Doug Horn and Mohit Kansal, Clairvest, Being Strategic with Collaboration and Structure
0:42 Clairvest's history and focus
3:27 How Clairvest works to collaborate with entrepreneurs
5:43 Valuable traits that Clairvest considers before making investments
8:17 Mohit's approach to high-stress times
11:52 Advice to business owners on how to tackle economic uncertainty
16:55 Doug's predictions for the PE industry in the near future
22:40 Clairvest's book/movie recommendations
27:43 Advice Mohit would give to his 22 year old self
29:26 Doug's life hack
Welcome to the Karma School of Business podcast. This episode is brought to you today by BluWave. I'm Sean Mooney, BluWave's founder and CEO. BluWave is the go-to expert of those with expertise. BluWave connects proactive business builders, including more than 500 of the world's leading private equity firms to the very best service providers for their critical variable on point and on-time business needs. In this episode, we have a fantastically thoughtful conversation with Doug Horn and Mohit Kansal with Clairvest, a leading private equity firm headquartered in Toronto. Enjoy.
Today, we're very fortunate to be with two of the best of the best in private equity, Doug Horn and Mohit Kansal with Clairvest. Doug and Mohit, I'm personally very excited to have you all with us today. So Doug and Mohit, let's just jump right into this here today. Can you share a little bit about the history of Clairvest and where you all focus as a firm?
Yeah, sure, Sean. And again, thanks for having us on and appreciate the opportunity to chat with your audience. So Clairvest actually has been around a really long time. We were founded back in the late 80s. I think it was 1987, so been around for about 35 years. Our founding was a little different to most private equity. Most private equity, it's lawyers, investment bankers, that sort of type, we were founded by entrepreneurs. So some of our founders are kind of the most successful entrepreneurs of the day, folks who founded pretty big and successful businesses like the Four Seasons Hotel Group, which we'll all be familiar with, Barrick Gold, large mining companies, large retail companies, et cetera. And their slogan back then, which is largely the same today, was by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, so we look to back entrepreneurs and help them achieve their vision and their success. So that's where we started 35 years ago and doing the same thing today.
About halfway through our history, we started raising outside capital and today look and feel like your typical private equity firm, but I always highlight three things as being a bit different. The first, as I mentioned, our founding is from entrepreneurs, so about a third of the money is our own. So we manage about 3 billion capital or so, about a billion is from us. So eating our own dog food, we typically hold for longer, not taking undue risk, and it's growing the investment, not necessarily collecting fees that drive our incentives. The second we do a lot of minority deals, about half our deals are minority. And third, we focus on certain industries, not everything, which you alluded to, Sean. And I spent a lot of time in the gaming or gambling sector as well as facility services, and I could talk for a long time about those. But we focus on select industries and Doug does as well.
Thanks Mohit, and thanks Sean so much for having us. So on the specific domain side, I spent time, and actually across Clairvest, we're a generalist firm, but we do have industry specialization. My sectors broadly fall within industrials, aerospace, defense, and government services being one, also focus on environmental services and related to that, the packaging and consumption sectors.
That's really interesting, and I actually didn't know the origin story around some of the folks that were involved with your business, and the fact that so much of your own money is being put to work. That has to change your mindset in terms of how you approach investing and partnering with entrepreneurs. Maybe as a quick transition there, as you think about it, I'm curious with the ability to do minority and control and doing minority as much as anything else, how do you think about those types of investments differently, and how you approach them, and how you structure them, et cetera?
Yeah, sure, Sean. So I would say first and foremost because of our founding story, the culture of Clairvest is very much to respect the entrepreneurial spirit versus replacing management teams. Over our 35 year history, we have found that folks and management teams that have inherently bet on themselves before we get involved, their risk adjusted decisions are just infinitely better than professional management teams.
They know what risk to take, they know what risks not to take, they know their industries inside and out, and typically they're looking to us to help build the resources and build the scale so they can achieve new heights.
So it's a bit more of a collaborative approach and we've learned over time that having economic control really doesn't mean anything if you're in business with the right people, who've got high integrity, have an incredible amount of expertise and know how, and importantly they know the industries inside and out so they can make the best decisions that are both in their economic interests but also in the interest of the company. We'll go along for that ride and benefit alongside them as we help them scale up and build more capacity within the company. I'd say at the end of the day, this approach is just a much more collaborative approach working with entrepreneurs than a very top down sort of private equity control mindset.
Doug, I love that perspective. When I was in PI, I kind of had a variety of experiences. One was with more of a generalist kind of multi structure approach, the other one was control. I think you're spot on. The thing that I learned in both seats was at the end of the day, it's all about collaboration, having common objectives and goals, and a situation that's rooted in trust. And even if you have control, really the only rights you have are kind of buy, sell, hire, fire. Everything else in between, which is so much more foundational, is how do you work together to get to a common objective.
So I love that perspective. And then Doug, maybe one thing I'd be curious to get your thoughts on, both from understanding your own vantage as investors at Clairvest, but also things that business owners should think about in terms of how they should think about developing their own businesses. What would you say are two or three of the most valuable traits in a company that you and your colleagues look for when considering an investment in a company, and by design, things that entrepreneurs should think about when building and growing their own companies?
So I call it the three Ps. I'll break them down, but suffice to say that not every company, depending on the stage of maturity, needs to check all these boxes and be perfect. There is no perfect company in the mid-market, but it's people, processes, and profit. So first and foremost for us, are we in business with the right people and does the CEO and executive team know how to surround themselves with smarter people than themselves to be able to scale. As we help build these companies up, we're looking for management teams that know what holes they have in their organizational structure. Those holes are aligned to where the strategic growth plan is and making sure that you've got the right people in the right seats that are going to help you execute that plan day in, day out. The second is processes. And this is one place, quite frankly, that we do help our teams quite a bit as they go through corporate maturation or corporate adolescence, whatever you want to call it.
As companies scale, it's a balance between maintaining that nimbleness, that entrepreneurialness that you find in companies that have started from nothing and have grown up. But also as you scale, inevitably you need to add some processes in, some accountability to be able to really double, triple, quadruple the size of your company. And the third one, which is really just our marker for whether it is a good business or not, is profit. And so, there's a whole host of KPIs and financial metrics you can look at. At the end of the day, we're looking for growth, we're looking for operating in cashflow margin, and we're looking for capital intensity and the interplay between all of those to understand whether this is a "good" business or not.
I think you just summed up my very expensive MBA in about 30 seconds there, so thanks for... I wish I knew that before I spent all that money.
Mine too, mine too.
I think that's totally spot on, and that's not only a good measure for I think anyone who's investing, but also people who are thinking about building businesses and whether they're PE backed or they will be PE backed. One of the things that I really respect about people in the PE industry and anyone that is playing at the highest level of business is this idea to overcome adversity, take challenge head on. I mean, we're seeing it left and right now with this kind of transitory economy. I'm not calling it a recession because then everyone argues with me. If it's a transitory economy, no one can bug me on it.
Nice politically correct term there, I like it.
You like that? I learned that from some of the politicians. I've gone around it now, but you all take these things head on and you're tenacious and gritty. When something gets in your way, you go above it or below it, et cetera. So Mohit, I'd be curious, what was one of the hardest things that you've encountered in business and life over the last five or 10 years? And how did you take that on and what was your kind of mindset?
Yeah, I appreciate that, Sean. Getting pretty deep here, I like it. I'll say it was probably an experience, a time in my life when there was a lot going on. I'm thinking about a year and a half ago, COVID was around, we had just had a new baby in the house, we were moving houses, and there were two live deals going on all at the same time. So my life was in a spin. There wasn't much sleep going on generally, and just a lot of emotions running around.
So I mean, I reflected a bit on this and thought, okay, how did I get through that time? How did things kind of turn out okay? I think my daughter's doing okay. I would say kind of a few things. One, I would say, which I think I have applicability in life generally, just surround yourself with people you can trust fully, whether that be my wife, certain family members, people at work, even service providers. Who are the people in your group that you can offload things and fully trust them and not have to worry? Even if it's not time, it's just something you can get off your plate and not have to worry.
A second thing I would say is just be honest, be truly honest, in what you can do or not, and be laser focused on what matters. I tend to take too much on and worry about these little details, but constantly re-shifting priorities, constantly thinking about, okay, what actually is going to move the needle and setting expectations appropriately is critical. And then the last thing is I know we're all working crazy hours, it's not much sleep, whether it be work, family, just even if you have to schedule it, just taking half an hour a day for a walk, reading a book, watching your favorite TV show just to decompress, because then again, if you don't... When I was in the thick of it, I would solve problems or I would have ideas during that time rather than being back to back to back to back to back the entire day.
So again, I know this was a bit of a personal work thing, but hopefully the learnings are helpful to the audience generally. Frankly, it was a bit therapeutic for me to think through and say, okay, those are actually helpful things I should bring in every day of my life really.
Those are really important perspectives and I think anyone who's listening to this can resonate with this idea of just overloading, doing more things, going, going, going, trying to do it all yourself and then just never allowing yourself the grace to hit reset and take a break. I think those are all lessons I think I hoped would've learned a lot earlier in my life. And the fact that you've kind of gotten there from the private equity perspective, that's relatively rare. Most people are in 24/7. And so I think all of those lessons learned are things I actually jotted down because it's a journey not a destination for most of us, and I'm still pretty imperfect on these things. Mohit, maybe with that in mind, like we talked about we have this transitory economy-
That's going on. I'm just going to call it a recession. Sorry.
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.
It's coming. Uh-oh, I've been canceled. So let's just say we've got this economic transition underway. We all know it, no one wants to say it, and many people believe we're in one. But one of the things I think that the private equity industry is so good at is reframing these times of risk through not only the lens of how do we ensure safety and security, but then also success and opportunity. So what are some of the advice, Mohit, that you would give to business leaders about how to approach this current now with an eye towards both safety and success?
It's a tough time, a lot of uncertainty. If anything, the uncertainty itself makes it tough because you're like, what do I do? The first thing I would say is, don't cover your eyes and don't be flatfooted, right? I think it may be an obvious point, but a lack of decision or lack of action is itself a choice and probably the wrong one. So by doing nothing, you are making a conscious choice, which is probably the wrong one. I would say a few things come to mind. I would say just be crystal clear on your strategy and think about your capital structure and maybe some scenarios around that. So let me get through a few things.
So one, I would say being crystal clear on your strategy and how it's operating. Are you talking to your customers regularly, are you getting daily flashes on performance? If things are turning, you don't want to be a month or two or three behind. You come across these businesses sometimes where it might seem like a stable business, but the metrics aren't there, the systems aren't there, and maybe the entrepreneur's not valuing it. But to understand, okay, oh no, these sales are dropping off or this is happening. You need to know that to make decisions. You don't want to be flatfooted and acollate.
The second thing I would say is just think through some scenarios. If things, again, not to be flatfooted, if things go bad, what are you going to do? How are you going to act? Are you going to do this with your people? Are you going to do this with your sales organization? do this with your marketing? And that ties to cash in capital structure, if this happens, am I going to run out of cash? What's going to happen to my covenants? What's going to happen to my capital structure? So thinking that through scenario planning, I think is helpful.
And then the last thing, which is easy to forget sometimes, is it could be an opportunity as well, right? I mean, we're all in a very competitive world, but you got to think if the competitors are uncertain, are pulling back, and you're maybe in a strong position or you do have some capital to invest, it's, okay, how do I take advantage of this situation? Maybe it's poaching some people, maybe it's making a really thoughtful acquisition. You might have opportunities you wish you had over the past decade that you didn't. Since the past recession you're probably thinking, oh crap, I should have done that, now may be your opportunity. So I think it's just being aware of what's going on, being ready to act, and not being afraid to go on the front foot are kind of things that come to mind.
I think it's a balance of preparation, and as Mohit alluded to, what we see out there is some leaders are hesitant to change. And you don't want to be changing your strategy every day, that's not what I'm saying, but sometimes indecision is a decision. And so being able to be nimble and really react and set up your company in a way that can be anti-fragile in a way to react to these situations and different macroeconomic environments is really front and center, even if they're the wrong ones. You are going to make mistakes through this, but just making conscious, very rational cost benefit analysis of the path forward over the next year or two years is really important.
And then secondly, this is something that we preach a lot is these are opportunistic times for really strong companies. The amount of conversations that we're involved in today heading into this sort of... We think of it almost like a Goldilocks environment, nothing so hot, nothing so bad yet, and so this is the market where kind of fear bubbles up. But if you're an entrepreneur and ready to seize opportunities and understand how to hold together investment, but also let's say a focus on cost and making sure that you can live to fight another day, those are the companies that we think are really going to succeed into the next cycle because, listen, cycles are inevitable. They've happened once every 10 years as far as people have tracked recessions. This one has gone on for a very, very long time and people have forgotten what it feels like, but we think the kind of best small, mid-size companies out there who are set up for success are going to use the next 12 to 24 months to really accelerate their market position.
I think those perspectives are so spot on. It's this whole idea of one, know thy self, what is your business, what is your plan, two, secure your foundation and make sure you're prepared to make it through, whether it's through capital structure or otherwise. But three, in kind of like a Napoleon's glance kind of way, look for opportunity. Legendary companies are made during times right now. And so I think all of those perspectives, every business owner should be thinking exactly like you all just shared there. So that's fantastic.
And Doug, maybe leading with that and transitioning from that, one of the things that we all know that none of us really like is this whole constant of change. One of my favorite books for business that I give to every one of our team members is this book called Who Moved My Cheese, and it's this great parable about life changing and just changing with it. If anyone hasn't read it, it's probably a 40 minute read, but it's just a great parable. And one of the things that's certainly changing not only the economy but also the private equity industry and it's changing with the times. Doug, what would you say are some of the more important or telling evolutionary themes or changes that are going to be felt and experienced in the private equity industry in the days ahead?
Yeah, it's a great question. And if I had to put on my crystal ball, there's two things that immediately come to mind. Firstly, I think the industry is either maturing or in the maturation phase. I mean, the last statistic I saw, there's something like 3000 mid-market private equity firms in the North America alone, which is a great opportunity for you, but makes our life reasonably harder in terms of finding, sourcing, and really executing our plan to find great companies. We go back to first principles and really understand what is going to be the Clairvest edge, and it's the same for every other private equity firm. What's going to make us different when we go to market and really understanding where we're going to play and where we're not going to play. The second thing that strikes me is the formula is reasonably simple on how we generate returns.
You grow your business either organically or through M&A, you use debt instead of equity and you pay down debt over time and you achieve some multiple arbitrage. And the multiple arbitrage, it's really a function in our mind of building better businesses, with the exception that I think one of the things that have clouded that over the last, let's say 10, 15 years has been readily decreasing interest rates. So our view is that borrowing costs are going to stay sustainably higher for a longer period of time. We're coming out of a market where you could borrow at 2, 3, 4, 5% interest rates, and I don't think that's coming back anytime soon. And basically what's happened in the private equity, certainly over the last couple years, but probably longer, is like real estate, as borrowing costs have come down, that has allowed many private equity firms to pay more for businesses.
So the last statistic I saw was that the average leverage buyout is using something like six or seven times debt to EBITDA in funding their transactions and keeping their debt to capital roughly constant around 50%. I mean, back in the day, before my time entering private equity, but back in the day, seven times EBITDA to pay for a business used to be a good deal, and now people are using that much leverage to pay for the business. So I think that concept of generating returns from multiple arbitrage is going to come back to fundamentals.
So how are you fundamentally leaving the business in a better state, a better competitive spot, a better financial spot when you are done with your hold period than when you bought into it? And that is going to be the primary driver of multiple arbitrage over the next five or 10 years in my opinion. At least in the last recent history, I think something like 50 or 60% of private equity returns has come from that last bucket. I would argue it's mostly come from declining interest rates. So now that we've got interest rates much higher and probably sustainably so, it's going to be on us and our management teams to really push hard to say, okay, how do I grow this business, but also how do I grow it in a way that leaves the innate fundamentals of the business in a better spot than when we started?
I fully agree. It was almost too easy to make money, it was just financial engineering. You'd hear stories of I'm going to buy ten one million EBITDA businesses, make it a 10 million EBITDA business, buy them at five times and then sell the whole thing at 10 times with no value creation, no synergies, nothing, and people made a lot of money. That gig is up, and to Doug's point, you need to synergize, you need to create value, you need to remove the cost, you need to be thoughtful on the future, and how is that company stronger than the individual small ones. So the easy money's kind of gone, the hard work, fortunately, unfortunately, is on its way.
Those are both spot on once again. I remember I started in private equity in the late 90s, and all I could think of was, man, I wish I was 10 years older, everyone's going to crush it because it was just so different. There were fewer firms, we kind of set the terms. We had the money and people lined up to get it. And now, the business of private equity is turning into a business, but in many ways while the company, and I think that the industry as a whole, is evolving to fit that, I think you all very eloquently said it's about value creation and transforming these companies. But in some ways, we are being impacted in the industry by many of the things that happened kind of in the pre-Bernanke area prior to 2008 when there was a Libor, it was pretty reasonably high, and you had borrowing costs, and you were constrained.
And so it'll be interesting in some ways, you have this dichotomy of private equity moving forward, but in many ways we're going back to the future and going to see what 2006 felt like before some of this stuff. So it'll be really interesting to see things play out. I think the only thing that we can all agree on is it'll be different. I think the good news is you guys are really good at playing the hand as it's dealt. Maybe turning the page here, going back to personal interest things, one of the things that I've always liked to about my friends in the industry and business leaders in general is people's perspectives on learning from others. And so Mohit and Doug, I'd be really curious, what are maybe one of the things you're reading now or one of your favorite business or personal books that you've kind of recently or even over time ingested, and what were some of the takeaways that you had? And so Mohit, maybe if you could kick us off there.
Thinking about Moneyball and thinking about one scene. Obviously read the Michael Lewis book a while ago, but this idea of data and this idea of peeling the onion back, the one scene that kind of stuck out at me that also just I feel like I have parallels in my business world is just when Billy Beane's around the table with all his scouts and they're all just doubting him, they're all like, "Oh, that's not how it's done, this is how it is." And he's like, "Nope, the data's telling me this," right? And I'm like, okay, I've come across this before in a management meeting where you have the investment banker on one side, you got the company on the other side and they're just spewing stories. But no, what is the data telling you?
The data doesn't lie. So this idea of, in all our lives we're surrounded by incredible salespeople who could spin a story, but you got to look at the data, you got to peel the onion back, you got to understand is it fitting? And sometimes in our job, it's easy to forget that to be frank, because you're just so busy and you're like, no, no, no, let me sit back, let me really look at the data, what is it telling me. And a lot of times it doesn't match up. That's just something that stuck with me, and I got reminded of that last week when I was watching that on Netflix.
Great use of turn of page introducing this question.
It's a great movie. It's one that I often refer to actually when I'm trying to describe the difference between private equity and venture capital. I'll ask them, have you seen the movie Moneyball? And for whatever reason, people have still seen that. I think it's the Brad Pitt kind of draw for Gen Zers. And so just yesterday I was having this conversation with our new Vanderbilt interns and saying, "Here's the difference. If you've seen Moneyball, so private equity is Billy Beane. It's about get on first and second and third and bring it home. Venture capital is swinging for fences." And so I think that that example resonates for a number of reasons, but also just the whole data intensity and analytical nature of what you all do so well. How about yourself, Doug? What's one of yours?
There's two that I've read recently that have been pretty interesting. One, it's a book called The End of the World is Just the Beginning by a guy named Peter Zeihan. I mean, the main topic is de-globalization and what does that mean for the world in individual countries over the next decades. He brings it back, all this complexity that we see on CNN and The New York Times, and he brings it back to really demographics and geography. Fantastic book, but one of the key takeaways is all about the strength of North America, the strength of the US, based on both the geography and the demographics of the continent that we all live on, and its implications for different industries for people bringing manufacturing or nearshoring manufacturing, for trade between Mexico and the US, and other kind of themes that I think are relevant for really skating to where the puck is going with all the geopolitical risks that's out there.
The second one, may be more of a narrative, but it's a book called Americana by, I'll probably botch his name, Bhu Srinivasan. And each chapter is the story of a different industry that made America or made the United States. Our CEO has this saying that we're Canadians financing the American dream, and I read this book and it starts with the Mayflower and goes to Silicon Valley. Basically every industry that we love to talk about has been built by inventors, financiers, managers, people who took risks and really kind of built these industries up. It's a pretty interesting historical view of really the power of US innovation, the power of US entrepreneurialism, and how enduring it really is. I find it pretty inspirational that at Clairvest we can play some albeit small role in helping create that next generation of great companies and great industries.
Those books similarly sound terribly interesting, I've written them down. I mean, they're very timely in terms of the economy and where we're going in our past and all tying it in. So thanks for sharing those. I'm going to put those next up, right after I read Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, which is a great book about hospitality is where I'm trying to teach our team here how to treat you all like you're walking into the Union Square Cafe whenever you come to BluWave.
Next time you'll serve us hamburgers.
I hope so, it's really good. We just received news that In-N-Out's coming to Nashville, and so we're super excited about both Shake Shack and In-N-Out now. So one of the things that I've really appreciated once I moved from being in the PE world to serving you all and getting to work with the really the best business builders in the world, like you all, is with humility I learned things every single day that I wish I knew before. I was like, how did I not know this? And so every day is kind of like, "You know nothing, Jon Snow," for those Game of Throne fans out there where I just didn't know that's the way the world should work. So Mohit, if you could go back in time and meet your 22 year old self, what would be one of the top piece of advice that you'd share that you wish you knew then?
Besides a string of stock tips, I would probably be less focused on the specific job or the brand or getting that grade, but more about building the skills which are going to help you be successful in the future. I know it's extremely important stuff. I'm sure you're wired the way, say, Sean, Doug, as an overachiever, I got to get that grade, that job, that school. But it's having the perspective to say, okay, at this point in my career, what are the things I need? It's being able to navigate challenging situations, it's negotiation, it's analytics, as we talked about, it's big picture thinking, it's developing relationships with people.
Luckily, I think I kind of fell into learning some of these things, it wasn't by design, but there's some things I wish I had spent more time on when I was younger. Maybe even taking an outside sales rep job for a year, maybe that would've been smart. Some stuff which doesn't necessarily make sense on the resume, or you're like, hey, you don't think about in the day-to-day, but just take a long-term view to your career and life and not be so focused on the next step and the next step. That's what I think I would tell my 22 year old self if I had to go back in time.
So as you all know, I write these emails that I share with the private equity world once a month. And one of the things I always include is a life hack that I've figured out. And as you all might appreciate, as I've gotten older, I probably spend way too much time these days just trying to figure out little life hacks, little tricks, little gadgets that make my life just a bit easier, a bit more fun. I'm sure that resonates with you all and everyone who's kind of busy these days. Doug, I'd be curious, have you figured out any kind of tricks or gadgets or gizmos that you're using recently that you think just adds a little more joy to your life?
Yeah, I mean, I haven't entered the affiliate marketing game just yet, but a couple months ago I bought these noise canceling earphones that you see me wearing today. In many ways, we live probably half our lives on airplanes back and forth, and it's my moment of zen, you know? You go in, it's loud, you throw these earphones on, you watch a show, you listen to music, and it's been sort of a way to find some peace in the day when you're on those airplanes or even just at the end of the day watching a show or whatnot.
I think that's a spot on one. I was recently given the same as a gift and what a difference it makes on the noisy, rackety plane and just adding a little bit more peace and kind of a chaotic life and a chaotic experience too. Just going on a plane these days, if they can fly... I don't know if you've been monitoring, some of the air travel here in the lower 48 has been problematic. As expected, we learned a ton from both of you today, and that's one of the most valuable gifts anyone could ask for. Doug and Mohit, thanks so much for joining us today, it was great talking with each of you.
Yeah, likewise. Thank you. We're really grateful that you invited us on and to be able to spend this time with you and your audience.
Thanks so much, Sean. Much appreciated.
Special thanks to Doug and Mohit for joining. That's all we have for today. For more information, go to BluWave.net/podcast. That's B-L-U-W-A-V-E. Please continue to look for us anywhere you find your favorite podcasts, including Google, Apple, and Spotify. We truly appreciate your support. If you like what you hear, please subscribe, review, and share. In the meantime, let us know if there's anything we can do to support your success. Onward.
BluWave Founder & CEO Sean Mooney hosts the Private Equity Karma School of Business Podcast. BluWave is the business builders’ network for private equity grade due diligence and value creation needs.
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16:13 - Becoming scalable with clean data, AI and key KPIs
23:25 - Matt's advice to his younger self
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To learn more about BluWave and this podcast, go to www.bluwave.net/podcast.