India’s premier PE firm ICICI venture (I-Venture) with more than $2 billion fund size can’t be so naïve.
I-Venture CEO & MD, Renuka Ramnath says the management of flagging retail chain Subhiksha (in which the firm has a 23% stake and has the power to appoint majority directors in its Board) kept it in the dark regarding the goings on. (She was one of the Board members then). She goes on to add "As a responsible investor, despite being minority shareholders and not having management control, we are talking to all players concerned and trying to seek a possible solution which will be in the best interest of all, including the employees”.
Here is the punch line "We didn’t know what to trust and what was the real intention of the merger” (with a listed NBFC Blue Green Constructions with which Subhiksha sought to reverse merge for widening its shareholder base).
Oh, really? A firm in which a leading PE firm has a 23% stake and the firm knows "nothing" about decisions as critical as a reverse merger? It was all over the media back in June, 2008 when Subhiksha acquired 40% stake in the little known listed entity Blue Green Constructions. The Board (in which I-Venture has majority) Meeting in which the acquisition was to be ratified was reportedly held on June 30, 2008 and then Ms.Ramnath didn’t seem to object.
The fact is, had the back door listing strategy worked well, I-Venture would have exited the firm lock, stock and barrel thro divesting its stake either in the open market or thro a secondary exit to other PE firms. The manner in which it “quietly divested” 10% stake for Rs.230 crore to Azim Premji’s PE arm Premji Invest back in September 2008. While I-Venture could dupe Azim Premji, it couldn't dupe the public investors since the merger didn't go thro.
Now why would a PE firm exits in a hurry if it wasn’t in control of the company and wasn’t aware of the murky goings on? Normally if there is a listing possibility, PE investors would rather wait for the market to discover the price. Even if one were to buy Ms.Ramnath’s argument – that Subhiksha did not submit audited accounts beyond March, 2007, it should have disclosed the fact to Mr.Premji which it clearly did not. I-Venture looked after its own interests, to hell with the company, co-investors or employees. But no one would blame the PE firm for that because it just cashed out on an opportunity. But you can’t excuse it if it says it was kept in the dark by the investee company management, despite wielding majority control of its board and in a company where it has a substantial 23% stake.
It’s a little too naïve – to expect the world to believe Ms.Ramnath. It’s ok if she chickened out fearing prosecution when legal notices (from unpaid vendors, employees, EPFO) started flying in. That's when she along with her colleague exited the Board of Subhiksha. But then it also means she wasn't exactly awake all the while at those Board Meetings leaving Subhiksha MD Mr.R.Subramonian to run the business as he did.