Korea: Learning to love private equity

Korea: Learning to love private equity

While the memory of private equity’s tumultuous early years still lingers in Korea, public sentiment seems to have turned a corner.

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Korea: Learning to love private equity

While the memory of private equity’s tumultuous early years still lingers in Korea, public sentiment seems to have turned a corner. Foreign PE investors entered the country during the tough days of the Asian financial crisis and funds’ healthy returns were met with strong resentment by a nation struggling with massive unemployment.

Some deals, like Newbridge Capital’s acquisition and turnaround of Korea First Bank, were viewed more for the dramatic returns reaped by foreign investors than for the significant improvements made to the business. Others, like Lone Star’s purchase of Korea Exchange Bank, ended in scandal and fueled a continuing controversy about the wisdom of foreigners buying assets in financial services and other sensitive industries.

While a degree of sensitivity remains, it is softening. And there are signs that Koreans, as the government offers more vocal support and as more companies, investors and individuals feel its positive effects—the public, the business community, and the government—may be warming up to private equity. It’s only been eight years since the government allowed local PE funds to operate.

Among Korea’s business leaders, those who have used private equity funds as a vehicle for growth or capability building tend to be more positive than those who have not. Doosan wisely relied on private equity to carve out its non-core businesses and de-leverage its capital structure. Fila bought Acushnet, a leading golf brand, with the help of PE investors. Many owners of mid-cap companies are now using PE as tools for growth capital or to cash-out. Some are working with global or regional funds to expand overseas.

Actions speak louder than words, so each successful PE deal in Korea serves to quiet the skepticism that once raged so strongly.

Private equity still has its share of detractors. For example, conflicts frequently arise when PE funds take board seats and exercise their rights—angering owners who are accustomed to making all the important decisions themselves. There’s also resistance when funds structure deals to gain favorable downside protection. And because many PE players lack years of experience working with major firms, they also lack the insights and knowledge that helps improve companies.

However, such challenges are now being balanced—and outweighed—by visible evidence that PE has much to contribute to Korea’s economy. The government and its regulators are positive towards the asset class provided deals don’t involve over-leveraging, massive restructuring or leakage of core technology.

The days of bottom fishing are giving way to tangible portfolio value creation. PE funds are becoming more actively involved in management and operations, upgrading portfolio companies’ management infrastructure to make them more scalable, finding new customers, suppliers and partners. These are not only requirements for private equity to flourish, but also the best way to steadily improve the industry’s once notorious image.

Sunny Yi and Wonpyo Choi are partners in Bain & Company’s Seoul office.


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