’re introduced to other businesses in the ECI portfolio network and invite you to join the ECI Unlocked programme.

We believe these networks are vital. It can be lonely at the top of a business, so the opportunity to share experiences with peers in the same position at other organisations is valuable. The same goes for all your functional leads; we think that introducing them to their opposite numbers at other businesses is a fantastic chance to share best practice, support and learn from one another.

5. How should I pitch my business to ECI, or another investor?

Every pitch is – and should be – very different. But, as someone on the receiving end of many pitches, there are some things we’ve noticed time and time again. One point is that while business leaders are often very focused on potential value enhancers – M&A activity, international expansion and so on – they often have not spent much time thinking about what might inhibit value creation. Awareness of this shows a maturity around their business – and as investors, we’re expecting that there will be areas which need investment, both of time and money.

Being clear on your customer and their needs is key. Being able to back that up with data will help investors get straight to the most important part of the business. Customer segmentation and how it plays into growth is one area, in particular, that’s worth spending plenty of time on. In every investment process, we’re really keen to see where businesses see their most attractive growth opportunities – and to hear about how they are prioritising sales and marketing efforts accordingly. The more that investors can understand the key growth segments for the future, the better.

6. How should I choose an investor?

Firstly, there is no point in pretending that price and deal economics are not key issues. You need the right fit with an investor to work with them on an ongoing basis, but their upfront valuation of your business and deal structure will obviously be important too. You should have a clear view of what you’re expecting so that you can judge offers accordingly.

If you are aligned on value, in our view the next most important consideration of all is personal chemistry. You’re going to be working with these people for several years to come, often in fast-paced and challenging situations. You need to be sure you’ll feel comfortable picking up the phone for a chat whatever the circumstances.

In that context, it is worth thinking about the values and style you’re looking for from an investor ahead of the process. Do you enjoy working with people with lots of energy and drive? Are you looking for calm amid the noise? How much support are you actually after? Private equity professionals largely look and sound the same at first glance, but every company has its own culture and individuals come with their own personalities. It’s a fantastic investment of time to really get to know your potential investor before you commit. And ask around – the investment industry isn’t that large, a quick personal chat with another CEO or an advisor can tell you a lot about who will actually deliver on what they promise.

Private equity firms should be able to add value. What capabilities of their own will they bring to the investment? That might be a deep-seated expertise in data and analytics or experience in internationalising UK businesses. If there are areas of competency that hold the key to unlocking value at your business, look for an investor able to provide this.

In addition, relevant experience is really valuable. For example, when we met energy and sustainability services provider, Zenergi, we had already invested in Bionic, which offered energy and other business essential comparison services for SMEs. This gave us a huge advantage in understanding their business as we were already familiar with the nuances and fluctuations of the energy market – it meant we were both looking at the same picture from day one. Of course, every business is different, but an investor who knows your subsector well will not have to waste time getting up to speed on your model or market.

It may be that you need a different type of experience: if your growth plan is built around, say, M&A, expansion into the US, technology integration or some other initiative, an investor who has been through that before will help you to avoid common mistakes. For example, when we invested in Mobysoft, the business was looking to develop new products around its core Rentsense module, to enhance its offering to the social housing sector. Product range extension was a strategy we had already supported at CPOMS, leading to the successful launch of its StaffSafe module. Relevant experience can help to highlight opportunities and challenges to different strategies, helping management teams accelerate growth plans.

It’s not just what support investors offer but also how they’ll provide it. Are you looking for help in-house, or on a consultancy basis? Are you happy with multiple points of contact or do you prefer a one-to-one relationship? How will an investor work with the rest of your team? You need to be confident you can build an operational relationship with an investor that works for you. At ECI we make sure that one of our Commercial Team is involved ahead of a transaction and stays part of the team right through to exit, as we find that continuity means you can hit the ground running right from day one and they feel like an extension of your team. That might not be the same everywhere.

These are just some examples of how it’s important to focus on the questions which reflect how you want to work with an investor. Choosing an investor to back you and your business is an incredibly important decision, so taking the time to get to know them is always a valuable investment.

If you’d like to chat with someone at ECI about any of these questions or to discuss how we might be able to help your business, please reach out.

David Ewing, ECI

About the author

David Ewing

I joined ECI in 2001 after an early career in software development, and since then have largely focussed my time at ECI on software and digital businesses. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great and ambitious management teams including our current portfolio companies: Zenergi, Avantia, Ciphr, ATG, Peoplesafe, Bionic and MiQ. Back […]

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