An Interview with Aterian Investment Partners Co-Founder & Partner, Michael Fieldstone
April 29, 2022
By: Sean Mooney
Michael Fieldstone is a Co-Founder and Partner at Aterian and has worked in private equity investing for more than twenty years. Prior to founding Aterian in 2009, he was a principal at both Sun Capital Partners and Apollo Management, and part of the Mergers & Acquisitions Investment banking group at Salomon Smith Barney. With regard to taking the entrepreneurial plunge with Aterian, he says: “We set out to build a firm that appreciates all the stakeholders of a company. To be collaborative in working with management teams. To create a transparent atmosphere in which we are dedicated to solving problems. Success to us is taking companies to new heights, and in doing so, creating value for employees, customers, vendors, the environment, underlying communities, and our investors.”
While his sentiments seem lofty, Fieldstone and his Co-Founders, Brandon Bethea and Christopher Thomas have seen numerous successes over the last decade-plus, and have ridden the waves of economic uncertainty with grit and fortitude. The result: growing already great family-founder companies in ways they didn’t think possible.
During our inaugural BluWave 2022 Top PE Innovator Awards, we recognized Aterian specifically for their innovative practices across proactive due diligence, transformative value creation, progressive PE firm operations, and ESG. Michael recently sat down with me to share some of his experiences and strategies for both creating value and supporting middle market companies during rapid growth.
Sean Mooney: How do you make sense of growth versus value investing in today’s marketplace?
Michael Fieldstone: This is a perplexing question for many investors. The multiples in private equity have changed so much over the past two decades. For example, at the turn of the 21st century, the average multiple was 7x; today, it is an average of 12x. This appreciation applies to both large LBOs as well as those in the middle market which we participate in. Additionally, the range of multiples can be extreme – as one can buy into an out of favor or cyclical industry such as oil and gas for less than 5x or invest in a high growth software or social media company for 20x+. The last time growth investing was so robust was in the late 1990s, and this phenomenon was driven by venture capital firms and tech companies themselves. Moreover, large non-tech companies had to follow suit and develop or acquire an internet or digital strategy to keep up. Many large companies such as GE, as we know, had a difficult time adopting startup practices organically. Other large companies such as Polaroid or Kodak became walking dinosaurs.
This time around, PE firms are also participating in high-growth – almost venture-like investing –as both an offensive and a defensive strategy. With technological disruption impacting most sectors (i.e. e-commerce, fintech, alternative energy, streaming/media distribution, cybersecurity, Medtech – and the list goes on), and with cheap and abundant capital, why not invest large amounts alongside mega trends even if at higher valuations? The alternative is to invest against mega trends – for example, into a large, non-omnichannel retail chain – which is like building a plane while it’s flying.
SM: On what side of that investor equation do you see Aterian?
MF: It may sound diplomatic, but our approach to market is a combination of value and growth investing. We typically invest in companies that are “mature” – certainly they already have sales and have typically been in existence for many decades. Then we look to accelerate their growth through investments both organically and through add-ons. We enhance their existing infrastructure and customer relationships in ways the management teams desire but may not have had the capital or organizational expertise to do so under previous ownership. We look to drive innovation, including through new products or services, with greater conveniences or capabilities to become more vital to customers. A great example is Aterian’s backing of a company called The Pace Companies, a leading commercial plumbing contractor in NYC. Three years ago, we partnered with its founder, Andru Coren, to help him achieve his vision of being the leader in all the subcontractor trade groups in NYC and surrounding areas, including HVAC, mechanical, electrical, and fire protection. While driving this strategy, we also identified the greater regulatory need to assist developers and building owners on reducing their carbon footprint through energy-efficient buildings. Flash forward to today, through the formation of holding company Eaglestone with shared services, we have executed on Andru’s vision by acquiring over a half dozen companies and becoming a leading infrastructure company in NYC and surrounding areas where we provide a full suite of services including plumbing, HVAC, fire protection, solar, and EV charging stations, all in the context of improved energy efficiency building standards.
SM: What are the key areas Aterian focuses on in its valuation creation plan, and what in that plan is the hardest to achieve?
MF: There are no corners to cut – at the root of any plan is extensive third-party customer and industry research to figure out where the company fits into its marketplace, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to improve its competitive advantages in partnership with management. Oftentimes, our due diligence prior to acquiring a company confirms management’s strategic plan and it is all about getting there faster with the appropriate resources, whether hard dollars or human capital. Additionally, often uncovered in our due diligence phase, we learn about untapped market opportunities, and after confirming their strategic viability, we develop a plan to penetrate such markets organically or through acquisitions.
Organizational development – retaining and recruiting top talent is typically the biggest challenge to achieving any plan. The breadth of the team required to grow a company, all while keeping an eye on existing strategy execution is most critical as well as our greatest challenge. Sometimes we bring in independent board members (who have been in similar positions) as another set of eyes to assure the organization is ready to embark on growth and transformation.
SM: How do you ensure seamless acquisitions/investments so that founders feel supported? What are some of the strategies/tactics you use?
MF: It took years for us to learn this, but the most important thing with founders is to listen to what they are looking for, both professionally and personally. Additionally, it is important to align expectations upfront. Some founders want to continue to run and grow their companies, while others want help on an immediate succession plan. We have successfully worked with founders in both situations.
Another critical component of ensuring a seamless process is open and robust communication. PE-owned companies are much different than family-founder businesses. Most founders have heard horror stories about partnering with a private equity fund, along the lines of PE saying, “it’s our way or the highway.” They are afraid they won’t have any influence over the company culture and direction, and this poses a big risk for founders who want to stay in the business. Our goal is always to keep the culture intact as much as possible during the transition, and we do our best to communicate to founders that we want to invest in their teams as well as their valuation plan. These founders want transparency and candor, they don’t want “razzle dazzle.”
We also offer founders the opportunity to speak with other family- or founder-owned companies we’ve partnered with. This open book approach helps ease some of their fears, when they can hear directly from references who have found success working with Aterian already.
SM: What does Aterian specifically do to win founder- or family-owned business trust “early and often”?
MF: The most important thing we can do to build trust is to say what we do and do what we say. We also need to discuss business goals and objectives in a small group at least a couple times a year. Actions speak heavily as well – supporting companies analytically or by providing other resources they may not have both help build the bridge that we are actually on the same team.
SM: What are Aterian’s internal company values, and how do those get operationalized (or actualized) across your investment portfolio?
MF: We have three core values, and from these fall every action with regard to both our internal and external operations. The first is transparency. With our management teams, our lenders, our investors, everyone. It is our belief that while good news should travel fast, bad news even faster. Without transparency building trust is nearly impossible; and, without trust, you can’t properly evaluate or make decisions.
The next core value is the concept of being collaborative, and hands-on. We expect this from our management teams, and we certainly aren’t sitting back as passive board members. Having said that, it’s important to strike a balance – when to tackle something head on and when to let go.
Lastly, we value long-term thinking. We typically hold onto companies for four to six years but make decisions as though we will own them forever. Warren Buffett has this great quip about the types of companies he wants to buy; he says they should be equivalent to a great piece of art that you would be proud to hang in a museum. In a sense, that’s how we see it. We are willing to put in the time, energy, and resources to make a company art museum worthy.
Interested in hearing what other PE experts have said in our interview series? Check them out here.