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Chris Hagler headshot

Private Equity is Made for ESG Investment, But Don't Leave Money on the Table

By Chris Hagler
A photo of a hand drawing a diagram.

In many ways, private equity is made to be invested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. But it takes thoughtful strategies to ensure those investments generate maximum value for both business and society.

Record levels of cash reserves — including $1.1 trillion in the U.S. and another $6.3 trillion in assets under management — combined with increased investor focus on ESG could make private equity an attractive vehicle for creating real impact.  

Why private equity is well-suited to ESG investment

ESG topics are important to limited partners and their stakeholders, especially those dealing in pension funds and sovereign wealth funds. Ninety-three percent of limited partners said they would walk away from an investment opportunity if it posed an ESG concern, according to a 2022 survey from Bain and the Institutional Limited Partners Association.

Private equity operates with the long term in mind. Whereas executives of publicly-traded companies must manage their businesses to meet quarterly guidance, portfolio companies operate on a longer time horizon due to their average holding period being five to six years. 

Likewise, ESG investment is also a longer-term play. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions could take years to realize, for instance. A focus on creating long-term value for businesses and for society is the key to ESG investing. This is fundamentally different from the quick turnarounds and rapid returns that have characterized decision-making in the past.

Private equity investors, as owners, have the authority to move nimbly on business strategy.  Unlike public investors, who must engage with company management and often rely on shareholder resolutions and proxy voting to change strategies, private equity firms sit on the board and either control or heavily influence operations and strategy. As a result, private equity investors typically have much simpler engagement and faster decision-making.

ESG is increasingly recognized as a value-lever, helping investors command a premium price at exit. Strong ESG management can bolster performance and attract future investors. It can also create higher values for limited partners when they eventually sell their assets. 

Given a hypothetical opportunity to acquire a new business, executives and investment professionals say they would be willing to pay roughly 10 percent more for a company with an overall positive record on ESG issues versus a company with an overall negative record, according to a research from McKinsey.

Private equity firms aren’t compromising financial returns for a societal return

Strong ESG performance, backed up by credible data and communicated well, can help deliver a premium price at exit. Private equity firms should ask the following questions to be sure they aren’t leaving value on the table. 

Have you identified ESG or climate risks that could materialize over your hold period and impact your exit strategy? EQT Group, a Swedish investment firm, turned climate risk into an investment opportunity last year when it acquired two North American subsidiaries of the U.K.-based transportation service providers First Student and First Transit. Increasing energy prices, and potential future regulations associated with the use of traditional fuel sources, are climate risks that could materially impact such transportation businesses. EQT’s investment thesis is centered around electrifying the First Student and First Transit fleets, thus accelerating its transition to renewable fuel sources.

Are there opportunities to shift business models to be more sustainable or solve your customers’ sustainability challenges? A tool manufacturer may shift to a rental model for equipment that is not frequently used, for example. This business model can open up new markets of users for their products, as well as reduce the environmental impact of creating new tools. 

Or a financial services company may build a new product to educate consumers on the benefits of solar installations and then finance the installation.This would drive additional revenue and reduce global emissions.

Do your portfolio companies understand the business value of their ESG efforts? Partners Group, a Swiss private equity firm with $135 billion in assets, worked with a global provider of outsourced pharmaceutical supply chain solutions, PCI Pharma, to reduce waste and energy and improve worker safety. The ESG initiative reduced costs with improved recycling, reduced energy usage, and better worker compensation insurance rates — ultimately improving the bottom line.

Can you leverage efforts across your portfolio companies? L Catterton, a consumer-focused private equity firm managing $33 billion in assets, utilized the scale of its portfolio to develop an emissions offset program for small parcel deliveries whereby FedEx will measure emissions of select deliveries, allowing companies that opt-in to track their emissions and purchase offsets via Bluesource.   

Are there companies in your portfolio that could command an “ESG premium” at exit with appropriate measurement and communication? For example, a chemical manufacturer that provides greener and safer chemicals to various end markets may be able to attract impact investors and command a premium at exit if it’s able to articulate its products’ specific environmental impact compared to the alternatives.

Similarly, a staffing business with a small but growing diverse recruiting offering can demonstrate its social impact and attract strategic buyers who already have diversity commitments.

The bottom line

Focused ESG actions by private equity drive efficiency, profitability and resiliency. Successful firms right-size their ESG actions and combine careful due diligence with strategic initiatives for value creation well before exit in order to drive both business and societal growth. Is your firm leaving value on the table?

Image credit: Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels

Chris Hagler headshot

Chris Hagler is a Partner and Head of ESG at Independence Point Advisors.

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