Buyout firms overdue for industry advocate

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of several high-profile buyout firms into possible collusion serves as a reminder that the industry does not have its own lobbying group. But that will soon change.

The Private Equity Council is likely to launch next year, and the group may reveal more about itself before the year is out. Representatives of some of the buyout industry’s largest firms, including The Blackstone Group, The Carlyle Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific Group, have been working for months to put together the group, which is likely to be based in Washington, D.C.

The firms hired veteran lobbyist and investment banker Harry Clark, managing partner of Greenwich, Conn.-based Stanwich Group, to represent the council. Clark declined to discuss the group, since it still is in its formative stage. He said that the group may present a formal comment at the end of November.

“They’ve been busy beavers behind closed doors,” says a source from a firm that is helping to form the council. The effort will likely not officially launch until early next year.

“There are trade organizations for the decorative goldfish growers and the egg producers and every business you can think of, large and small,” says Michael Harrell, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. “And yet you have a large [buyouts] industry that doesn’t have a voice.”

The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) does lobby on behalf of buyout firms and counts several among its membership. However, as its name suggests, the association focuses on the needs of the venture industry, which developed years before the mega-buyout funds blossomed, as they have today.

“The NVCA has done a good job with education and a good job of lobbying,” says Clint Harris, managing general partner with Grove Street Advisors, a member of the NVCA. “It’s sort of an accident of the [private equity] industry. The venture industry came about first and the buyout firms were islands to themselves … the NVCA represents one half but not the other half.”

Harrell says that part of the reason an industry advocacy group more geared towards buyout firms has been slow to develop is because they are extremely competitive and often have different investment philosophies. “Not withstanding what the DOJ investigation suggests, this is a fiercely competitive business,” he says. “So perhaps there was some reluctance for people to band together and adopt a common point of view. Maybe they didn’t have a common point of view.”

Harrell says that overall the private equity industry has not been the subject of excessive government scrutiny, but that the scrutiny that buyout deals have received and the rapid growth of the business over the last decade has created a need for public advocacy. Still, he says that the industry maintains a good reputation with the public. “There haven’t been the kinds of scandals we’ve seen in the hedge fund industry,” says Harrell. “This really is a straight-shooting group of people.”