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A Romney supporter and a poster boy for private equity

New York Times: Today, many of these private kingdoms rival the nation’s mightiest public companies. In all, the private equity industry oversees $3 trillion in global assets.
Marc Leder, Co-CEO of Sun Capital Partners, speaks during the Reuters Restructuring Summit in New York
Marc J. Leder, one of two chief executives at Sun Capital, is known by some for his partying. But he says he would rather draw attention for working hard to make private equity deals that turn around struggling companies. Of the sometimes contentious bankruptcy process, he says, “We don't make the rules.” Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

It was, the gossip pages would later report, the talk of the Hamptons — a midsummer night’s bacchanal in the playground of the 1 percent.

Beyond the windswept dunes in Bridgehampton, at a $400,000-a-month oceanfront mansion, bright young things bubbled up and the Champagne flowed fast. Into the small hours, professional dancers in exotic clothing gyrated atop platforms. One couple twirled flaming torches. The sounds of techno boomed over the beach.

The New York Post summed up the evening’s Dionysian mysteries with the following headline: “Nude Frolic in Tycoon’s Pool.”

The Post’s tycoon, and the party’s host, was a financier named Marc J. Leder, and those weekend revels last July had the East End of Long Island buzzing. Like many deal makers, though, Mr. Leder, 50, is virtually unknown outside financial circles. But from his headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., he presides over a multibillion-dollar private empire. He is a practitioner of a Wall Street art that helped define an age of hyperwealth, and which has now been dragged into the white-hot spotlight of presidential politics: private equity.

It was through private equity that one Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, amassed his wealth — and, it turns out, it was through private equity that Mr. Romney first met Mr. Leder. A couple of months after the blowout in Bridgehampton, Mr. Leder was host for a fund-raiser at his Boca Raton home for Mr. Romney’s campaign. But the connection goes back even further. Years ago, a visit to Mr. Romney’s investment firm inspired Mr. Leder to get into private equity in the first place. Mr. Romney was an early investor in some of the deals done by Mr. Leder’s investment company, Sun Capital, which today oversees about $8 billion in equity.

Mr. Romney’s own time in the private equity business, at Bain Capital, has provoked fierce attacks from Republican rivals and others. It has also prompted a lot of questions, including the big one: What good is this business, anyway? Detractors say private equity has enriched a handful of financiers at the expense of ordinary Americans. The deal makers, this line goes, buy companies and then bleed the life out of them. Jobs are often among the casualties.

Whether there’s truth to such claims depends on whom you ask. Private equity executives, as well as Mr. Romney, who left Bain in 1999, say the industry fixes troubled companies and ultimately creates jobs. Whatever the case, three decades after this sort of deal-making burst onto the scene in the merger mania of the 1980s, there are surprisingly few solid answers from either side.

What is certain is that buyout specialists upended the old order and made vast fortunes for themselves. Fueled by easy money from banks, and from endowments and pension funds, these private investors were able to buy companies with borrowed money and put down relatively little of their own cash.

Today, many of these private kingdoms rival the nation’s mightiest public companies. In all, the private equity industry oversees $3 trillion in global assets, according to Preqin, the research firm. Buyout kings control more than 14,000 American companies, including brands like Hilton Hotels and Burger King.

But financiers weren’t the only ones to embrace private equity. On the campaign trail, Rick Perry called private equity artists “vulture capitalists.” But as governor of Texas, he blessed the largest corporate buyout in history — the $44.4 billion takeover of the utility TXU by several investment firms in 2007. Indeed, as in many other places nationwide, public pension funds in Texas used public money to bet on private equity, in hopes of generating the investment returns they needed to pay retirees.

Against this backdrop, the story of Marc Leder might seem a footnote in the nation’s economic ledger. But it is a story worth knowing. That’s because, in many ways, Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance.

To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies — roughly one of every five it owns — have filed for bankruptcy.

Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

Yet Mr. Leder doesn’t seem to be suffering too much himself. In fact, he is living so large that he can’t avoid the limelight. Last July, he used part of his personal fortune to join a group of investors in buying the Philadelphia 76ers. In December, he was spotted on St. Bart’s with Russell Simmons, of Def Jam and Phat Farm fame, and Rachel Zoe, the celebrity stylist. That again landed him in The New York Post, which dubbed him a “private equity party boy.”

Mr. Leder says that characterization couldn’t be further from the truth. He focuses on what are known as “scratch and dent” deals, which typically involve companies that are struggling to begin with. One-third of the companies Sun Capital has bought are losing money. It’s a tricky game in good times, and downright dangerous in bad ones. Mr. Leder and his defenders say Sun Capital has saved many companies and, with them, many, many jobs.

“I think the portrayal of me as having wild and crazy parties is absolutely incorrect,” Mr. Leder said during a wide-ranging interview in Sun Capital’s offices in Midtown Manhattan. “I spend a small percentage throwing some parties, attending some parties. I like music. I like to dance. But rather than reporting on how I spend 340 days and nights of my year, the media likes to report on the other 25.”

Paul Jones, chief executive of the Midwest retailer ShopKo, which Sun Capital acquired in 2005, said Mr. Leder has kept a close eye on his company. “I get e-mails from him, usually on Sunday mornings, in which he’s says we had an impressive week or sometimes it’s just to give our team an ‘attaboy,’ ” Mr. Jones said.

For more than 28 years, Helen Smolak worked at the Friendly’s in Denham, Mass. Day in and day out, she served Big Beef Burgers and Fribbles, collected tips and made a decent living.

All that changed one evening last October. That was when Ms. Smolak’s supervisor called to tell her the restaurant was shutting down — immediately.

“It was my family. That was my home,” said Ms. Smolak, 56. “Friendly’s always came first. I was supposed to retire with these people and with this company.”

What went wrong? Sun Capital acquired Friendly’s in 2007 for $395 million — an 8 percent premium based on Friendly’s stock price at the time. But now Sun was saying the weak economy and the rising prices of milk and other ingredients had pushed Friendly’s, a 76-year-old chain, to the brink.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that helps safeguard corporate pensions, wasn’t so sure. It accused Sun Capital in bankruptcy court filings of using the bankruptcy to shift Friendly’s pension burden onto the agency.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Mr. Leder said. Friendly’s pension fund, he said, was underfunded well before Sun Capital bought the company. The outcome, he added, is simply the way the bankruptcy process works.

“We don’t make the rules,” he said with a shrug. He said the matter was settled with the agency for a “nominal” sum.

Bankruptcy is never pretty. But, in this case, Sun Capital was particularly adept at getting what it wanted. Only months after Friendly’s went bankrupt, Mr. Leder has already regained control of the company. It was a calculated move, and one that is potentially lucrative for Sun Capital and its investors. In filing for bankruptcy, Friendly’s also cut hundreds of jobs, closed dozens of restaurants and bought some time to regroup. Now, if Sun Capital can turn around Friendly’s, it might eventually be able to sell the chain at a profit.

And profit, after all, is what private equity is really about. Among the Sun Capital investors that stand to benefit from all of this are the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, the Indiana State Teachers’ Retirement Fund and the Ford Foundation.

Jeffrey States is the investment officer for the Nebraska Investment Council, another Sun Capital investor. He said some private equity firms do provide information about how their dealings might affect things like jobs. But not all investors ask for such details.

“The primary objective is returns,” Mr. States said.

Mr. Leder, for his part, has never been shy about turning a profit. He and another banker, Rodger R. Krouse, were working at Lehman Brothers when they saw the huge money-making potential of private equity. They hatched their plan to get into the business one April afternoon in 1995, after a meeting at Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital in Boston.

The executives at Bain had been grousing about a deal in which Bain had doubled its money. But the Bain executives were lamenting that if they had sold sooner, they could have made much more.

On the plane back to New York, Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse sat stunned.

“We’re looking at each other saying, ‘This is an industry where double your money is not that good of a deal?’ ” Mr. Leder recalls.

At 10 the next morning, Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse marched into their bosses’ offices and quit. They then decided to base their new private equity firm in Boca Raton, and became its co-chief executives, believing the location would give them an edge in spotting potential acquisitions in the Southeast before their rivals in New York and Boston. But competitors kept outbidding them for companies.

It took 20 months, but they finally got their foot in the door. Friends and family members invested in their first dozen deals. Mr. Romney also invested personally in some early transactions, including an acquisition of a company that made speakers for computers and another that made carbon paper.

(Mr. Romney’s 2011 financial disclosures included stakes worth less than $15,000 apiece in two Sun-controlled companies — a pittance, given his estimated wealth of as much as $250 million. A spokeswoman for Mr. Romney’s campaign did not respond to an e-mail or a call seeking comment.)

Sun Capital soon carved a niche in doing turnarounds. In 1997, it acquired a majority stake in a maker of injection-molded polypropylene panels. By 2002, that company had more than doubled its sales.

One success led to another. Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse invested $1.5 million in a company that supplied parts for Corvettes and walked away with $20 million. Two Sun investors were so tickled that they bought each man a red Corvette.

Such successes aside, Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse make something of an odd couple. Mr. Krouse has the quiet demeanor of an accountant and tends to shift in his seat when conversations turn to his private life. (Former associates say he is a family man who likes to spend his spare time reading.)

Mr. Leder, by contrast, is bigger than life. He storms into a room and seems to suck out all of the air. Several former colleagues say he appears to have a photographic memory. He speaks rapidly and rarely holds back.

In a conversation about his business dealings, he segued into how his father wanted him to be a doctor but that he opted for other pursuits because he hated dissecting frogs in biology class. And he mentioned how he used crushed graham crackers as the secret ingredient in the pancakes he used to make for his youngest daughter.

He also said he started reading The Wall Street Journal when he was 12, and that in high school he delivered chickens and started a D. J. business. And he said that he typically sleeps for two to three hours at a time at night before waking up to answer e-mails.

AS word got out about Sun Capital’s early investment successes, pension funds and endowments were soon clamoring to get into its funds. Sun Capital raised fund after fund, each bigger than the last. In 2007, it raised $6 billion for a single fund. Sun Capital had hit the big time.

Then the Great Recession struck. The private equity boom turned bust fast.

By early 2009, numerous companies that Sun Capital had acquired were struggling to survive. Sun was racked by internal dissent. And Mr. Leder’s personal life had hit a rough patch.

By that spring, several Sun companies, including Drug Fair, Big 10 Tires and Mark IV Industries, had spiraled into bankruptcy. The firm had already taken losses on a large deal, a hostile takeover of the fashion company Kellwood, which Sun Capital had acquired without the usual due diligence.

Then came other, more personal blows. Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse both lost money that they had personally invested with Bernard L. Madoff. Mr. Leder and his wife of 22 years, Lisa, began to go through a messy divorce. She demanded half of his total wealth, which she contended was more than $400 million at the time. The two eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

Its business in retreat, Sun Capital laid off a number of its own employees. Those who stayed were told they would receive no cash bonuses. Instead, everyone was given a bigger slice of the portfolio of companies that, at that time, was losing value every day.

Angry employees fired off a list of dozens of pointed questions to Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse, asking how much money the two co-founders had been paid and how much they had taken out of Sun Capital. The employees wanted to know how a firm that had just raised a $6 billion fund, and which was collecting about $120 million a year in management fees alone, could possibly be running low on cash.

Mr. Leder and Mr. Krouse had, in fact, already paid themselves handsomely for their giant fund. As 50-50 partners, they kept the first year’s fees, in cash, for themselves, according to former employees. A spokesman for Sun Capital declined to comment.

Mr. Leder said that even during its worst year, Sun Capital booked a small profit. He denied that his decisions were driven by his own financial interests. And Sun Capital paid its employees cash bonuses early for 2009 , he said, because “we realized we had pulled in the reins a little too hard.”

To critics who say that Sun Capital grew too big, too fast, Mr. Leder pointed to ShopKo, which it bought for $1.2 billion. Sun brought in new management, freshened up stores and plans to merge it with another Midwest retailer, Pamida. Sun Capital has already paid itself a dividend on that deal, and Mr. Leder says he expects it will generate big returns.

In a smaller deal, Sun Capital bought the Midwest retailer Gordmans for $56 million in 2008. It doubled its returns through two dividend payments and proceeds from the Gordmans initial public offering in 2010.

When asked if private equity could withstand the heat of election-year politics, Mr. Leder seems unfazed. He is among the top contributors to the political action committee Restore Our Future, a so-called super-PAC created to help Mr. Romney. He insists his business isn’t politics — it’s private equity.

“I don’t worry about what I can’t affect,” he said.

This story, originally appeared in The New York Times.