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Private equity a force for good?

By Bronagh Bourke, Director, Audit and Assurance

There is no doubt that private equity investment has grown significantly in Northern Ireland over the last decade, with a range of private equity firms now having a number of Northern Ireland based companies in their portfolio. However, what will the impact of private equity be in the current crisis?

We know that many transactions have been put on hold or are moving at a much slower pace since lockdown commenced. Having said that, people are adapting and deals are being renegotiated as the impact of the crisis on trading performance and the availability of debt become clearer.

Equally, transaction structuring and valuations will have to be addressed on a fluid basis. The ability to invest alongside senior debt providers and financially engineer optimal returns has somewhat diminished at present, with leveraged finance providers, banks and specialist lenders all relatively inward-looking and prioritising existing customers’ liquidity needs as well as responding to Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) applications.

However, it could be argued that whenever this crisis is over, the most telling impact of private equity will not be judged as being the number of deals completed, rather it will be the financial strength they gave to their portfolio companies to survive and potentially thrive though the crisis.

In a worst case scenario, private equity firms may be required to double down on their investments in order to keep them above water and ensure cash headroom.

However, whether they invest more cash or not, in all circumstances, they bring with them financial skills and experience, which are of value to their portfolio companies.

This may be due to driving management to take immediate action to furlough staff, or to assist their portfolio companies to access CBILs loans

Private equity firms are also adept at negotiating with lenders around payment holidays, resetting or renegotiating covenant tests, and exploring how coronavirus interplays with the definition of “exceptional item” under lending agreements.

The financial disciplines and rigour that private equity bring to their portfolio companies can seem daunting to the investee’s management team once a deal is completed. It is ironic that it has possibly taken a crisis of this scale for their value to be fully appreciated.

One cannot help but feel, as the pandemic subsides and business starts to recover, that the presence and importance of private equity to the Northern Ireland economy will continue to grow and may even accelerate as they take advantage of those businesses that are inherently sound but lacked the financial skill to navigate the financial crisis – skills that private equity firms have in abundance!

For further information or advice, Bronagh Bourke can be contacted at bronagh.bourke@ie.gt.com

Grant Thornton (NI) LLP specialises in audit, tax and advisory services.

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