In this era of “buy and transform,” the key for private equity firms to maximize returns lies in driving operating leverage across portfolio companies.
It’s true, as a recent EY report (pdf) outlines, that there are many ways to help improve operations – close old factories, expand into new regions, hire different types of talent. But you can forget about fundamental transformation if you don’t focus on technology.
Recent advances in this field promise to fuel efficiency, reduce costs and enhance transparency like never before, connecting supply chain, employees, and customers to help organizations grow faster and compete better.
First movers in implementing new technologies like artificial intelligence will gain a critical advantage over their competitors, and executives are only too aware of this. Eighty-three percent of PE firms are seeking out operating partners with digital or technology experience, according to our new PE Divestment Study. Further, 94% of PE firms say they will use more predictive (applied) analytics within the next two years.
Yet with so much change going on, company executives often aren’t sure how to proceed. EY’s Growth Barometer Survey found that only 6% are currently using new technologies such as robotic process automation.
That dynamic poses both risk and opportunity for private equity firms. Risk, because left to their own devices, companies may take years to enact disruptive technologies – years that PE firms, on a timeline to exit their investments, do not have. And opportunity, because there is clearly room for PE firms to implement change that will position their companies to become the disruptors in their industries.
Truly transformational change isn’t always sexy or cutting edge – but these days, it’s essential. Here are four areas that PE firms should focus on to achieve it. One caveat: of course cyber security is important, and should be considered in conjunction with all of the below.
- ERP systems. Many targets are operating with legacy systems that don’t adequately drive efficiency and the ability to adequately manage the business in real-time. PE firms will want to consider systems that are simple so that they can be implemented rapidly and easily integrated later with add-on deals or with a new owner when the company is sold.
- Cloud technologies. Cloud technologies -- software as a service, platform as a service, and infrastructure as a service -- can help a smaller business punch above its weight when it comes to tech. By using resources that reside in the cloud and pay-as-you-go subscription models, companies can, say, crunch big data to be more forward-looking or run AI training algorithms without big upfront costs. But figuring out what should go on the cloud, and what should not, can be a waste of time. PE firms can help bring a standardized approach to that decision-making process.
- Artificial intelligence. This next big area of disruption encompasses everything from crunching data, to training robots to perform tasks, to using chatbots to answer customer queries. The window for being an early adopter is still open, but it will close rapidly as early adopters report on the benefits, like lower shipping times from using robots (Amazon) and lower customer turnover due to improved search recommendations (Netflix).
- Collaboration and engagement tools. Organizations may want to think about collaboration tools as “productivity apps that emphasize and enable teamwork,” as PC Magazine puts it. The current proliferation of such “apps” is bewildering, and private equity firms and their portfolio companies should carefully consider what they need. Answers may range from simple tools that tackle a specific problem like one team’s workflow management to all-encompassing, enterprise-wide systems like Slack.