The above is the view of the president and CEO of a large business continuity company that recently passed out of the public company listings after a successful leveraged buy out (LBO) by a group of venture capitalists and private investors. His point is that freed from the burden of pleasing Wall St every three months he has been able to increase staff numbers, boost his investment in technology, plan more long term and generally expand his company to where he thinks it needs to be. After many years when the only test of company viability was accession to the hallowed ranks of being run on behalf of shareholders, this comes as something of a breath of fresh air. Granted, we are talking about a technology vendor here, not a mainstream business enterprise and their business problems are often not the same. Nonetheless, it does prompt the thought that being employed by a company that has resisted flotation might be a better environment to work in.
For a long time business has been dominated by the drive to IPO. But the somewhat dismal way IP telephony outfit Vonage’s move to being traded has gone reminds us that it was only in the boom years for tech IPOs (Netscape, anyone?) of the 1990s that figures always automatically went north on first day of trading, and stayed there.
Now the fashion has turned, after a long slump in public listings by any sort of company, to going private. Research quoted in The Wall St Journal suggests it’s becoming something of a gold rush: in 1998 the total value of LBOs and its brother financial move the management buy out (MBO) in the US was $30 billion (£17bn). In 2006 so far, it is already $136bn (£75bn). If one suggested deal completes, that of Houston oil and pipeline outfit Kinder Morgan, at $22bn (£12bn), it will be the largest such in history. Another such candidate, France’s Thomson SA, has been quoted as saying it feels going private is the best way to ensure critical projects get financed and completed.
After years of the so-say nuclear winter – with IT as major corporate whipping boy and focus of boardroom scepticism and eternal pushes to pare out ever more cost – this seems an intriguing prospect. In an environment less fanatically driven by quarterly results could there be more scope for hiring, recruiting and nurturing staff?
Where the truth lies
Well here’s the rub – we won’t ever know, as the thing about being private is you don’t have to tell anyone the truth. At least to the extent that there is no obligation to report the market factors likely to affect your trading performance. We in the press almost automatically shy away from engaging with private companies, supplier or user, as they are less inclined to give us the time of day. We just don’t know if that bullish CEO is being straight with us and he may in fact have hired no one. Nonetheless there is enough here to suggest that job seekers and their itchy-footed managers should consider the growing ranks of companies that are so much more their own bosses. There may indeed be wider scope for longer-term planning, adequate level of resources and a willingness to take a small (whisper it) risk now and again.
Having said that such organisations are presumably less interested in the negative PR associated with inferior terms and conditions, lack of support for diversity or work life balance initiatives than their public AIM, LSE or NASDAQ brethren.
Still – imagine being able to hire 3,000 staff in two years – a third of them technical and IT professionals. It’s almost unimaginable in this day and age: and what does that say about our economies, public or private alike?