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Interview with Bharat Banka of Birla Private Equity

Venture Intelligence recently spoke to Bharat Banka, CEO - Private Equity, Aditya Birla Group. He has been with the Aditya Birla Group for more than 13 years.

Venture Intelligence: Tell us more about the PE effort at the Aditya Birla Group…
Bharat Banka:
We started out around December last year investing proprietary capital and commitments received from domestic associates. In coming months, we would have formalized a fund and initial commitments would become the Limited Partners. We also plan to launch a Real Estate fund sometime down the line.

VI: What would be the corpus of the PE fund?
In addition to the initial commitments, we would target raising $100-150 million from domestic investors and a similar or higher amount from international investors.

VI: Don’t you think that you are late to the PE party?
No, I don’t think so. The PE industry in India has just reached the inflection point. From $2 billion in 2005 the investments have grown to over US$14 billion in 2007. We expect the level of activity to grow to $20-25 billion in the next 3-5 years. Hence, it’s a good time to be launching Aditya Birla Private Equity business as the hockey stick curve is yet to rise significantly.

VI: What are the differentiating advantages your firm enjoys over others in this space?
Primarily our relationship with the Aditya Birla Group and the ability to tap into the best practices followed by more than a dozen group businesses. Our portfolio companies could also access customers through various businesses that the group operates in, especially customer facing businesses like cellular, retail, financial services, branded apparels, IT enabled services. Our Group Corporate Centre works very much like a PE firm to our group companies in terms of setting performance benchmarks, monitoring performance, aiding in capital raising, divestitures, investor relations and evaluating M&A targets.

VI: What would be your sweet spot in terms of deal size and stage?
At present, we prefer to invest between $10-50 million primarily in growth stage companies. In the current form, we would avoid angel / early stage funding and would focus on investing in companies with market-cap not above $800-1000 million. We are not averse to doing exceptional PIPEs but would prefer unlisted companies.

VI: What would be your key criteria for investing?
Some ground rules we stick to are:

- Companies that are or could be potential leaders in their space.
- Businesses which can grow their topline at 30% or more for 4-5 years from the time we invest.
- The business should have reasonable pricing power resulting from a differentiated offering or price inelasticity of the product or service.
- Openness to good corporate governance and financial discipline.

VI: What are the sectors that attract you?
We are extremely excited about Education, Healthcare, Logistics, Financial Services, New Media and unique plays that are part of the eco-system of Manufacturing. What that means is rather than invest in commodities, we would be more interested in customer facing businesses say a steel retailer as opposed to a hardcore manufacturer.

We are also excited about retail and telecom and the domestic vehicle facilitates participation in these sectors with investment limits/ restrictions for foreign ownership in these sectors.

VI: How are you approaching the telecom opportunity?
Over the next few years the telecom industry could transform from voice delivery to a powerful tool that would deliver multiple applications. Say for instance M-Banking and M-Commerce or even delivery of medical solutions. As indicated earlier, we would avoid investing in startups but application providers that exploit the mobile as a delivery tool could be interesting space where we could look at bright ideas.

VI: How do you see the opportunities in other infrastructure segments?
We are very excited about logistics. We would avoid investing into core infrastructure like Ports, Roads etc but we are very bullish on ancillary opportunities in infrastructure space like Engineering & Construction.

VI: What are the opportunities in education?
Though the sector is regulated, we are looking at both front-end and back-end opportunities in education. It is interesting to note that after food which tops the spend list for an average Indian family, the next highest amount of spend is on education. We have already invested into Core Projects & Technologies, a services provider to the state governments in the education sector.

VI: How do you see the IT outsourcing space now?
India could be loosing its edge when it comes to pure undifferentiated IT sweatshops as the cost of real estate and human resources has gone up, reducing the cost arbitrage. However, we are open to KPOs doing high-end work.

VI: What sectors would you stay away from?
Real Estate, funding research initiatives and industries which do not enjoy a pricing power like say, textiles.

VI: How do you see buyouts evolving in India?
Currently, the market for buyouts in India is shallow. It could take another 4-5 years for buyouts to become a substantial part of the private equity investing activity. Leverage financing, which is quintessential for buyouts is still a few years away in India and poses limitation.

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