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January 18, 2011

Interview with Raja Kumar of Ascent Capital

Raja Kumar, Founder & CEO of Ascent Capital

The growth capital focused PE firm Ascent Capital, recently invested Rs.150 crore in Hyderabad-based IVRCL Assets & Holdings. Earlier in 2010, Ascent had co-invested (with Argonaut and IDFC) into the energy arm of the GMR Group. Venture Intelligence spoke to Raja Kumar, Founder & CEO of Ascent Capital, about the latest investments and other developments at the Bangalore-headquartered firm.

Venture Intelligence: Can you tell us how the IVRCL Assets investment came about and what attracted you to the company?

Raja Kumar: Our internal research flagged water and road infrastructure assets as an attractive area to invest in during the fund life of our current fund. With the streamlining of regulations and good visibility of the upcoming road pipeline, the road segment is poised to grow. Water infrastructure is another promising area given the demographics of India. We dug deeper into these sectors and identified players whom we believe would be successful, IVRCL A & H was at the top of our list.

IVRCL is a proven player with significant experience and execution capabilities. They already have excellent assets in the Road and Water BOT space. The Company has the ability and balance sheet strength to raise capital at both the project and holding company level. They also have mature assets which they can easily divest to annuity type investors. Companies such as IVRCL are valued in the market at a multiple of book value and we have confidence in their ability to grow their book.

VI: What are you expecting from the company in the near future – in terms of use of the new funds, etc.?

RK: Majority of the new funds raised would be used to fund existing infrastructure projects. The company is also bidding on Road and Water BOT projects - we expect them to win some of the ultra mega road projects and water infrastructure projects given their experience in executing the water desalination plant in Chennai. To diversify the portfolio of projects, the company is now focusing on projects for power transmission, hydropower and oil tankages.

VI: Will Infrastructure continue to be a key investment theme for Ascent? What other sectors within infrastructure appeal the most to you?

RK: Infrastructure will continue to be a key investment theme for Ascent. Any fund that is looking to invest in India cannot ignore the infrastructure segment. The 12th Five Year Plan’s outlay of USD 1 trillion for the sector will drive investments. Other sectors within infrastructure that interest us are power, ports, logistics, urban renewal, etc. besides the companies that provide feeder services to infrastructure companies.

VI: Other than infrastructure, what are the other industries you are looking at actively?

RK: We are looking at sectors driven by domestic consumption such as Education, Healthcare, Managed Services, etc. We are also actively seeking opportunities that leverage the global competitiveness of the Indian industry such as IT/ITES, Aerospace & Defence Electronics, Pharmaceuticals & Life Sciences, etc.

VI: In Fund I and II, you had a significant number of investments in the IT space. What is your reading of opportunities in the IT & ITES industry now compared to earlier?

RK: We have done well with our IT investments in our previous funds and it will continue to be a focus area for our fund. Earlier, there were number of opportunities in the early stages, but now most of the opportunities are in roll-ups, management buyouts and platform development. Whereas the first phase of growth was driven by outsourced services this phase will be driven by product companies both in the software and hardware realm.

VI: What sectors will you stay away from?

RK: We stay away from real estate and other negative sectors such as alcohol, firearms and tobacco.

VI: Ascent has clearly stated its preference for growth capital. Why are you staying away from buyouts and distressed types of deals?

RK: Although we have a preference for growth capital, we are selectively looking at management buyouts and distressed opportunities. Even in growth capital we have always owned significant stakes in our portfolio companies and have been instrumental in setting the strategic direction of the company.

VI: What is your view on doing PIPE transactions?

RK: In the Indian markets, of the 6,000+ listed companies about 90% are characteristically akin to private companies with small revenues and profitability. Such companies need capital to grow and can be expected to produce returns comparable to those from private companies. If PE funds find cheaper valuations in the public markets than in the private markets they would prefer to do PIPEs. Having said that, I don’t think we are going to invest more than 20% of our corpus in PIPEs. Due to regulatory reasons we can do only primary investments in public companies.

VI: Your latest fund was closed in an extremely challenging environment for PE fund raising worldwide. Can you share some of the highlights from the experience?

RK: We were one of the few funds that launched and closed a fund on schedule during 2009. Needless to say it was an extremely challenging environment for fund raising. However, neither did we use the services of any fund arrangers nor did we have any special terms with our large LPs.

We are grateful to our LPs for backing us in 2009 – it was a leadership act on their part. It is interesting to note that ours was the only fresh commitment some of our LPs made during the year. Many LPs appreciated our discipline in adhering to the timeline for fund closure.

VI: Finally, you have attracted ChrysCapital founder Raj Kondur to the Ascent team. How did that come about and what role will Raj play?

RK: Raj is a welcome addition to our team and brings complementary skills. After a stint with entrepreneurship he was in touch with our team for the past 12 months. He clearly evinced interest to be part of the platform provided by Ascent Capital and help grow it to a leader in the industry. Raj will be leading investments like other partners with a special focus on control transactions.

This interview first appeared in the Venture Intelligence Indian 2010 Annual Private Equity Roundup Report