The sixth annual unquote” Italia Private Equity Congress took place in November at the Four Seasons in Milan, bringing GPs, LPs and advisers together to discuss the issues shaping the industry.
While several pan-European challenges were the subject of discussion, including the sliding of financial engineering into the history books brought about by the scarcity of debt, several indigenous issues were brought to the fore.
Italy, it emerged, has a public relations problem. Investors are generally concerned about investing in Italy, despite the country's relatively good long-term track record of returns. "But much of that uncertainty is perception," said Dimitri Christopher, partner and head of private equity in Italy at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"Italy tends to get lumped together with southern European neighbours such as Spain or even Greece. But the economies are not comparable," he added. "Primary surplus is one of the highest in Europe and the country has a reasonably stable banking system that has not needed outside help. High public debt is our problem."
This negative perception has also bled into investors' consideration of Italian professionalism, some suggested. "Communication, transparency and being open and honest are incredibly important for an Italian fund manager to prove to foreign investors that they are a good opportunity," said Richard Damming, investment manager at Adveq. "Unfortunately however, there is a common perception outside of Italy that the latter two aren't Italy's strongpoint," he added.
And others agreed. "Actually, professionalism in Italy in general is not always as high as it is elsewhere in Europe. So a focus on professionalism and trustworthiness is incredibly important," said Valentina Franceschini, partner at Wise. For the 83% of GPs in the audience who declared their intention to begin fundraising next year, wooing LPs could be a big challenge.
"Italy has lost relevance on the international scene in terms of being a target country," said Fausto Boni of 360 Capital Partners, succinctly summarising the nation's plight. "It is very low on the priority list," he added. What is needed is a major revamp of the nation's image in the eyes of LPs. And with initiatives such as Why Not Italy? basing their activity on just that, perhaps this is set to change. Given that the tightening availability of debt has spelt disaster for several SMEs, private equity seems a natural partnership for a country comprising such a high number of small businesses.
What's more, Italy could be perfectly positioned to capitalise on a developing private equity industry in Africa given that just 155 kilometres separate the nearest points of both. "Italy is at the heart of the Mediterranean and very near to North Africa," said Alessandro Grimaldi from Clessidra. "So Italy is the natural partnership for Africa and a positive and important relationship could develop over the next 10 years." Perhaps the nation might be the forerunner of an important new partnership in the industry.
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