When it comes to European private equity activity, the top dog is clear. In the past decade, no investor on the continent
has completed more investments than Ardian, according to the PitchBook Platform, with the Paris-based outfit logging nearly 100 more than the runner-up.
The two decades since the firm’s inception have contained a rapid rise. Ardian (formerly known as AXA Private Equity) has grown from a small division of its former corporate parent into a sprawling financial juggernaut of its own, with investments spanning a variety of asset classes and total AUM reaching into the tens of billions.
The firm’s roots, though, still wind deep into private equity. Due both to the prolific nature and the diversity of its investments, Ardian in many ways functions as a reflection of the European PE industry as a whole. So without further ado, let’s dive a little deeper into what helps the firm stand out from the pack.
Ardian’s modern history dates to 1985, when a centuries-old French insurance company formerly known as Mutuelles Unies renamed itself AXA. Eleven years later, in 1996, the company launched AXA Private Equity under the leadership of Dominique Senequier, which shortly thereafter began pursuing mid-cap buyouts in France; the firm’s first investment was in GSI Banque, a provider of IT services, in 1998.
During the next decade, AXA Private Equity began to expand internationally, opening new offices in London, New York, Frankfurt, Singapore and Milan. The firm also began to explore new financial spheres aside from buyouts and growth investments, growing into a more comprehensive asset manager—its funds-of-funds unit now manages or advises about $37 billion.
Its private equity activity, though, also continued to flourish. The firm’s rate of investment accelerated rapidly in the early years of the millennium,
climbing to 44 deals in 2006, according to the PitchBook Platform. The financial crisis hit hard, however, and deal flow dipped to 21 by 2009. Yet the bounce-back was equally swift: a new high of 51 deals in 2012, a number that’s only grown further in the years since:
By 2013, AXA Private Equity had emerged as one of the biggest players on the European private equity scene—that year, the firm closed its fifth flagship buyout fund with €2.8 billion in commitments. So it was an opportune time to finally spin out from AXA and relaunch as an independent business henceforth known as Ardian. Since then, the firm has only continued to expand its footprint, opening new offices in Madrid and San Francisco and continuing to raise ever-larger pools of capital for investments of all kinds. Ardian currently claims more than $60 billion in assets under management and advisement.
Ardian operates several strategies when it comes to private equity investment, including buyouts, expansion and growth. The firm's Mid Cap Buyout division, which closed a €4.5 billion fund last year, invests in the most mature companies, those valued between €200 million and €1.5 billion. The Expansion team focuses on European companies valued at less than €225 million, while the Growth team invests in businesses with revenues between €5 million and €100 million. The North America Direct Buyouts unit, as one might imagine, pursues buyouts in the region's middle-market businesses, with a focus on the industrial and business services segments.
Ardian also operates divisions focused on funds-of-funds, private debt, infrastructure, co-investments and real estate, but our focus here is on the firm’s core PE activities.
Dominique Senequier, President Senequier joined AXA in 1996 and launched the group’s private equity business the same year. Now, more than two decades later, she leads a unit with more than 450 employees spread across 12 global offices. Senequier began her career in finance as an insurance commissioner at the French Ministry of Economy and was later in charge of PE investments at GAN Group. Senequier is also a former board member at Hewlett-Packard, departing amid some company turmoil in 2011.
Dominique Gaillard, Head of Direct Fund As the overseer of Ardian’s expansion, buyout, co-investment and infrastructure activities, few at the firm are more responsible for its overall private equity strategy. Gaillard joined Ardian in 1997, one year after Senequier formed the group, and has worked to develop direct fund operations in Eastern Europe and Asia in addition to its more robust dealings in Western Europe and the US. Gaillard previously worked at Charterhouse for seven years.
Philippe Poletti, Head of Mid Cap Buyout Poletti is the point man at Ardian when it comes to buying and selling majority stakes in businesses. He has worked at the firm since 1999, leading notable investments in companies such as Spotless Group, Icare and Anios. Before joining Ardian, Poletti was the head of mergers, acquisitions and divestments at DMC, an American textiles company, and prior to that he worked at Desnoyers Group.
Vincent Fandozzi, Head of North America Direct Buyouts Fandozzi stands out from the other names on this list as a recent addition to Ardian’s masthead: He joined the firm last year, making the transition from his previous position as the managing partner at Seven Mile Capital Partners, the firm he helped found. Before hanging up his own shingle, Fandozzi spent more than a decade filling various jobs at Citigroup, including a stint as the global head of M&A.
François Jerphagnon, Head of Expansion As the leader of the firm’s expansion team, Jerphagnon guides a team of 18 spread across three offices in Europe. The group pursues long-term deals with small and medium-sized businesses, completing nearly 50 investments since 2003. Prior to joining Ardian in 2001, Jerphagnon was the head of asset allocation and stock management at MACIF.
Laurent Foata, Managing Director and Head of Growth Foata is another long-time member of Ardian, having joined the firm in 2000. Before that, he worked as investment manager at BNP Private Equity for three years. His successful investments at Ardian include Ivalua, a provider of spend-management software that received a $70 million commitment from KKR earlier this year; thanks to Foata, Ardian got in on the ground floor of the business with a €3 million investment in 2011.
In the past 15 years, just about 80% of Ardian’s investments have been in European companies, according to PitchBook data, with the US accounting for another 14%. Of those European deals, 80% have targeted businesses located in the western part of the continent, with Southern Europe (i.e., Italy, Spain and Portugal) logging a 13% share.
To drill even deeper, French companies have accounted for nearly 43% of all Ardian portfolio additions. The US’s 14% portion ranks second, followed in close succession by Germany and the UK (both 6.6%) and Italy (6.5%).
In terms of sectors, Ardian’s activity has fallen roughly in line with overall PE deal trends in the period dating back to 2002. Just about 37% of the firm’s activity has been in the B2B sector, with B2C, IT and healthcare also all accounting for substantial portions, as you can see here:
More specifically, 32% of Ardian’s investments since the start of 2002 have been in companies in either the commercial services or commercial products space, with consumer non-durables (7%) and software (7%) also making strong showings. The firm’s investments have been very diverse, reflective of such a busy investor striking so many new deals each year.
Ardian closed its latest buyout fund, its sixth, on €4.5 billion in September, a substantial step up in size from its predecessor. Ardian wrapped up fundraising for that predecessor in 2013, gathering €2.8 billion in total commitments. In the four years since, the firm has called nearly 95% of that capital, and as the fund matures its multiples are on the rise. Through the end of 2Q, the AXA LBO Fund V has an IRR of 11.2%*, per PitchBook data. With much of the Fund V portfolio still yet to be exited, other relevant multiples include a 1.34x TVPI and a 1.13x RVPI.
One of Ardian's somewhat recent successes is the sale of Competence Call Center, a provider of call-center outsourcing services in Europe. Ardian backed the business in 2009 and exited in 2013, selling CCC to Silverfleet Capital in an SBO. Perhaps Ardian's primary function as the company's backer was helping it expand into Germany, allowing CCC more than double both its revenues and its employee count during four years of ownership.
The firm executed another major exit the next summer, in July 2014, with the sale of natural-ingredients maker DIANA to Symrise. Ardian had become DIANA's majority shareholder in 2007, and in the intervening years helped the business consolidate its business across Asia, Europe and the Americas—another sign of Ardian's expertise when it comes to crossing borders. A series of bolt-on acquisitions helped DIANA grow revenues from €254 million in 2006 to €451 million in 2014.
More recently, the firm struck a deal to sell IRCA, a Italy-based provider of semi-finished products for pastries and other deserts, to The Carlyle Group. The deal represented an exit from an investment made by Ardian in 2015. Founded in 1919, IRCA had a rich history as a private company before entering Ardian ownership.
This IRR figure, as well as the following TVPI and RVPI figures, have been updated based on additional information provided by Ardian.