We chat to Duncan Ramsay, Partner at ECI, about how he fell into private equity, the changing role of sustainability in the industry, and BBQ v Raclette.
Q: Tell me about your journey into private equity.
It certainly wasn’t a totally linear route. Quite unusually for private equity, I did a psychology degree. University wasn’t something I definitely knew I wanted to do, but psychology was at least something I found interesting. That gave me quite a good grounding in creating hypotheses, testing and using data, which would later come in handy. Directly after the degree, I worked in a number of different roles in corporates in my native New Zealand, including a graduate program at Telecom New Zealand where I had my first exposure to strategy and consultants.
I then did the classic Kiwi experience of travelling for a year, and most of my friends were in London, so I thought I’d try living here. It was only ever an 18-month plan but then I met a girl, got a job, a house, a child, as the story goes. Following the strategy exposure in NZ, I started working in PwC’s deals strategy team, where I was exposed to the full spectrum of private equity firms. I wasn’t necessarily chasing a move into private equity, but I was working on PE deals and growth projects with their portfolio companies, so had a decent base level of understanding of what life might be like on the other side of the fence. Having experienced corporate and consulting life I knew I liked the pace and variety of consulting, but also the longer term involvement, and responsibility for outcomes that you get in a “real” business – which Private Equity offered.
Q: What made you want to join ECI?
Having worked with ECI on a number of projects, I knew I really liked the business before joining. They invested in great businesses, I liked their focus on growth and resilience, the way they worked with advisors and management teams, and the people and culture of the firm. The role was also a natural fit. I had presumed that if I wanted to move into private equity, I would need to be on the investment side, but I enjoyed working with companies on growth projects as well as on the deal itself. The ECI Commercial Team was focussed on exactly that, and I managed to convince them I was the right guy for the job!
Q: How has ECI changed since you joined in 2017?
Some stuff will be visible externally, like the scale of the funds, the focus on subsectors, the track record of performance, and the scale of the team. But alongside that, there are some less visible themes such as ECI’s evolution towards becoming an “enlightened” PE firm – by which we mean really focussing on inclusivity, the people we hire and how we look after them, and how people across the organisation are valued. We have a much greater focus on giving back and sustainability. And that’s stuff we also are much more equipped now to support our portfolio on. Our ESG Toolkit helps to connect portfolio companies on key topics, such as creating Net Zero strategies, for example.
Q: What projects are you working on that standout at the moment?
So many – part of the fun of my role is the limitless flow of super interesting projects. That might be working on new deals, projects within the portfolio companies I work with, exits, or internal ECI developments. Just one example of this is working closely with Brett in our New York office to assess a US-market strategy for one company. It involves breaking down opportunities by segment and state and thinking through the most logical route for entrance.
Alongside that I have several new deals in the pipeline, I’m organising our upcoming ECI Unlocked Tech Forum for CTOs across our portfolio, and I’m working with the rest of the ESG Committee to push forward the ESG agenda. Never a boring moment!
Q: You mentioned the ESG Committee – how are you seeing the role of private equity in sustainability changing?
There is certainly a lot more focus on ESG in the last few years. I think private equity has an impactful role to play, helping the businesses we partner with to make progress across the ESG space. We need businesses we invest in to make progress against these topics as it helps mitigate risk, attract talent, and drive growth. The broader investment community has woken up to the risks and opportunities in this space, and PE-backed businesses need to consider these factors to optimise value. And we’re all about helping businesses to optimise value.
Q: What advice would you give to people looking to begin a career in private equity?
Private equity is a long-term gig. It takes 3-5 years to finish your first end-to-end project or deal. So, you need to plan on being there for the long term. Because of that, finding a firm and people who you really fit with is key. You are going to be spending a lot of your working life with them. Understanding the culture and what the individuals are really like is invaluable.
Quick Fire with Duncan:
What do you miss the most about New Zealand?
Some of my South Island mates will kill me for saying this, but there’s something special about Auckland’s harbour and beaches. Being able to see the sea from your office window and go out surfing or sailing after work, that’s very cool.
Would you rather eat in or eat out?
I definitely prefer to eat out. I hate all the packaging that comes with ordering in, and the quality of food takes a hit too usually.
What’s the best present you’ve ever received??
For my recent birthday my friends in NZ who I haven’t seen face-to-face since pre-Covid sent me a voucher for an art gallery I really like on Columbia Road, as we had just moved house. It was very sweet.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
I don’t know if it’s advice, but I have always been a big believer in treating other people how you would like to be treated. Just being helpful, friendly and positive – it will eventually come back around to you.
What dish do you cook if you want to impress?
I don’t know about impressing, but if I’m entertaining, I’ll normally have a BBQ as you can socialise as you do it. In the winter we do Raclette for the same reason. My partner is German and I’m Kiwi so you can tell which part we each contribute!