Between the euro crisis, Grexit, Brexit and the refugee crisis, there are times when Europe makes an impression of a crisis-battered continent. On March 22-23, the Campus for Finance – WHU Private Equity Conference was held at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management against the backdrop of the guiding theme for this year’s event: “Falling Apart or Growing Together – Is Crisis-Shattered Europe Still Worth the Investment?”
Following the formal opening of this year’s conference by Professor Dr. Serden Ozcan, the Chair of Innovation and Corporate Transformation at WHU, in the day’s first presentation, Birger Berendes, Head of M&A GAS at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, offered participants an overview of active investors and shareholder activism in Europe. Taking the cases of Stada and Nestlé as his examples, he explained how active investors set their sights on target companies and design public campaigns. He emphasized that even companies in which capital and shareholder structures were actually supposed to immunize them against shareholder activism are often forced to take steps to preserve their image in the wake of attacks in the media. Businesses are attempting to get out ahead of the problem in the US today, with some 85 percent of all campaigns resolved early on and internally – and hence never boiling over into the public sphere.
Mr. Berendes was followed by Markus Peterseim, partner at PwC Germany, who drew on the specific results of an extensive study on the topic of the conference: the question of how much sense it makes to invest in Europe in times of crisis. He reached a positive conclusion. Private equity forecasts by 2021 are all encouraging, with rising exit figures and values. Despite Brexit, the United Kingdom and Ireland still represent the largest PE market in Europe today. Looking ahead, Peterseim predicted numerous new investment opportunities; after all, the image of the private equity sector had developed away from the old image of ruthless “locusts.” Partnerships with classical SMEs are not the exception to the rule any more, either.
This positive attitude was also underscored by Dr. Burkhard Varnholt, Chief Investment Officer at Credit Suisse. In a surprisingly philosophical presentation, he encouraged particularly the students in attendance to follow their passion, rather than meticulously plan careers. The world economy is faring well, and the media limit their focus to negative news, Varnholt explained, emphasizing: “There is value, there is merit in being an optimist.” He explicitly warned against a trade war with China that would ultimately harm Western companies. With a view to his own experience, he advised participants not to lose sight of the key factors involved in success. “The hardest factors in success are always the soft factors, such as team spirit and working atmosphere,” he explained.
Peter Chun, founder and Managing Partner at Silverbear Capital, ventured a deeper look at the topic of China as an economic power, concluding his remarks with a surprising forecast about cultural differences, strategic partnerships and societal change: in 15 years, China will play an important role in the world economy, but not a leading role.
The 13th edition of the WHU Private Equity Conference also provided space for a thematically different presentation: In the afternoon of the second day of the conference, Kary Bheemaiah, Head of Research at Uchange, provided extraordinarily detailed insights into the topics of blockchains, cryptocurrencies and alternative investments.
The Campus for Finance – WHU Private Equity Conference is held in English and internationally oriented. The goal of this annual event dating back to 2006 is to bring together politicians, leading representatives of the business community, outstanding researchers and students, and to create a platform for interaction and discussion of current events in the private equity sector. In addition to speeches and panel discussions on topics such as “Private vs. Public – Private Equity as a Destructive Establishment or the Governance Structure of the Future?” and “Chinese Investments in Europe – Indispensable, but yet Worrisome?”, attendees also had an opportunity to broaden their career opportunities during a Career Fair.