July 27, 2021

In a Romney Believer, Private Equity’s Risks and Rewards

Beyond the windswept dunes in Bridgehampton, at a $400,000-a-month oceanfront mansion, bright young things bubbled up and the Champagne flowed fast. Into the small hours, professional dancers in exotic clothing gyrated atop platforms. One couple twirled flaming torches. The sounds of techno boomed over the beach.

The New York Post summed up the evening’s Dionysian mysteries with the following headline: “Nude Frolic in Tycoon’s Pool.”

The Post’s tycoon, and the party’s host, was a financier named Marc J. Leder, and those weekend revels last July had the East End of Long Island buzzing. Like many deal makers, though, Mr. Leder, 50, is virtually unknown outside financial circles. But from his headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., he presides over a multibillion-dollar private empire. He is a practitioner of a Wall Street art that helped define an age of hyperwealth, and which has now been dragged into the white-hot spotlight of presidential politics: private equity.

It was through private equity that one Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, amassed his wealth — and, it turns out, it was through private equity that Mr. Romney first met Mr. Leder. A couple of months after the blowout in Bridgehampton, Mr. Leder was host for a fund-raiser at his Boca Raton home for Mr. Romney’s campaign. But the connection goes back even further. Years ago, a visit to Mr. Romney’s investment firm inspired Mr. Leder to get into private equity in the first place. Mr. Romney was an early investor in some of the deals done by Mr. Leder’s investment company, Sun Capital, which today oversees about $8 billion in equity.

Mr. Romney’s own time in the private equity business, at Bain Capital, has provoked fierce attacks from Republican rivals and others. It has also prompted a lot of questions, including the big one: What good is this business, anyway? Detractors say private equity has enriched a handful of financiers at the expense of ordinary Americans. The deal makers, this line goes, buy companies and then bleed the life out of them. Jobs are often among the casualties.

Whether there’s truth to such claims depends on whom you ask. Private equity executives, as well as Mr. Romney, who left Bain in 1999, say the industry fixes troubled companies and ultimately creates jobs. Whatever the case, three decades after this sort of deal-making burst onto the scene in the merger mania of the 1980s, there are surprisingly few solid answers from either side.

What is certain is that buyout specialists upended the old order and made vast fortunes for themselves. Fueled by easy money from banks, and from endowments and pension funds, these private investors were able to buy companies with borrowed money and put down relatively little of their own cash.

Today, many of these private kingdoms rival the nation’s mightiest public companies. In all, the private equity industry oversees $3 trillion in global assets, according to Preqin, the research firm. Buyout kings control more than 14,000 American companies, including brands like Hilton Hotels and Burger King.

BUT financiers weren’t the only ones to embrace private equity. On the campaign trail, Rick Perry called private equity artists “vulture capitalists.” But as governor of Texas, he blessed the largest corporate buyout in history — the $44.4 billion takeover of the utility TXU by several investment firms in 2007. Indeed, as in many other places nationwide, public pension funds in Texas used public money to bet on private equity, in hopes of generating the investment returns they needed to pay retirees.

Against this backdrop, the story of Marc Leder might seem a footnote in the nation’s economic ledger. But it is a story worth knowing. That’s because, in many ways, Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance.

To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies — roughly one of every five it owns — have filed for bankruptcy.

Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

Yet Mr. Leder doesn’t seem to be suffering too much himself. In fact, he is living so large that he can’t avoid the limelight. Last July, he used part of his personal fortune to join a group of investors in buying the Philadelphia 76ers. In December, he was spotted on St. Bart’s with Russell Simmons, of Def Jam and Phat Farm fame, and Rachel Zoe, the celebrity stylist. That again landed him in The New York Post, which dubbed him a “private equity party boy.”

Mr. Leder says that characterization couldn’t be further from the truth. He focuses on what are known as “scratch and dent” deals, which typically involve companies that are struggling to begin with. One-third of the companies Sun Capital has bought are losing money. It’s a tricky game in good times, and downright dangerous in bad ones. Mr. Leder and his defenders say Sun Capital has saved many companies and, with them, many, many jobs.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=08914cc320f8f26e4c56f2b2115d543a

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