Zeina Bain, who joined London-based Sullivan Street as a managing partner in 2022, has touched industries from car washes to claims management and aircraft to chemicals in over 20 years in private equity. Saying ‘yes’ has been a key part of how she has approached the industry – and told PE Hub Europe as part of our International Women’s Day series that it is one of three bits of advice she’d give those joining today.
Starting in investment banking at the end of the 90s – “a pretty tough environment you wouldn’t recognise today in terms of how women were treated” – and having an early experience of crazy hours and no daylight for two years likely inspired that first lesson.
“Have that conviction in your own judgement. Majority of my early career I thought, if I just work that extra hour, that’s how I prove my value. Judgement, how you handle yourself around people, how you make connections – that is what makes a successful senior professional versus being a workhorse. As much as you can, say yes to things, take on responsibility, put yourself out there.”
Bain then jumped to venture capital just as dotcom was bubbling. It was a real eye opener, she said – not just the diversity of businesses involved, but also the better gender balance.
Wanting a more structured environment, she joined Carlyle Group in May 2001.
“It was a brilliant experience and I had the benefit of fantastic bosses who really put in the time to develop my skillset. We ended up doing a lot more of the complex, transformational deals. My first deal was a take-private in the aero-engine parts space, headquartered in Sheffield. The stock was unloved and on a downward spiral and then with the drive of private equity ownership, the alchemy of a great management team and underlying good business, we sold the company at a multiple of the value of where it used to trade.”
After 18 years at Carlyle, Bain started looking for her next move – something that chimes with her second piece of advice.
“A really good junior PE professional asks themselves, what can I do next? I don’t want to wait for the next instruction. What could I be thinking of in terms of the next piece of analysis or moving on a process? What do I need to get comfortable with?”
That advice likely comes in handy now. When compared to the dotcom bubble and the great financial crisis, today’s difficulties are multifaceted, she said, and with far more private equity demand looking for assets. That requires more creativity when structuring deals.
The private equity environment has changed for women, said Bain, being a far cry from 20 years ago when dealmaking was for the golf course and networking for the shooting range. But while all the firms are investing a lot of time in coaching and supporting a new generation of women, she said, there are areas for improvement, including retention.
“In the investment committee, do you have other people echoing what you’re saying and supporting?” she added. “Do you have someone to cover you as you make your point? That’s probably the one of the key pinch-points that remains.”
Her third piece of advice for newcomers applies here.
“Make sure you’ve always got an internal network where people see what you’re doing. Don’t just be a wallflower and wait for the pat you on the head. You need to have as many touch points within the organisation as possible so that people are aware of you and you’re aware of what’s going on in the wider business and how you can add to it.”
But just as important are the connections outside the industry.
“This is a fairly unique industry and it’s helpful to find the people you can have the ‘hey, am I crazy’ conversations with.”
Even during the more workaholic time in investment banking, the friends Bain made mattered, including Layton Tamberlin, who went on to co-found her current employer Sullivan Street.
After a brief stint at Intermediate Capital Group, she moved to Sullivan in October. It was a far cry from Carlyle, where her last deal had a €10 billion enterprise value.
“We’ve looked at all sorts of deals. We’re focused on that £20 million ($24 million; €22 million) to £30 million mark, with always a bit of situational operational or stakeholder complexity. We are not doing a large volume of deals or playing vanilla auctions. It’s deals where you really have to apply yourself and work through the issues or lack of full visibility to pull off the deal or see value differently.”
One deal she felt marked that out was Octavius Infrastructure, a transport infrastructure and civil engineering business.
“The way profits are reported belies the quality of the business. Other bidders also worried about lumpiness, the volatility of sales. We saw through that.”
Editor’s note: PE Hub Europe’s interviews with senior women in private equity will appear throughout March. Read our Q&A with Blackstone’s Natacha Jamar here.