Steering Unconventional Opportunities to Success
Ramphastos Investments is a venture capital and private equity firm focused on driving top-line growth in enterprises in all stages of their evolution: from start-ups to scale-ups to high-growth medium-sized companies and mature enterprises. The firm was founded in 1994 by Marcel Boekhoorn, who left a career in accountancy at Deloitte after becoming the Netherlands’ youngest Partner to pursue his passion for […]
Ramphastos Investments is a venture capital and private equity firm focused on driving top-line growth in enterprises in all stages of their evolution: from start-ups to scale-ups to high-growth medium-sized companies and mature enterprises.
The firm was founded in 1994 by Marcel Boekhoorn, who left a career in accountancy at Deloitte after becoming the Netherlands’ youngest Partner to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship. Within a few years, Marcel had grown the firm’s portfolio and invested capital exponentially after realising spectacular returns through several high-profile exits. In this period, he also laid the foundations for the approach toward building businesses that the firm pursues today: a focus on driving growth on the revenue side of the equation through buy-and-build strategies, marketplace innovation, internationalisation, management empowerment and strategic partnerships.
Today, Marcel is joined by a team of seven partners who share his passion for and hands-on approach to business building as well as his upbeat, solutions-focused and status quo-challenging mindset. As founders, builders, operators and investors in businesses of all sizes and in all phases in their evolution across multiple sectors and geographies, Ramphastos’ partners have successfully turned around businesses, created and sold start-ups, launched IPOs and completed de-listings, achieving outsized average returns on investment throughout the firm’s growth.
The firm currently holds interests in more than 20 companies with a cumulative revenue above 3.5€ billion and more than 8,000 people employed across a range of sectors from financial services, gaming, new materials and advanced manufacturing and energy and across all continents. Ramphastos is focused primarily on acquiring majority stakes in companies that meet three criteria: a unique competitive position (through a patent, brand or operational efficiency), strong intrinsic growth potential and favorable underlying trends in the industry or marketplace. As an investor of its own capital, the firm has the financial independence and appetite to take on complex transactions and special situations.
This month, Finance Monthly had the privilege to catch up with Marcel Boekhoorn and hear about the exciting journey that founding and running Ramphastos Investments has been to date.
What was setting up your own investment company in the Netherlands back in 1994 like? What were some of the hurdles that you were faced with?
When I left my job as a Partner and M&A Expert at Deloitte & Touche, I had no money of my own to invest, so my first step was to set up shop as an independent M&A consultant. That work brought in enough money, and when one of my clients was unable to pay for my invoices, I decided to take a stake in his business. I made just about all the mistakes you can make, starting with taking a minority stake and having no control over the direction of the business. I also witnessed first- hand that a Founder’s entrepreneurial creativity doesn’t necessarily translate into day-to-daymanagement or leadership skills.
Within eight months, the company had folded, and I was on the verge of bankruptcy. But poverty breeds creativity, and within a year, I had earned enough to try it again, this time taking control of a struggling wood box maker and turning it around by focusing production on cigar boxes. We produced boxes for Davidoff, Tabacalera and other global brands, and I sold my shares for a good profit – enough to branch out into more investments.
My strategy from the start was to focus on unconventional companies that no one was interested in, like small wheelbarrow or spray can manufacturers, and to build them into market leaders through buy-and-build strategies. By realising significantly higher margins as market leaders through premium pricing strategies, these companies were able to accelerate outsized growth in their sectors. By purchasing them when they were small and selling them quickly as market leaders, I was able to realise outsized returns in the process.
Now, almost 25 years later, we’ve moved on to larger, different and more complex investments, but our fundamental emphasis on top-line growth, as well as our preference for taking a majority stake in our investments and our interest in companies, markets or complex transactions and special situations that others shy away from, are still our main priorities.
A key component of any successful PE investment is to turn the business around; what are the considerations in terms of operational integration? What are the typical challenges you face?
When we consider investing in a business to turn it around, we look to see how we can add value on the revenue side of the equation – through a buy- and-build strategy or by challenging the status quo with the introduction of a new channel strategy, internationalisation, or a new product portfolio or pricing strategy. We have seen that it’s on this side of the equation that we can make the biggest difference and add the most value. It’s also where we’re most at home. We are entrepreneurs and business builders first and foremost.
This sets apart from much of the private equity world, with its emphasis on the cost side of the business. Don’t get me wrong: all of the revenue- driving strategies I just mentioned will only succeed if the organisation and operations are structured effectively to deliver on them. And any successful turnaround includes robust cost control and simplified, streamlined operations. Getting that right will always be part of our turnaround strategy, but we are fundamentally more about catalysing growth through entrepreneurial innovation and management support on the revenue side rather than driving profit by slashing on the cost side of the equation.
A hallmark of our approach to turning businesses around is to focus on company leadership. The company’s management and its employees – the people – are the ones who will make or break the business. Our work starts at the top, getting the leadership bought into and aligned on the new direction, ensuring that they embrace the same vision of the future, the same sense of who we are today and where we are headed. We make it a point to be there for leadership teams and help them work through such processes. We’re hands-on builders, and this is a role we love to play. Getting a turnaround right throughout the organisation – not just among leadership’s direct reports but company-wide – hinges on consistent, well-aligned communication. We find time and again that executing consistent communication – from instilling an understanding of strategy to fostering a growth-focused culture among employees. This is one of the most important operational KPIs for a successful turnaround.
You ask about typical challenges. Well, for starters, most people aren’t hardwired for change, and if the change isn’t something that they introduced themselves, it scares them. They don’t like it – until they see that it works and benefits them, of course. Take the example of introducing a channel strategy to move a retail business entirely online – or vice-versa. We’ve done both in different sectors, geographies and cultures, and we have found that three things help mitigate resistance and galvanise employees to deliver on the new strategy: first, a clear and consistent communication about the strategy and its benefits, second, creating and showing progress against a roadmap with compelling short- and mid-term milestones and third, cultivating a culture of listening and dialogue among employees.
What is the state of the market in relation to venture capital right now? What challenges are faced by businesses looking for funding?
Looking at the markets for venture capital and private equity, we see that increased competition has driven up valuation multiples up consistently.
From 2009 to today, sustained low interest rates have made debt cheap and have driven investors’ money toward VC and PE in their search for higher returns. Strategic buyers with strong balance sheets and big cash reserves are competing with one another, driving prices up.
In spite of this overall pattern, there are plenty of businesses who struggle to find funding. In the VC space in particular, we see that geography plays a role. If you’re a start-up based in the States looking for, say, two-to-five-million dollars, you’ll be well served by the market. If you’re a European company looking for the same investment in
Europe, you’ll struggle. The VC market is far less developed than the market in the States, with investment concentrated around a handful of potential unicorns.
At Ramphastos, we have always focused as much as we can on companies in underserved markets and in investments that others avoid. Conversely, we’ve always stayed as far away as we can from competition with other investors. Our point of view is that if you have to compete in an auction with
20 or 25 other players, then you’ll always end up paying too much and struggle to reach your target IRR.
We build businesses with our own capital, and in doing so, we pursue the high-risk, high-return opportunities that others avoid. We’re currently focused on turning around larger enterprises that face complex challenges. Unlike typical private equity firms that are happy with 25 or 30% IRRs, we are looking for driving significantly higher returns. So far, our approach – which plays to our strengths as creative thinkers and hands-on business builders – has paid off. In our 24 years as a firm, we’ve realised average multiples of money invested above ten.
How are most of your investments structured? To what level do you, as the investor, want a say in the day-to-day running of the business?
We do the majority of our investments on our own.
We invest our own capital and value our financial independence. This keeps us flexible and agile as investors. We usually take majority stakes to allow us to do what we do best – roll up our sleeves to help company leadership hands-on as they build their business. As founders, builders and leaders of businesses of all sizes and in all phases in their evolution, our partners have first-hand experience with just about anything you can encounter as an entrepreneur. We usually take a board position in our portfolio companies working side-by-side with company leadership to shape strategy and – if needed – give them tactical counsel, talent, tools and innovations to deliver on their plans.
Whereas we’ve been successful to date in the VC space across multiple sectors from flight simulators (Sim-Industries) to online brokerage (TradeKing) to flooring technologies (Innovations4Flooring) and open to opportunities, we are increasingly focused with our investments in larger, more mature companies, particularly ones with three qualities: one, a unique competitive position through a patent, brand or operational efficiency; two, strong intrinsic growth potential; and three, strong underlying trends in the industry or marketplace. We also love helping companies tackle tough, complex problems and turn themselves around. We’re actively looking at opportunities in that space, particularly among larger enterprises.
How are exit strategies agreed and structured? What are typically the common areas of disagreement regarding exit timing and strategy between the business owner and Ramphastos Investments?
We don’t have a predefined exit strategy, but we never buy into an enterprise without having a good idea about whom we’re going to sell it to. If we don’t know our exit, we won’t buy it – it’s as simple as that. And because we invest our own money, we have no pressure or obligation to sell. Our capital is patient: we’re in no hurry. Rather than working towards a specific exit, we focus on the execution of a predefined strategic value creation plan. When companies continue to grow, they will sooner or later attract buyers. We are all about value creation, and that can take time. We exit when the time is right.
To date, we have never had disagreements with the management teams on timing or nature of the exit strategy. The social dimension is important to us. With a good deal, everyone should be happy: buyer, seller, management, employees, partners – everyone. When the ABN AMRO bank dared to support us with 200€ million on our first really big deal, we rewarded them with a discretionary 10€
-million premium at exit, without any contractual obligation to do so. They had never experienced anything like that before. We don’t do deals where we can’t make such things happen.
Out of all of Ramphastos Investments’ success stories, what would you say are your three biggest achievements?
The first is without a doubt Telfort, a Dutch mobile telecom provider, which we acquired as majority shareholder, grew exponentially and sold within nine months to market leader KPN for more than a billion € in 2005. That deal was a milestone for Ramphastos, because it earned us our first half billion. It’s also a good example of the success of a robust top-line strategy. While part of our success involved getting the costs under control, we grew the company’s value explosively by swiftly migrating the business from an online- only platform to the high street retail channel, through creative retail and consumer incentives, and we raised the consumer price sharply while remaining the market’s price leader, driving profits from 50€ million to 150€ million in just eight months. We also capitalised on excess network capacity by opening our network to mobile virtual network operators, and we closed a unique deal with Huawei, as the company’s European launch customer.
A VC success story that we’re super proud of involves Sim-Industries, a developer of flight simulators that we launched in 2004 and sold to Lockheed Martin in 2011. The story is a good one, because it shows how being flexible and thinking out-of-the-box can steer a start-up to success. Sim started out in the software business, developing software for flight simulators. When the market leader in that space stood in our way, we asked ourselves: Why not go further and build simulators too? We fought hard to gain a place in an oligopolistic market, with incumbents poaching our employees and trying to scare away our suppliers, clients and us. In the meantime, by taking a fresh look at design, we built a superior product, overcame legacy issues, installed a senior management team, focused on execution excellence and became market leader in civil aviation simulators for leading aircraft types.
A third story I’d like to share has less to do with business, but everything to do with deal-making. It’s a deal that centres on an issue that is close to my heart: the preservation of species; and it’s a deal that fulfils a dream that I worked personally, persistently and patiently to fulfil over 17 years – making a home for two giant pandas in the Netherlands. That dream began when I bought a zoo located to the east of Utrecht and returned it to profitability. After hundreds of hours’ worth trips back and forth to China, education, complex relationship building with the Dutch and Chinese governments – across three Dutch prime ministers and three Chinese presidents, the dream became a reality in October 2015, when I travelled with a trade delegation and our King to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to sign a ten-year agreement in the presence of Xi Jinping. The agreement includes an annual contribution of one million dollars to the preservation of the panda and the conservation of its natural habitat in China. The pandas arrived almost exactly a year ago at the zoo and are thriving in their new home, which was voted this year as the world’s most beautiful panda enclosure.
Over the years, what has kept the company moving forward? What sets you apart from the competition?
What’s kept us moving forward first and foremost is that we absolutely love what we do. We love building businesses. We love wrestling with thorny challenges and innovating our way with management teams toward successful turnarounds and outsized growth. We love closing deals that make everyone a winner.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing every year. I founded the company with plenty of fits and starts, as you heard, and when the Great Recession hit, it didn’t look at us and say: They’re a nice bunch of people, let’s give them a break. I’m happy to report that all of the companies in which we hold a majority of shares are turning a profit today.
What’s gotten us through the tough times is a combination of our unbreakable optimism and solutions-mindedness, our deep respect for one another and our collective creativity.
There’s also the fact that that we nurture close, trusting relationships with the management of our portfolio companies. We’re open with one another, and all of us here are ready and willing to jump in and contribute. We’re able to anticipate problems before they surface or tackle them quickly before they spin out of hand.
To put your finger on what makes us different, add to that our resourcefulness, boundless energy and appetite for challenging the status quo. We thrive on pushing ourselves and our companies to innovate and adapt constantly to drive revenue and margin growth, and in today’s world, if you don’t have the mindset and wherewithal to be agile and adapt, you’re in serious trouble. As a financially independent investor, we are free to take risks, tackle problems that others avoid and make the kinds of bold moves that catalyse truly breakthrough growth.
What do you hope to accomplish in the near future? Are there any exciting new projects that you can share with us?
I have an important role to play as the chief motivator, inspiration and driver of creativity within our team, and I hope to continue to do so for many years. Entrepreneurship is what fires my heart and gives all of us here energy, inspiration and strength. And all of us at Ramphastos see the kind of creativity-driven value that we’ve been creating here pays itself forward to beyond Ramphastos to the management teams and employees and suppliers of our companies and markets they serve. We have been doing well for almost a quarter of a century and aim to continue to steer this course.
As for projects on the horizon, we have some really exciting deals on the way. I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. Stay tuned – there are more chapters to come.