Direct investing among family offices is on the rise in Canada, but experts say there are still many things to consider when thinking of going this route, not the least of which is whether this is within one’s expertise, risk tolerance or budget.
According to the 2021 Family Offices Report from Campden Wealth, RBC, 85 per cent of family offices in North America participate in private equity investment. Direct investment – acquiring an interest in or ownership of a company, versus investing through a private equity fund – has always been a route available to family offices and high-net-worth individuals, but it has had a massive surge in recent years.
“What you will often find is that large family offices that perhaps have generated wealth from a particular industry will feel very comfortable in making direct investments into private companies that are in a similar industry as they have expertise,” explains Greg Gipson, chief investment officer for Calgary-based Grayhawk Investment Strategies Inc.
There are several reasons for this major uptick in direct investing in the last decade, including the creation of more family offices and the increase in private companies around the world.
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Between 2010 and 2015, direct investing activity among family offices jumped by 206 per cent, according to Boston-based research and data firm, Fintrx. This signalled a growth trajectory that has continued ever since, with more than 50.9% of the 3,500 to 5,000 family offices around the globe considering direct investment today, according to the study. Of note, the direct investing trend is being driven by single family offices (which represent almost 40 per cent of global family offices), versus multi-family offices.
“Some family offices of a certain size may have the ability to bring in and/or have in-house expertise,” says Gipson. “That expertise could lead them to direct opportunities, and it could also lead them to investing in specific funds with specific managers.”
What about investing in private equity funds?
But with more family offices wading into direct investing is there still a place for private equity funds?
Yes, according to the experts, and the main reason is that direct investing is not right for all investors, as it takes specific expertise, and that is not always something family offices want to bring into the fold.
Probably the main upside of direct investment is avoiding the 2-per-cent fee that private equity funds take for their daily operating costs.
“If the family’s going to put a certain amount of money into a private equity fund and they’re going to pay this fee, they say, ‘Wait a second. If I’m putting X amount, and 2 per cent of that is enough for me to hire my own team, why am I not using that to hire my team?,’” says Steve Balaban, chief investment officer for Toronto-based Mink Capital. “There are lots of other factors outside of just pure numbers, but the basic idea is, ‘Does it make sense for me to pay someone else to do it, or should I do it myself?’”
What key skill is needed in-house?
Both experts acknowledge that it can be tough to pay fees, especially when there is an expertise within the family office in a particular area of investment. The main thing that all family offices need to have the ability to do in-house, whether it is for a direct investment opportunity or looking at private equity funds, is to conduct detailed due diligence.
“You need to have the ability to analyze and assess opportunities, whether they’re individual companies or funds,” says Gipson.
But getting into direct investment may offer a more hands-on approach and feel to opportunities in that sector and that is appealing.
There is also the option of co-investing.
Transitioning from private equity funds to direct investing through co-investing
Co-investing opportunities can allow family offices that are already involved in private equity funds to transition into direct investing slowly with the help of the private equity fund experts.
This happens when a family office, which is most likely already a member of a private equity fund, is given the opportunity to get in on a certain percentage of a direct investment opportunity that is found and offered by the fund. It can allow exposure to direct investing and a limited partnership in that investment while still being under the expertise of a fund.
“When the families make this decision [to get into direct investing], they’re not naïve,” says Balaban. “They know that private equity funds have the expertise. They know that, but they also know that if they start doing this, they’re going to start building expertise in-house. A lot of times, it depends how big the family is, and it depends how professionally managed the family is internally. It also depends on the type of expertise they want to build in private equity.”
“In general, at the end of the day, more and more families don’t like paying the fees,” he adds. “They feel like by paying fees to someone else, they’re not really learning from it. What’s happening is by doing it themselves, they’re going to learn from it in the long term.”