Last week, I heard from some of the heavy hitters in PE on just that question at Booth’s 19th Annual Private Equity Conference. Hosted by the Private Equity Group (PEG) and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Booth welcomed more than 400 industry professionals to the event, including many alums in private equity. Taking place in downtown Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the conference, titled “Investment Thesis Evolution: Growth to Buyout,” aimed to explore how firms are specializing and segmenting themselves to differentiate within an increasingly competitive industry.
As PEG’s biggest and most important event of the year, the conference does not come together overnight. This year’s PEG Conference Co-Chairs, Chandler Watlington and Michael Wright (both MBA ’20), began the planning process last spring, alongside the Polsky Center and Professor Steven Kaplan. Their hard work paid off in what was an incredible day of learning and networking for all attendees.
To kick off the conference, welcoming remarks came from co-chairs Chandler and Michael, Dean Rajan, and Ken O’Keefe, MBA ’93 (for the last few years, the conference has generously been sponsored by Beecken Petty O’Keefe & Company, a healthcare-focused private equity firm in Chicago, founded by Ken). The first keynote of the day featured Stu Porter (MBA ’94), Founder and CEO of Denham Capital, an energy-focused private equity firm. For some attendees, this was a highlight of the conference, providing unique insights into the future of the energy industry. As Joe McIlhattan (MBA ’20) articulated, “[Stu’s] lens into trends in the oil and gas industry was really interesting, especially since it is not something that gets talked about as much at Booth. A lot of students are particularly excited by healthcare and technology investing right now, so this perspective was refreshing.”
In addition to his commentary on investing, Stu opined on his experiences at Booth, crediting his education for much of his success. As many current students who intend to pursue careers in private equity were attending the conference, this was an inspiring element to the discussion.
The two concurrent morning panels that followed explored different ways firms can differentiate themselves; one panel addressed alternative investing, while the other delved into value creation initiatives that can set firms apart in the market. The clear takeaway from both panels was that an element of creativity behooves investors, and that the era of cut and dry leveraged buyouts may be coming to a close.
For the lunchtime keynote speaker, Booth welcomed back another alum, Nikhil Thukral (MBA ’98), Managing Partner at L Catterton. At Catterton, Nik spends his time investing in and working with consumer companies. Perhaps one of the most compelling parts of this discussion centered on consumer trends around the world increasingly converging, which is interesting commentary on 21st Century globalization.
The second set of concurrent panels in the afternoon took a look at the more entrepreneurial side of private equity, with one focusing on family office investing and the other discussing how to establish new firms. Investing out of a family office can often result in a more flexible investment mandate, which can be a valuable angle in winning a competitive deal process, while founding a firm with a specific niche is often a way to differentiate in the market as well.
The day concluded with the final keynote speaker, Paul Finnegan, Co-Founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, one of the first private equity firms in Chicago. Paul has an unconventional background by private equity standards, having started out his career in publishing before pursuing a career in investing, first at First Chicago Venture Capital and then by co-founding Madison Dearborn. He emphasized the importance of passion when it comes to sustaining a successful career in private equity; in his opinion, a thirst for knowledge and a genuine love of working with different companies are two essential qualities of any investor.
All in the all, the conference was a great success, and so much credit is due to Chandler, Michael, the Polsky team, and Professor Kaplan. As a second-year who is graduating this June and entering the private equity industry, I look forward to coming back to the conference as an alum to continue to learn and share insights with industry colleagues from Booth and beyond.
Check back next week for a spotlight on Michael Wright, one of two Booth student co-chairs who worked tirelessly for nearly a year to plan the conference.