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Vestar’s Nikhil Bhat: Information services are ‘in the middle innings of a shift’

Vestar seeks companies that 'use technology to aggregate, integrate, and analyze mission-critical data sources to drive high-impact insights for their customers.'

Vestar Capital was early to recognize the value of companies that leverage data in sectors including healthcare. The New York private equity firm is still investing heavily in data-driven companies. In April, Hellman & Friedman agreed to acquire a majority stake in IRI and merge it with H&F portfolio company NPD. Vestar and New Mountain Capital will retain significant investments in the combined company. The deal is expected to close in the second half of the year. For insights on how the use of data has changed over the years and how PE is investing in data targets today, PE Hub reached out to Nikhil Bhat, Vestar partner and co-head, business and technology services.

How has the role of data evolved in businesses, and what are private equity firms investing in today?

Data has always been a key input in helping companies make critical business decisions. Over the last 10-15 years, the quantity of available data – about customers, products, markets, supply chains and internal operations – has grown exponentially, while the difficulty of acquiring this data and the cost of computing power to analyze it have shrunk dramatically. Companies who can make sense of this data are able to make better business decisions to drive growth and profitability; but given the sheer volume and complexity of the information, this is not easy.

We are looking to invest in vertical information services companies that use technology to aggregate, integrate and analyze mission-critical data sources to drive high-impact insights for their customers.

What is driving dealmaking in the sector?

We are in the middle innings of a shift in what drives value and differentiation for information services businesses. Previously, it might have been enough to provide a proprietary data source, and deliver a raw data product to customers in a database or spreadsheet. Today, value is driven by providing customers with self-service tools to quickly extract actionable insights from the data, and seamlessly integrating these tools into client workflows to support augmented decision-making. The most advanced companies, agnostic of size or industry, are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to further enhance speed and quality of analytics.

Every company is at a different stage of this transition. We get most excited by opportunities to help management teams invest behind technology and innovation to accelerate their evolution along this curve. Industry consolidation is another major opportunity; acquiring adjacent data sources or analytics technologies and combining them into a single solution that integrates into multiple client workflows can drive significant value for the customer, which in turn drives growth and value creation in the investment itself.

What are some of the data analytics companies Vestar has invested in recently and why?

Previous Vestar investments in the data analytics space include Press Ganey, Institutional Shareholder Services, MediMedia and StayWell. Current investments in the space include IRI, a provider of big data and predictive analytics to the CPG industry; Quest Analytics, a healthcare provider network management software and data company; LERETA, a data- and tech-enabled services provider to the mortgage industry; and Mercury Healthcare, which provides predictive analytics around healthcare provider and consumer engagement.

In each of these investments, we’ve been excited to partner with best-in-class management teams to invest behind innovation and technology, bolstered by strategic M&A, to fuel growth by creating value for the customer. For example, when we carved ISS out of MSCI, management had a vision to stand up a best-in-class technology architecture and use this to accelerate innovation. This technology investment, in addition to five strategic acquisitions, helped management transform the growth profile of the business in a relatively short timeframe.

Quest Analytics is another great example, where we’ve invested heavily in talent, product, and technology, and made two important acquisitions. As a result of these efforts, the company has nearly quadrupled in size since we made our original investment in 2017.

Tell us about exits. What are the opportunities?

There is an active buyer universe for best-in-class data analytics companies. We spoke earlier about industry consolidation – there are a number of larger, vertically-focused information services companies that have active M&A efforts and can be great homes for our investments. Larger-cap private equity can also be great partners for our investments and management teams, since many of the value drivers we’ve been discussing today are still highly relevant at larger scale. The public markets have historically been an attractive option as well, ascribing significant value to data analytics companies’ recurring revenue, robust growth profiles and attractive economic models.

Let’s talk about IRI. Walk us through how you grew the firm, how the merger with Hellman & Friedman’s NPD came about, and why you held onto a minority stake in the combined company?

We’re very proud of what IRI’s management team has accomplished over the course of our partnership. When we made our investment, we were impressed with IRI’s Liquid Data technology platform, which provides cutting-edge predictive analytics, visualization and decision support tools that help customers make sense of the vast and growing ocean of first- and third-party consumer data. Since then, the company has invested heavily behind innovation – with Liquid Data as its backbone – to create and grow new products that enable mission-critical decision-making across almost every aspect of our customers’ businesses. In addition, IRI has made three strategic acquisitions over the last three years to accelerate its product development roadmap in high-growth areas. These investments, paired with great execution and continued share gain in the core, have led to significant growth and value creation at IRI.

We’re incredibly excited about the merger of IRI and NPD, which will create the premier global information services provider to the consumer goods industry. Bringing together the companies’ complementary data sources – IRI’s CPG data and NPD’s general merchandise and foodservice data – on a single, leading-edge technology platform will allow the combined company to create new, superior products that help brands and retailers collaborate, better serve their customers, and navigate an increasingly complex and dynamic consumer behavior landscape.

It’s probably clear why we wanted to maintain a significant minority stake in the company. The potential for innovation, and resulting enhancement to the customer value proposition, should be a catalyst for growth, and we have tremendous confidence that the combined company’s management team will bring IRI and NPD together in a way that creates meaningful value for clients, employees and investors alike.

How are macroeconomic forces, including inflation, rising interest rates, supply chain problems and labor shortages, affecting deals in the sector?

On balance, these forces are a net positive for data analytics businesses. Factors like input cost inflation, wage increases, shifting customer behavior, and supply chain frictions are complex and opaque; good information services companies bring transparency to these issues, and help customers both mitigate risks and identify opportunities stemming from these market dislocations. As a result, our data analytics investments are becoming more important partners to their customers than ever before.

What’s the future for PE-backed deals in data analytics?

The industry dynamics we’ve been discussing today are long-term, secular growth drivers that are likely to support significant continued private equity activity in the information services space. The amount of data available to companies around their operations, customers and markets will continue to grow; the analytics technologies will continue to become more powerful; and as a result, the need for data analytics businesses’ solutions should continue to accelerate. We’re certainly excited to continue investing in the space, and see a lot of opportunity going forward.