Blackstone’s James: ‘We are public figures’

Hamilton “Tony” James, president and COO of The Blackstone Group, said he was not surprised that a recent dog abuse case spurred a national outcry against a private equity firm and its portfolio company.

“Animal rights people are some of the most aggressive” of activist groups, James said on the sidelines of the PartnerConnect LP-GP Summit in New York, sponsored by peHUB and Thomson Reuters.

James, who spoke during a keynote Thursday, said his prior firm, DLJ Merchant Banking, once owned Charles River Laboratories, which breeds animals for pharmaceutical testing. “We got bomb threats all the time,” James told peHUB.

Social media recently has publicized bad acts committed by members of the PE industry. In August, Centerplate Inc CEO Desmond Hague was caught on a hotel video abusing a cowering dog. The video went viral and the ensuing backlash included calls for Hague to be fired, threatened boycotts of Centerplate, and death threats against the CEO and executives of Centerplate’s sponsor, Olympus Partners. Hague resigned on Sept. 2.

[contextly_sidebar id=”6ksulrilqaqnJZaOtjO4DziGid5zR2Hj”]SeaWorld Entertainment, a Blackstone portfolio company, also saw its stock plunge in August. “Blackfish,” a documentary released in 2013 that highlights SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales, has spurred a backlash against the company that has affected the company’s earnings.

Blackstone's Tony James (L) speaks with Steve Gelsi of Buyouts at the LP-GP Summit in New York on Sept. 18, 2014. Photo by Robert Paul.
Blackstone’s Tony James (L) speaks with Steve Gelsi of Buyouts at the LP-GP Summit in New York on Sept. 18, 2014. Photo by Robert Paul.

When asked if Centerplate waited too long to oust Hague, James said he wasn’t that familiar with the situation. “What kind of person beats their dog?” he said. “I’m not that sympathetic either.”

James didn’t comment on the Blackfish controversy. Instead, he recalled how SeaWorld penguins visited the Blackstone offices when the portfolio company went public in 2013. Publicity from the visit, which included cuddly photos of SeaWorld penguins running around the firm’s offices, softened Blackstone’s image, James said. “It made us look friendly…[Social media] can be very useful tool for getting stuff out as well.”

James, during his keynote, said the world had changed in the last seven to eight years “when we all went public.” The PE industry used to be private and “didn’t get a lot of attention.”

Blackstone executives are now “very mindful” that they are “public figures,” he said. “We get watched…Private birthday parties become causes célèbres. We try to be careful. We make mistakes.”

Photo: Tony James of Blackstone speaks at Thomson Reuters’ LP-GP Summit Sept. 18, 2014, in New York. Photo By Robert Paul.