Private equity targets fund distribution platforms
Acquisition opportunities arise as small firms struggle to achieve profitability
10 May 2021 | The Asset

Private equity firms have shown increased interest in fund distribution platforms, although a market focused on long-term returns may not present obvious opportunities for them. Private equity ownership of platforms has increased 15% in the United Kingdom, from just 2% of the market five years ago.

The focus has been on acquiring mid-sized advised platforms, a trend that looks set to continue, according to Cerulli Associates.

Private equity has been active in both the advised and non-advised platform markets, but the latter is relatively concentrated. “Non-advised platform markets represent more interest from private equity because it is more fragmented and diversely advised,” says Justina Deveikyte, director of European institutional research at Cerulli.

The opportunity for private equity firms lies in sector consolidation – there are a high proportion of small firms that have decent customer books but are struggling to achieve profitability in the face of regulatory and technological demands.

“With pricing under constant pressure, smaller players are increasingly becoming inefficient, making them targets for consolidation and creating potential for private equity to build scale through mergers and acquisitions,” says Deveikyte.

In addition, investment platforms can deliver relatively high returns on capital, especially when compared to other areas of the financial sector. Platforms are relatively capital-light and direct investment customers, in particular, tend to stick around even if service levels fluctuate or they experience poor investment performance, providing a recurring and predictable long-term source of revenue, Cerulli says. In 2020, a number of platforms managed to grow their customer numbers and assets under administration.

However, the objective of private equity investors is to exit positions at a profit, with European private equity holding periods averaging around six years. In contrast, advice firms tend to look for long-term partnerships with the platforms they work with, given the length of the average client lifecycle and the desire to keep disruption to a minimum.

The short-term strategy of private equity clearly does not sit comfortably with that, especially when an acquisition raises the prospect of migration and replatforming exercises, according to Cerulli. Successful replatforming takes a lot of time, money, and commitment.

Advisers are less sticky and loyal than direct investors. Anything that affects platforms can have implications for the service that advisers provide clients and the suitability of the chosen platforms for an advice firm’s client book.

“The day-to-day mechanics of platforms and the ability to navigate the twin challenges of regulation and technology will determine the real impact of private equity’s forays into the market. There is clearly a reward to be gained for private equity firms venturing into platforms, but they will need to be patient and prepared to commit,” says Deveikyte.