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‘Record demand’ for operating partners: Survey

As GPs seek to boost portfolio company value, they are under pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiencies as operational issues become increasingly complex and LPs push for lower fees.

Operating partner roles are the fastest-growing positions in private equity this year, driven by a sharper focus on deploying capital raised in 2016 and 2017.

Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles is experiencing “record demand” for operating partners among private equity firms, according to its 2019 North American Private Equity Operating Professional Compensation Survey, which received responses from 217 private equity operating professionals. Head of talent, chief financial officer for portfolio operations, and generalist operating partner roles were the top operating professional searches.

Increasingly complex operational issues in portfolio companies coupled with LPs insisting on lower fees puts pressure on GPs to reduce costs and increase operational efficiencies.

Two evolutions have taken place in recent years, Jonathan Goldstein, regional managing partner, Americas for Heidrick & Struggles’ private equity practice and the report’s co-author, told Private Equity International. Private equity firms are hiring operating partners earlier in their careers, contrary to the previous trend of hiring semi-retired or retired professionals. What’s more, operating partners have proven their worth, driving private equity firms to build out their operating professionals’ ranks and add mid-level and junior operating professionals as well.

Base-level salaries and bonuses for operating roles more than doubled from 2016. Successful operating partners had a mix of consulting and operations experience and previous private equity exposure, according to the report.

Almost 87 percent of operations professionals had no prior relationship with the manager or with its portfolio companies, showing that “private equity firms were expanding their search beyond their network pools to seek talent”, Goldstein told PEI.

Compensation details

Base-level salaries and bonuses for operating professionals did not change significantly from 2017 to 2018; 68 percent of respondents received base-level salary increases of $50,000 or less in 2018. Likewise, 48 percent of respondents reported a higher bonus in 2018 than 2017.

“Change in compensation is not indicative of one thing or the other,” Goldstein said. “Bonuses are driven by increases in AUM, where the fund might be in its lifecycle and the individual’s own progression at the firm.”

Operating partners are eligible for carried interest, usually calculated on a whole-fund basis. Most respondents did not get warrants or options in the portfolio companies they oversaw. Only 43 percent of senior/executive advisors and 29 percent of general partners received warrants or options, and the average warrant participation for these two groups was $2.4 million and $2.6 million, respectively.

Most respondents were not eligible for direct equity participation except at the firm and general partner level. Almost all respondents said they had co-investment rights, according to the report.

Almost 41 percent of respondents said their cash compensation was funded by fund management fees, while 15 percent said their firms used only portfolio company oversight fees and 12 percent said their firms used time billed directly to portfolio companies. The remaining third of respondents said their firms used a mix of two or more funding methods.