Why Terry Leahy has got a job in private equity and you haven't

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Sir Terry Leahy, the former chief executive of Tesco is moving into private equity. He is getting a job as a part time advisor to Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, in their London office.

Private equity isn't as popular a career as it used to be. In our recent poll of careers people would choose if they had their time again, it ranked bottom.

However, this doesn't mean PE careers should be dismissed altogether.

Another recent poll by Investec Fund Finance found that 90% of people working in private equity are satisfied with their careers. A mere 4% of PE people expressed dissatisfaction with the way their working lives had turned out.

However, if you're an investment banker, moving into PE remains challenging. Nowadays, PE funds particularly want people like Sir Terry. They are less keen on investment bankers. This is why.

1) There are too many investment bankers in private equity already

Big private equity funds spent the years before 2008 hiring investment bankers. Now they have lots of them and they don't want too many more.

"Let's just say, that if you look at the top 100 private equity firms, you will find an imbalance," says David Giampaolo, chief executive of investor network Pi Capital. "You will find that they are far more staffed and partnered with financiers than operators. What they are doing now is adapting to the new economic environment and realising that an additional skillset is required to underpin the probability of success."

Translation: PE funds want operational expertise, not deep knowledge of spreadsheets.

2) Sir Terry knows people that you don't

Inevitably, Sir Terry knows a lot of very important people. Even industry professionals who haven't spent years as CEO of the UK's leading supermarket chain have intimate industry contacts senior investment bankers only aspire to.

"Senior industry people bring access to deal flow ahead of the rest of the pack," alleges Gail McManus, chief executive of Private Equity Recruitment. "Their network of contacts will alert them to opportunities early."

Senior investment bankers have contacts too. But McManus claims their contacts tend to be less deep rooted; they alert them to opportunities at the same time as everyone else.

3) He knows how to run a business

Investment bankers know how to structure the financing of an LBO so a business has the best chance of success. Sir Terry types know how to, "crawl under the skin of a business and help it develop," points out Giampaulo.

"Future returns will come from growth rather than leverage and arbitrage," he declares.

All of this is probably why, when private equity funds hire at a senior level, they tend to look for industry specialists who can open doors and run businesses. But when they hire at a junior level, they tend to look for ex-investment bankers to sit in offices and run spreadsheets. The former category of occupation would appear to be massively more interesting than the latter.

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