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Taking Your Investments to the Next Level with Private Equity Investing, with Joseph Haviv, board member at Vesttoo

Episode Summary

Joseph shares all the cool opportunities in private equity investing, from fintech to space tech.


Episode Transcript

Philipp: Welcome to another episode of In Your Best Interest, your personal finance podcast. I'm your host, Philipp Muedder, and today, I’m here with Joseph Haviv, board member at Vesttoo. He’ll share his experiences in private equity, from his top tips in private equity investing to how he completely transformed, and sold, a cookie company for 6 times its value. Joseph, it’s great to have you on today. So, tell us, what’s your background and how did you get into this space?

Joseph: So I actually was born in Libya, I grew up in Italy. And in Italy during the 70’s. Conditions were really not that good for anybody that was interested in studying or getting anything done. So I looked at going to study in the United States, I then discovered that if I went to Canada, as an immigrant, I could actually get an equivalent education, but also have substantial subsidies from the government. So that's exactly what I did. I went to University of Toronto. I graduated as an engineer for 2 years. Then I went to the University of Michigan and got my MBA  and I will now answer your question as to how I got to private equity, I really made two very quick observations. I knew what to buy and I knew what to do with it, once you buy it. What I did not know was how to buy a company. 

And as embarrassing as it is, I went through all of the business schools and never considered the option of being an investment banker.

But, you know, from that, then people told me to go into private equity, it's the easiest way to do it.

Eventually, I got hooked with a group called Exor, which is the Agnelli family from Italy. So I joined them, we were one of 5 multi-billion dollar entities that could do leveraged buyouts.


That was their family, all of the Agnelli family?

Joseph: Correct.

Philipp: OK.

Joseph: The history behind it is that it used to be called IFINT, IFI International. And, oddly enough, during the 70’s, the family was really concerned about what would happen in Italy. 

So they took the equivalent of $100 million, and shipped them to the States and said, just buy stuff. Which is what they did. And then that created a structure that continued to be active, even recently, when they bought partner reinsurance, PartnerRe, did it really come out of the United States. 

So after 4 years with them, I had this idea that if you were to bring high-level skills, managerial skills to the middle market, you would actually accelerate performance. 

So I started to look for an opportunity in the middle market. I joined the group called First Atlantic Capital, it was a very small group, it was $80 million in size, half of it was invested, the other was not. And I joined with the express intent to get them to the next level. 

So I invested the first, the first $30 million of the company in a cookie company, the best company I've ever bought in my life. 

And then we raised a $350 million fund, with a $150 million co-investment vehicle. And we went from 4 professionals to 12, etc. And then time went by.

 I loved private equity. I think it's an incredible experience, whether you are an executive running a private equity firm, a private equity-owned company, pardon me, or even more, if you run a private equity firm. 

Yeah, the breadth of exposure that you have is beyond belief, the management on the operational as well on the financial side is crucial. And at the end of the day, you either have leadership or you don't. So I think it was a great testing ground.


Super interesting. But so if you tell investors, for example, you know, they have their portfolio. And there's, you know, there's a lot of companies now, actually, that make it a little bit easier to invest into private equity, even if you're not an accredited investor. You know, there's companies out of Europe like Moonfare, one of the digital startups, right?

You can also invest through buying the shares of a company like Blackstone or KKR as a publicly-traded company. 

And then you hear a lot more I feel like the last 5 years about private equity and you know, as an asset class, so, how would you describe to an individual investor, why they should have private equity in their portfolio or not? Like, what would be your reasoning for that?

Joseph: I would say that if you're looking for a catalyst to accelerate returns on equity, there is no better vehicle than private equity. Now, it's risky - that's true. Because, you know, when you're running or overseeing a company that has 70% debt, you better have a good mechanism around you. But it's less risky than people think. I will tell you my single biggest lesson learned. If you remember, I told you that one of my premises was bringing high skills to mediocre companies.

Well, I'm here to tell you that is really not true. Okay, it's true up to a point. But you cannot… I would say, you cannot turn a donkey into a thoroughbred, it just is not going to happen. Now, why do I say this? 

Because I believe that the fundamental attractiveness of private equity is extraordinarily strong on larger-sized deals. And by larger-size deals, I mean, transaction values that are from a billion dollars and up. 

Now why is that? First is that you have much, much easier execution. Those deals are debt supported through a bond offering. There's clearly a process because you have to hire an investment bank, accountants to prepare the documentation, the prospectus etc. 

So that's the first thing - it gets easier execution on the debt side. 

By contrast, just to make it brief, if you try to raise money for a $150 million transaction, you're typically looking at the senior sub-type of structure. That means you're going to have due diligence up the wazoo by the bank, multiple covenants, lots of mechanisms, quarterly reporting, mezzanine benchmarks, discounts to your budget, none of that exists in the bond market. So if you were to ask me, where with hindsight now, where would you invest? That's where I would do it. 

The second reason why it's so important, is because I always used to call it the shock absorber, a small company, if it hits a bump along the road, it could be anything - a furnace stops working, you lose a big customer. If the wheels come off, it's like Disaster City. 

Because your difference between positive EBITDA and negative being below breakeven, it's never that high. In a large company, it's a very different story. You can take a hit, and you can rebound. And if you want, the best example of that, to me, was during the 2008 crisis. 

I think the last point that I would highlight when it comes to larger private equity transactions, is that they give you much greater degrees of freedom on exit, which at the end of the day is the only thing that matters. 

And also, because one thing that is crucial, from the buyer’s perspective, or the investor perspective, the amount of effort that you put into a small transaction, versus a large one is at best equal - and in many cases, in a small one is much higher, because they're not prepared to handle those questions.

Philipp: That was a lot of finance talk, so let’s simplify it a bit. Basically, private equity investing can be highly profitable. And Joseph just mentioned 3 key learnings from his experience: one, that private equity investing gets easier the larger the deal. We’re talking from a billion dollars and up - that’s where you have professionals handling the process. Second, larger companies are better able to withstand crises. And third, in most cases, larger deals require less work from the investor.

Next up, Joseph will share how you should approach private equity investing, the megatrends he’s keeping an eye on, and how he’s teaching his daughter to save and invest. Stay tuned.


Yeah, so now, you talked about transaction sizes, right? How would you go? So, I know you run your own firm, right? If investors are looking to invest their own money, or allocate percentages of their portfolio towards the private equity space, and they get access to various private equity firms, and then their funds, and they have different funds with different mandates? How would you go about that manager research or like, if you would say, allocate money now yourself towards different private equity firms? Where would you start?


I'll talk about the United States market, because it may be different. But in the United States, the truth of the matter is that the overall space has been consolidating quite substantially. 

So you now have behemoths, literally, that operate in that space. Now, why is it that somebody like Blackstone or KKR, and alike are able to raise $10, $12, $20, $50 billion dollars? 

The answer is very simple - its track record. So what you need in private, in selecting, I would say that the first thing is no question -  track record. 

The second thing is what value added does the private equity firm bring? If you look at any of the big names, they were very bright at creating advisory boards, you know, non-operating chairman, counselors, that they just parachuted inside the company, not to take over, but rather to be a resource to the CEO. 

And that is invaluable in the scheme of things. The hang up when you're a small firm, like we were, you know, we brought, we tried the same thing, but we couldn’t pay the fees that these guys were able to offer to some hot shots.

So I think that the second one is what value does the firm provide. Third, I think that you need to really, when you're investing in a fund, it's crucial to read the prospectus to understand where are they going to invest. And I'll tell you why. 

The economics of the fund, if you are the fund manager, is composed of 2 elements. One is fees. And the other one is return on the carry. 

Fees are directly proportionate to the size of the fund that you generate. As some of these entities today generate very large amounts of money by simply raising more money from investors and charging a 2% fee. So when you look at, you know, you mentioned before Blackstone being public, KKR and others, they took the management company because it helped them on a couple of ways. 

First, it provided liquidity to the existing people which didn't have it. But just as importantly, they can go to the stock market and then say, look, independent of performance, this management company has this fixed revenue always.

So I think that you need to really understand the sector they want to operate in, what is their approach to diversification? What is their approach to oversight of the company? Some people are totally hands off. That's when they spent a tremendous amount of time selecting a management team. Others are more individuals that will put grease on their finger. 


That's interesting. Let me ask you this question. And so let's say, hypothetically, you have a friend that comes to you, maybe he's made money, he worked hard, right? He’s investing his personal portfolio, this friend of yours. 

And he's asking you about private equity, should I allocate some portion of my overall family's portfolio towards private equity? How much would you tell that person to put into that private equity space? 

And then within the private equity space, would you suggest to go invest in a few different funds that are completely different and maybe different funds of different private equity firms to even diversify that part a little bit, what would be your advice for a friend like that?

Joseph: So I think a lot of it depends on how much money is available, but I do not believe that one should go higher than 25% allocation to private equity. 

For anybody that is a novice at it, just to understand that it could be a number like 10% to 15% could be a good starting point, as to, you know, how to allocate that depending on the funds available, I would not actually put money in different funds under the same company. 

Especially in the early stages, because you should use that phase to really understand other players. It's like the dating game kind of thing. And then you'll find out that you get aligned to somebody more than with others. So I’d pick like 2 to 3, I'd see how they perform, I would be patient, because you can get lucky and get returns in 3 years. But, you know, hold periods have been extending to 5, 6, and 7 years.


So understanding also the liquidity aspect of investing in that asset class in general, right, it's very important.


The other thing going on is that, traditionally private equity has actually operated in more traditional industries in business - that's not the case anymore, right? 

If you look at some of the biggest homeruns, by private equity firms, have actually been in fields like cybersecurity, medical, data reporting, some of these things, and as unbelievable as it sounds, those are companies that actually trade initially for 8 to 10 times. 

So they're able, because of their relationship, to actually secure a capital structure where the bank or the market will lend 6 to 8 times of debt. I have a very good friend, Mike, that actually did this with a company when he first started, the company was worth $500 million. He bought it for 10 times, he put 8 times debt, I told him that, to me, that was a suicide trick. That he said to me, you just cannot believe how fast this guy is going to grow. And he was right. Two years later, he sold it for $4 billion.


Yeah, that's a nice return and quick too.


Quick, extremely quick. So but if you look at the news, these things are happening, you know, some elements of technology are no longer, you know, sitting on the wayside.


I know, these new industries that emerge with technology.


Look at, for example, and that's why I think some of the global players are actually looking overseas. I was totally stunned that KKR as an example is looking at buying the Italian cell phone company, stunned. Yeah, but I understand what is promoting that thinking. 


Yeah, thank you, absolutely. So that's super interesting, I think, you know, for investors that that gives them something to think about and some good guidelines from someone that's been in this space. 

So what I do want to ask you, a couple other questions, though, is, and I want to get to what you're doing now a little bit, because I know you told me some super interesting things before when we spoke a few months ago. So I want to get into that in a second. 

But you said earlier, and correct me if I'm wrong, but you said, your best investment that you've ever made was a cookie company. Do you want to tell us just really quickly about that? 

And then I also want to get into your worst investments, and you don't have to name them. But just like, it's good for people to understand a little bit, we're adding something very good to you. I'm sure there were also things that didn't work out so well right over time. But good to understand, now with hindsight, what do you learn from it?


Sure. So, with regards to the cookie company, the company was called Otis Spunkmeyer. When we bought it, it actually, we bought 60%, the former owner retained 40%, I was convinced he was going to continue to work with us. Literally right after the deal got signed, and I walked up and shook his hand and said, it'll be fun working together, he looked at me, he said, I have no intention of spending one time, one minute on this company anymore, call me when you sell it. 

So why did it work so well? The CEO that was there at the time had this grand vision about taking it into the retail space and supermarkets and everything else. We decided to take the company in a completely different direction, which was to put cookies in all high traffic areas where people repeatedly show up. 

So for example, American Airlines was one of them. Our cookies were on American Airlines, if you went to Disney World you found them. If you went to stadiums, we put them into every stadium that we can think of. We actually were the first ones to introduce cookies in hotels, now in the United States, very often when you check in, they give you the cookies. 

And at the same time, we actually expanded the capillary distribution of the product. We then did some modifications on some of the products and added a few. But to give you a sense, we bought it as I said that it was around $6 to $7 million in EBITDA, and we sold it for $42 million in EBITDA. And you can just imagine, and it was only 4 years. So you know, when you have a multiple of 6 on the EBITDA, the multiple on their transaction was huge. And my friend, the former owner, on his 40% took home 2.5 times what he took on selling the 60%. So he always said to me, I'll be fun to have you.


That's awesome, because I think it really shows what you guys as a private equity investor added value to that company, right by going, you know, hands on and really like changing the way that they were distributed. So I think that's really interesting for listeners to understand more, you know, what's the value that a private equity firm actually brings to the table.


Strategy, strategy, selection, and execution are the fundamental ingredients. Management is right there with it. But if you don't have the right strategy, you get in trouble. You asked about a tough situation. 

We actually bought a foundry that actually served the railway industry. It was an old foundry. We didn't pay much for it. But what happened was that while we were trying to recover the volume, we probably short-changed maintenance on the capital equipment. 

And then all of a sudden, overnight, the volume picked up by a factor of 3 to 4 times. We were ready for it because we had prepared the facility infrastructure, but we had not quite completed all of the improvements. Our sales went through the roof, we were doing extremely well. And right in the middle of that, we had two furnaces, one was actually being rebuilt. The second one was working perfectly well and it stopped. And for as much as we tried to fix it, we just simply could not get it done. So that created a huge havoc because of course if you're a foundry and you don't have melted steel, there's not much you can do. We looked at options of bringing them in with trucks and alike but it was just prohibitively expensive. 

So that was probably the single toughest thing that actually we went through. Again, it was a shame, because every single piece of that company had actually been fixed. And, you know, everybody on my team as well as the client kept saying, at that company, just kept saying, shit, all we needed was another 2 months, we would have been out of the woods, because the other furnace would have been ready. 


No. But hey, you live and you learn, right? I think it's really cool to see both like a good example versus a bad example and also having that diversification within the portfolio that you can support some of the losses, right, in order to make the gains back on the other companies that do work out, right?




So looking back now, this could be about your company or what you're doing now. But since this is also a personal finance podcast, right? How would you say your personal investment strategy has changed from the time you started until now? Where are you now? How did it start and what are you interested in now, basically?


So when I started the firm, I basically dedicated just about every cent I had towards the company because I kept saying to myself, if I'm asking others to invest in companies I buy, I should be the first one to do that. 

A few years ago, I actually shut down Protostar. So I had to really decide what to do in terms of investments. And I will preface this the following way. 

First of all, the single most important decision that you can make as an investor is, what is your risk tolerance? Because that ultimately dictates what you will choose and what you will not. That's the first thing. 

The second thing is I think as an investor, it is always, always beneficial to actually decide on a certain amount of money that you're prepared to lose 100%. It could be $50,000. It could be $100,000. It could be $2 million. Doesn't matter. 

So with those 2 tricks, I basically try to do 2 things. If you look at my portfolio today, it's made up of 3 pieces. One piece is within the stock market, US exclusively. I do not believe investing internationally, I don't buy this argument that over the long run, it provides diversification. Now, I don't know the Asian markets, I should say, OK. But you know, in the United States they are constantly telling you, invest in Europe, invest in Europe. Not me. So that's a big bucket. 

Within that, the sectors that I try to look for are the megatrends or actually consumer-driven things. What do people talk about all the time? You know, I was a very, very early investor in Google and Amazon. But just because everybody was telling me that they were buying stuff, I didn't even know what Amazon was. And I had no clue. But the more I thought about it, so keep your eyes open to what's happening in the world. 

I think the second piece is the risk - the risk side. I have never dabbled in that risky space, but I actually am a big player now in options on selected stocks. And I think that if you're prepared to lose that money, the rewards over the long term, the options-driven strategy can be very, very positive. And you know, your cash exposure is nowhere as close. 

So your leverage, if you get it right - if you get it wrong, you're screwed. But that's why first you got to decide how much can I lose? Look what I'm doing now. I actually think that the world has changed and is changing at an extraordinarily rapid pace. So I've tried, especially because I'm in Israel, to spend more time with startups and new technology entities. I think I mentioned it to you as well, but I didn't mention it to you when I was talking last. I am actually now officially connected with a group called OurCrowd. It's the single largest VC fund in Israel. I was just asked to join their investment committee. It's a group of us from all over the world, but this is a fund that is over $1.2 billion dollars and it's all raised through crowdfunding. Amazing place. So just go to the website called OurCrowd. You will enjoy it. So that is a funnel since they're so pervasively present in the Israeli VC community. It's a funnel to everything that is happening. Within that funnel. I have chosen several areas - fintech, I think is one. Vesttoo, as you said, that's one example that is basically creating insurance linked securities that are then traded publicly. I'm super happy to say that this is a company where I was the first investor.


You were an angel investor basically there?


Totally an angel. They're very gracious. They say that, but they just raised, the latest round was a $300 million valuation. The one 3 months before it was at $90 million. So these guys will reach the unicorn stage very quickly. I'm also involved with another company called SpacePharma that actually has some activities in Singapore. SpacePharma is a CubeSat, a small satellite that, inside of it, has the functionalities of a $150 million chemical and physical lab. And this is used to conduct medical research for antibodies and alike in space, it's a fascinating field.


This is interesting just for me to understand why are they looking to do that in space? The research - what's the benefit of doing it?


So in space, you have what is called microgravity. And on Earth you can create zero gravity, but you cannot duplicate it every time, which of course, for medical research, it has to be the same. Well, you get zero on average. On Earth, it's -1/+1 and then it's -2/+2. And that's no bueno. Essentially any molecule gets expanded by a factor of 100 to 1000. So crystals are much more defined, the structure of the molecule is much more identifiable. And if you're specifically targeting a certain area, then you can actually pinpoint where it sits. You know, but space, it's massive how rapidly it's growing, the environment. There's so much money, Philipp, going after space. If you think about it, Branson, you have everybody.


When I was growing up in the 90’s and 2000’s. I think the 90’s, especially, were a little bit more right because they were still like these space shuttle missions that we always saw on TV and things like that. But I felt like for the last, you know, the last 2 years, it started a lot again, like it was so much more in the news, right? With Elon Musk's SpaceX, reusable rockets. 

You go up much more often. What's really interesting is a few weeks ago in Portland, it was really dark and we were at a friend's house. We live just outside the city, on a little hill, a mountain range, right? And it was so dark you could see, at night everyone knew it was coming out. It's those satellites that are very close to Earth, the Starlink ones. It's pretty insane to see that so close and so lit up that row of because they're so close to Earth, right? 

And I think more and more, I think for me and I feel like even with friends just talking about it also or not an investment space, it's getting much more exposure. Again, I think it's really cool and interesting. Everything space-related is getting so much interest now again.


The pace of development is insane. There are two things that will change dramatically in the next 0 to 3 years. One is the emergence of many shuttles which will be operated like a taxi system between Earth and space. 

Second, commensurate to that is alternatives to the International Space Station, which, as you know, it's old, decrepit and about to break in a million pieces. But the new ones instead are really unbelievable. So there's very active involvement in getting manufacturing done in space. 3D printing, these are really unbelievable if you want to look at a company that I think is phenomenal. It's called Sierra Space. It's a privately-held company. It's traded, but it's controlled by a husband and wife team from Turkey that bought the initial kernel of it just a few years ago for a couple of million dollars. And it's now worth like a billion and a half.


Yeah, it's super interesting. So where do you spend most of your time now researching these things? Or what are some of the resources you used to get, you know, introductions into these areas?


You know what I tried to do is every company that I meet, I ask them to introduce me to at least one person. So the way that I'm expanding my network is exactly that way. Because otherwise you get stifled. And the truth is that it's impossible, impossible to keep up with how fast the ecosystem is changing. For kicks, just go to the website that I told you about, OurCrowd, and access it. You can see what kind of deals they have. Keep in mind that OurCrowd spits out 1 to 2 deals every single day.


That's crazy. And yeah, I know I already bookmarked it, so I'm definitely going to do some research there. Super interesting, yeah. We might have to have another chat just on that, because I think I'll do some research and take a look. 


Because they actually accept individual investors, OK? Yeah, if you're an accredited investor, they then have a couple of different ways in which it's done. What I did with a group of people from New York that were friends of mine who said to me, Joseph, like, I can't invest and start following, etc. 

And I basically created a group of them. You know, there's 14 altogether. Each of them invested whatever, and they actually all have it through one LLC vehicle. And then one has to work, once you have that framework, then you can work with OurCrowd to say, hey, you're a crowd funding mechanism, I have a similar business proposition. Can we find a way to marry the two?


Yeah. Because you can actually invest in OurCrowd through an LLC as well. Yes. Oh, cool. That's super. Yeah, for the US market, it's very interesting for US investors. That makes a lot of sense. 


I think it could be an additional offering rather than, let's go to OurCrowd and then you make no money and nothing out of it this way you can create an umbrella structure that says, I can send out something to my entire base. And if they come, I'll tell them this is the minimum, but I want to aggregate it into a single account.


Yeah, exactly. And then, OK, so last but not least, I do want to ask you one question more on the personal space because I think it's interesting. You know, we talked about it. 

You have your first grandchild born, right? How did you teach your kids or about finance? First, I know we can talk about the grandkid who’s only 2.5 months old, so that will come over time. But as a parent who worked in finance, how was your approach? 

Handling that with children, talking about investing or in savings and just in general personal finance? Because I think that's one of the things that's always - it's on no high school curriculum and I think no school curriculum in Germany either where I went to school, right? 

I studied finance. I was always interested in it. But when I talked to friends who studied engineering, they made good money and stuff, right? But they never really learned about investing and savings. So unless their parents helped them or like they were interested and things like that. So how was it for you? I don't know if your kids are in finance, but what was it like when they were younger?


I think that finance is a crucially important aspect, both personally and institutionally. So how did I actually teach my daughter? I'll tell you a funny story. When she was little, she was collecting caps of some sort, and it didn't matter how much money you gave her. She, basically, if you gave her a dollar, she went back and she spent it, if you gave her $5 and went back, and she spent. So I thought that this was ridiculous because she needed to understand what budgeting was all about. She was all five. 

So I said to her, Jordana, here's how this is going to work. I am going to give you $5 every week. Whatever you have at the end of the week, I will double.


That's good.


Every week thereafter. So this shows you how it works for kids. So my daughter. You know, at the end of the first week, I went to her and I said, so? And she said, no, it's OK. So I said, OK, so you didn't save anything that was really dumb, so I gave her $5. So she baited the second week and then she said, here I now have $10, double it up.


So good.


So she learned that early. Yeah, in terms of actually, my daughter is a litigation counsel. So in terms of actually trying to get her into the investment space, I used many of the things that I just told you. I think the best way that she learned it was when I forced her after the first job to buy a house and to take out a mortgage because, for the first time, she really needed to understand how to manage finance. 

The second was actually to say to her, OK, now that you have saved some money, decide how much you want to risk and you're ready to prepare - to lose completely - and the rest, instead invest in stocks. You can either invest in index to begin with, or you can pick stocks you like. And with the rest, I introduced her probably about 2 years ago, to options, so a little bit at a time.


That's cool to hear. So because I we always get these questions, right? Because parents asking, what should we do with our kids? And I think that was a really good example we have not heard yet. Well, thank you so much. Joseph was really a pleasure chatting.


Very much at my end. Thank you.

Episode notes

In this episode, Joseph shares his top tips in private equity investing, how he transformed a cookie company, and  the megatrends he’s keeping an eye on.

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Episode Contributors

  • Joseph Haviv (Board Member at Vesttoo)
  • Philipp Muedder (Head of Financial Planning at StashAway)