Friday, June 08, 2007

Now they're chasing human assets

Grab a rifle and head for the ramparts because we're being raided. After picking off restaurant companies one by one, private-equity firms are coming after the industry's executives.

They got Robb Chase last week. The president of Papa John's international operations was hired away from the pizza chain after just nine months on the job by a private-equity concern in Toronto.

A chain executive told me during the big restaurant show in Chicago that he'd been approached by another of the thick-walleted firms. It wanted his assistance in identifying and assessing acquisition candidates, and possibly to help in righting any handyman's specials they could pick up for a bargain price.

Meanwhile, consultants say they're fielding calls from private-equity companies that either want a download on trends that can affect a prospective acquisition's price, or advice on how to repair something they've already purchased and thereby raise its value.

It's easy to see why the companies are trying to tap the trade's brainpower. Private-equity firms have a lot of dollars, but sense sometimes eludes them, as a few of their foodservice deals have suggested. They're realizing that the restaurant business can be a peculiar one, best understood by a veteran steeped in the trade's puzzling ways.

And then there's the matter of timing. Many observers say the best acquisition candidates have already been scooped up by the equity firms, leaving what amount to berries on the bottom of a basket. They still might be good, but you have to pick more carefully.

Many of the companies are also hitting the point where they have to deliver a return on their purchase, either by cranking cash from it, or shining it up for a sale. They need experienced renovators and turnaround specialists to hasten the process.

The last thing the restaurant industry needs is a rival vying for its leaders and thinkers. It's just one more not-so-pleasant reminder that the private-equity pack is a part of the business right now, and a big one at that.

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