Saturday, February 23, 2008

Get your skin in the game

So I read this McKinsey report.

During the past two years, the flood of money into infrastructure funds has been an astonishing $130 billion. Take into account leverage, a billion dollars of equity funding could, in some situations, pay for up to $10 billion in projects. "Where will all the money go?” It asks. I am tempted to add an extension – “[with shrinking margins]”. The need for infrastructure investments in the emerging markets at present is about $1 trillion. I am at ground zero here in India. I can share a few insights.

PE funds here need a new approach – different from typical value creation through financial engineering and rising user demand. So far, they have acted less aggressively to improve operations; indeed, many financial investors still leave such issues to contractors and focus their governance efforts on financial metrics. This model is broken; it’s so yesterday.

So what should PE fund managers do today? I suggest -

a) Lay down norms of good governance. It helps assess risk in a structured way, avoiding unwarranted focus on a single category, such as technical delivery or regulatory compliance.

b) Brief project owners about the complexities by way of foot note to RFP itself. When they see reason, they might even expand their allocated budget. If you’d quoted thin, you’ll come to grief later.

c) Build alliances with Infrastructure specialists. Get some strategic skin in the game. Here’s the twin upside - a better chance of winning traditional deals and turn them around; and the ability to bid for operationally complex and less competitive projects. That’s how you learn to walk away from overpriced deals.
I quote an example. Macquarie and Ferrovial’s co-investment in the UK’s Bristol International Airport, for example, involved upgrading signage systems; renewing check-in, baggage reclaim, and catering facilities; rerouting foot traffic; and installing all-weather landing equipment. The investors also rejuvenated the airport’s retail offering, strengthened the management and sales teams, and even tweaked the system for booking parking spaces. In the four years after the acquisition, the number of passengers using the airport doubled—as did its EBITDA.

I find financial engineering can help PE returns only up to a point. With strategic competence added in, you can man up before the whole world, not just LPs. What do you think…?

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