Rome-ing Around

Well it’s here, the EVCA Symposium, the highlight of the European private equity calendar. Never one to shy away from glamorous locations — apart from that odd year when it was set in Edgeware, London — EVCA is following up last year’s spectacle in Monte Carlo with another impressive setting – Rome.

It’s hot, obviously, and the reputation of Roman drivers is well deserved — driving here is not just a simple case of getting from A to B, it’s an experience akin to a volatile conversation or a raucous party. Lots of noise, lots of gestures, plenty of entertainment.

And speaking of raucous parties, the Symposium opened with a cocktail reception in the lovely garden of the Cavalieri Hilton, where the attendees were told of EVCA’s new strategy to operate on three levels: venture, buyouts and mega-buyouts, with a particular emphasis on the latter as being separate from the rest of the buyouts world – more details on that when I get them.

SJ Berwin veteran Jonathan Blake also spoke to the assembled masses about what he felt was the gross misrepresentation in the media of private equity, particularly in regards to the tax breaks the industry receives, and argued that it should not to be compelled to pay the same level of tax as personal income as the tax incentives are in place to encourage entrepreneurship – a reference to comments made by SVG’s Nick Ferguson who told the FT: “Any commonsense person would say that a highly paid private equity executive paying less tax than a cleaning lady can’t be right” – to which Alchemy’s Jon Moulton, writing in the same paper, mischievously responded: “The most pressing question in private equity today is how does Nick Ferguson pay his cleaner?”

The issue of private equity’s public image looks set to be a defining one of the conference — whether it becomes the defining issue will be revealed over the next day and a half. Jonathan Blake quipped that things are getting so bad for the industry that even lawyers are looking like upstanding members of the community compared to buyouts managers.

The conference proper kicks off tomorrow – Thursday – with an opening address by outgoing EVCA chairman Javier Loizaga of Mercapital. This is followed up with a keynote address by Matthew Bishop, author of several economics and financial tomes, and chief business writer/American business editor of The Economist. He should make for interesting listening, especially after last year’s Super Investor conference where journalists were voted more unpopular than lawyers and (even) placement agents.

Stay tuned…