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Super-rich private equity stars rue “lousy” reputation, say they are misunderstood: Reuters

Ultra-wealthy private equity managers lamented their reputation as ‘lousy’ corporate profiteers at a plush Beverly Hills hotel on Tuesday, arguing their value to society was greater than the public realized.

Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive and co-founder of the Blackstone Group, touted the fact that companies owned by his private equity business employed about 600,000 people and had grown 50 percent faster, on average, than the S&P 500 Index.

“The idea that you can do all that and have great success and be perceived at best in a marginal way in terms of contribution to society, you’ve got to really wonder who’s doing the PR,” Schwarzman said during a panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

“People mistake us for financial people. I don’t know exactly why,” said Schwarzman – worth some $12 billion, according to Forbes – drawing a distinction between private equity investors which own businesses and mere financiers. “If you had 600,000 employees, you might be a company. A responsible company. And that’s what we are.”

Private equity has been criticized by some for saddling companies with debt only to sell their assets, cut jobs and take out profits. Private equity executives are some of the wealthiest people on Wall Street, deriving most of their income from fees paid by their fund clients, including keeping a cut of investment gains when companies are sold or go public. The founders of most of the biggest firms are billionaires.

Jonathan Sokoloff, managing partner of private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners, chimed in with Schwarzman.
“We’ve been able to deliver returns for 30 years dramatically in excess of the stock market,” said Sokoloff on the same panel. “Notwithstanding that, our industry still has a lousy reputation, we are generally viewed negatively by most people who don’t understand us.”

Sokoloff said the private equity industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, has generally avoided scandal and performed well through the financial crisis of 2008.

“We need some better PR and some help in how we market ourselves,” Sokoloff said

Thomas Barrack, executive chairman of real estate and investment management firm Colony NorthStar Inc, did not miss the chance to commiserate during the same discussion.

“People go ‘Oh, you’re in PE, don’t you just go in and buy companies and cut costs and then pray them up and flip them?'” Barrack said. “I say ‘No, we’ve never done that. We don’t do that at all. We grow businesses. We create value.”

Photo: Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Blackstone, speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, on May 3, 2016. Reuters/Lucy Nicholson