A reluctant hero

Damon Buffini is PEO's European Private Equity Personality of 2003, ahead of Guy Hands and Harald Mix.

The ironic thing about Permira managing partner Damon Buffini being voted PEO's European Private Equity Personality of the Year is both his and his firm’s determination to stay out of the headlines. But this was a task made impossible last year, both by Permira’s €5.1 billion fundraising and its involvement in a series of high-profile deals and exits.

It is an irony Buffini readily acknowledges: “It was a year where we had such a successful fundraising that of course people want to talk about it. The attention was not unexpected but we don’t seek to generate it and would rather keep a low profile.”

Buffini is almost the definition of professional level-headedness – with a bit of self-deprecation thrown in for good measure. Far from allowing himself the indulgence of some chest-beating about the power of the company’s intellectual or financial firepower, he stresses the need for the firm to keep its feet on the ground and deliver the kind of returns that will allow the next fundraising to be as successful as the last one. Buffini finds the description of Permira as a “brand name” amusing: “We only changed our name three years ago so I’m happy that people are so aware of who we are,” he says.   

He describes the fundraising as the result of “six months of hard work and 16 years of track record” and says the thing that gave him most satisfaction was the amount of support the firm received from new investors – the total committed by existing limited partners was the same as in the previous €3.3 billion Permira II fund, with the balance accounted for by fresh sources of capital.

Asked for his personal highlights on the new investments front, Buffini selects Seat Pagine Gialle, Inmarsat and Rodenstock as exemplifying the range of deals Permira seeks to undertake (large, mid-market and small respectively). “Inmarsat was a classic,” he says, in a rare moment of triumphalism. “We worked on it for two years and it was quite large, complex and technology-driven.”

As Permira continues to tighten to its grip on the European market – it is opening a new office in Madrid shortly – Buffini sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic. “Private equity is now very established as a major proportion of the overall European M&A market and has proved that, in the absence of trade buyers, it is an absolutely credible alternative,” he says.

Continuing the theme of relatively understated individuals winning the appreciation of their peers, Altor Equity Partners’ founder Harald Mix took third place in our poll. He brought a good track record with previous firm Industri Kapital to Altor’s swift and highly successful €650 million debut fundraising.

The only truly headline-grabbing individual in the top three was second-placed Guy Hands. Many saw his Terra Firma Capital Partners' €2bn debut fundraising as a success, despite falling €1 billion short of its initial €3 billion target. Terra Firma raised the money in what was a tough fundraising year for many – especially for a first time fund run by a team who have shown a preference for complex transactions.

Last year’s personality of the year award had a very different feel about it, with Hands in top spot and Jon Moulton and Gordon Bonnyman placed second and third respectively. All three would probably concur that they are hardly shrinking violets. Given the success in this year’s vote of Buffini and Mix, it appears that 2003 was the year when a newer, quieter kind of individual appealed to voters.