We chat to Adam Whitfield, Investor Relations Manager at ECI, about how he got into the world of IR, what makes him get out of bed in the morning, and his youthful fondness for demolition.
Q: How did you get into the world of investor relations and fundraising?
Weirdly, I fell into a role at university, fundraising for one of the societies. The role was to get in touch with corporates – law firms, banks, consultancies – and convince them to sponsor our society. Essentially, we would help them to build their brand and hire onto their graduate programmes, and they would fund our parties. So, it was a bit of a win-win! But what I found I really liked was trying to build relationships with these big corporates – working together with them to show how we could add more value for them than other societies, be a better partner, and justify their investment.
So, that was my first taste of fundraising. The opportunity then came back around after I had worked at Barclays for a few years after university, when a recruiter called me to see if I was interested in a role working at a placement agent. It was a bit of a career change, but I could see it was the same underlying principle as that fundraising role at university – demonstrating value and differentiation, and ultimately trying to justify an investment. Albeit the commitments we get in private equity tend to have a few more zeroes on the end…
Q: How different was it working at a placement agent versus in-house?
I’m really grateful for the experience I got working in placement – it’s a great place to start out, especially if you’re considering moving into IR. The learning curve is really steep, and you learn a lot about the world of private markets in a short period of time. And it gives you a great grounding as you’re working across a number of asset classes, sectors and strategies. In lots of ways, the tasks you’re doing can be quite similar to what you do in an IR role. The biggest difference in-house, is that you are much more immersed in the details of your team, strategy and portfolio – and ultimately, you’re speaking to investors about your own firm. That is quite a big difference.
Q: Why did you choose ECI when thinking about that move?
Because I was working in the industry already, I had known of ECI for a while. There are certain firms within the industry that have a great reputation – what some people refer to as a halo effect. ECI was definitely one of those. It’s well-established, the performance is fantastic, and the investor base is really strong. It had this history of success which really appealed.
Then when I met the team, I realised quite quickly that despite that having been around for decades, there was no desire to stand still, and importantly, despite the success, there was no ego at all. That combination of success, a culture of continuous improvement and a lack of ego is definitely something I was looking for – and that’s not something you find in every PE firm.
Q: How have you seen the fundraising market change since you started working in it five years ago?
It definitely feels more competitive now, and more than ever, GPs really do need a reason to exist. That could be sector or subsector expertise, exposure to a certain geography, unique deal sourcing or value creation levers, amongst other things. Five years ago, a generalist GP competing in auction processes without an edge and with no real value creation credentials might have been able to get away with raising capital. It doesn’t feel like that is the case now. LPs want their managers to have a clear strategy and a ‘secret sauce’ – and you really have to show why your proposition can justify taking a spot in their portfolio.
In terms of relationship-building, COVID definitely had an impact. It’s much easier now to resort to a Zoom call rather than seeing someone face-to-face, so you really do have to get out of your office and make the effort to see people and build that relationship.
Then lastly, one of the biggest changes has been around ESG. Investors quite rightly spend a lot more time now than they ever have before on ESG and operational DD. Luckily ECI has always been quite forward-thinking on this, but it’s noticeable how the importance of this from an LP perspective has increased.
Q: Has anything surprised you since joining?
I think one of the things you don’t get a sense of from the outside-in is the lack of siloes. You see a lot of private equity firms have their investment team, origination team, commercial team or equivalent and those teams are parachuted in and out of deals at different stages of the investment process. It was a surprise to see that, despite having three teams and three offices, it is one team throughout. If you take a new investment for example, someone from the origination, investment and commercial team will all work hand in hand throughout the whole deal process. And that same team works together all the way to exit.
I think that’s a real differentiator in terms of the outcomes we produce. Everyone has ownership of the deal. But it also comes back to the no ego thing – if we didn’t have that, we probably couldn’t make that model work so effectively.
Q: What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
The IR job is basically a combination of relationship building and storytelling. Even if you have great results, if people don’t buy into the story, into how you have generated those results and why it is repeatable and sustainable over the long term, it will be much harder to get them to invest. That side of it really interests me. Asking the question, “what is it that we do differently? Why is it interesting to our investors? How do we tell them this in the most effective and concise way?” Then you have to bring that story to life with facts and data.
On the relationship building side, compared to lots of jobs in finance, it’s not transactional in the same way. Obviously, you have a short term goal of wanting to raise a fund, but that’s really just the first part of the journey. Our investors are putting faith in us for the next 10 years – and we hope they’ll stick with us for much longer. That means this really is about building that long term relationship – some of ECI’s investors have been invested with us since the 90s. And then hopefully you can deliver on what you’ve promised your investors. I think that’s the best bit – being able to tell your investors the good news when you deliver great exits.
Quick Fire with Adam:
Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?
I’ve watched a few of those videos where they put the size of the Earth into the context of the rest of the universe and the size of it always blows my mind. The sheer scale of it makes me think there must be life out there somewhere. Hopefully if there is, they’re looking after their planet better than we’re looking after ours!
What luxury item would you take to a desert island?
I feel like people always answer these sorts of questions with things that define them as a person… the honest answer for me is I’d probably go for one of those dune buggies you get in the desert – maybe a solar powered one. Quite practical – and it would be a lot of fun!
What did you want to be when you were 5?
This is quite niche for a 5-year-old, but I remember I really wanted to work in demolition. For some reason I found the idea of sitting in a crane and swinging a massive wrecking ball into buildings quite exciting. Actually looking back, I imagine it was probably quite worrying for my parents…
If you had a time machine, what year would you go back to?
I’ve just been to see “Back to the Future” at the theatre, so it’s a timely question. I think I would say the curious part of me wants to say something like ancient Rome or back to when dinosaurs existed. But from a more fun perspective, I’d like to go back to 1920s New York, go to some of those underground jazz bars, speakeasies, that sort of thing.
How do you relax after a busy day of work?
We’ve just got a puppy, so relaxing is slightly out of the picture at the moment. But I would say a couple of beers and watching some football on TV. As long as it’s not a Leeds game – as a Leeds fan I can tell you it’s been a long time since you could call one of our games relaxing.
What was the last TV show you had on?
I am currently working my way through the US office which I’m loving. Slightly late to the party on that, and I’m sure I’ll get people telling me the UK version is better, but for me Michael Scott is TV gold!