Yes, it is still possible to get hired into private equity with no previous buyside experience (I know, I did it not so long ago myself). Rumours of more sellside cuts make this sound pretty tempting, if you can see past the buyside cynics.
However, getting a job in PE is by no means a cakewalk.
Interviews will be gruelling, even if you can get a foot in the door. I’ve had to write out an LBO model with a pen and paper and calculate accurate returns under various scenarios. If, bizarrely, that sounds easy to you, imagine you have a difficult personality sitting next to you asking you challenging questions as you go. Not fun. You’ll also be expected to have an excellent view on the PE industry, demonstrating knowledge of hot topics (“pretend I’m George Osborne or Vince Cable and argue convincingly that the newly increased Capital Gains Tax rate will be bad for UK Plc”).
It’s a people business – funds typically list names of entire team on their website (including the secretaries). Know about them all, because if you make the wrong impression on just one team member you’re sunk.
Expect to be assessed on your ability to deal with a lack of hierarchy. You’ve been used to periodic promotion in banking. That won’t happen in most PE funds, where you only get moved up the food chain when someone at the top leaves. The corollary to this is a lack of team variety. Banking is big enough that if you don’t like your colleagues on one project you can work with others next time around until you find people that you’re comfortable with. In a team of fifteen or so (the median size of small- and medium-cap funds and of the sector teams most large-cap shops silo juniors into) that can’t happen. And if your colleagues are anything less than close friends who are very happy with the standard of your work, you can wave goodbye to the carried interest which makes millionaires of buyout gurus.
Due to the way that most deals are sourced, you’ll also need a strong network of business contacts. Banks are usually not the best places to develop this and you’ll have to have made extra efforts to do so. Be prepared to ring up contacts shown on your LinkedIn profile during an interview, on speakerphone. If the third one in a row refuses to take a call from your personal mobile phone during the day, consider yourself rumbled. True contacts are only those who’ll make time for you regardless of their workload.
Can you show an understanding of valuation and investment risk? This is a very real worry for buyout professionals when they hire bankers used to presenting the “blue sky scenario” by default. The more experienced the banker cum would-be-dealmaker, the greater the suspicion that they’re adept and sweeping real risks under the carpet.
And finally, you’ll need insights into deal structuring in the post credit-boom era. Many private equity industry professionals themselves haven’t figured out these new paradigms, but why would they want to hire from banks unless to infuse the sector with new ideas?
The author is a former investment banker, now working in private equity.