Altas doubles down on long-term vision with $1-billion fundraising


May 2, 2016 — Jacqueline Nelson , The Globe & Mail

Patience is proving to be a real virtue for private-equity firm Altas Partners LP, which raised $1-billion (U.S.) for its new fund.
The Toronto-based firm, founded by Onex veteran Andrew Sheiner in 2012, is effectively doubling its size with this latest fundraising. Altas now manages about $2-billion that it uses to invest in businesses over an uncommonly long horizon of up to 17 years.

That holding period is Mr. Sheiner’s way of spending more time thinking about owning businesses, rather than focusing on when and how to sell them. He said some funds with plans for shorter ownership stints have been “chasing their tails from the outset” in recent years.
Altas also wants to set itself apart from the swelling group of about 400 private equity firms in North America that manage more than $500-million in capital .

“It’s intensely competitive, but there are not a lot of firms that have a longer-term orientation. It is still truly a handful,” said Mr. Sheiner. The fund was oversubscribed in this latest round, exceeding fundraising goals to hit its $1-billion cap.

Altas limits itself to just one or two major purchases a year. It also likes to keep debt levels lower than average to ensure its businesses can weather downturns. The firm targets equity investments of about $150-million to $600-million, partnering with other institutional investors on larger deals. That means the $1-billion it has raised will be good for three or four deals, Mr. Sheiner said.

Even outside of Altas, average holding periods for private-equity investments edged up in recent years as some firms needed extra time to clean up after the crisis, and others were forced to wait longer for acceptable returns on assets bought at high multiples post-crisis.

That began to reverse last year as high asset valuations encouraged more PE funds to head toward the exit and clear out their inventory of older assets. Median holding periods for investments owned by private-equity firms dropped to 4.9 years in 2015, from 5.8 a year earlier, according to a report from private-equity giant Bain & Co.

Altas is looking to invest in businesses that will be important and relevant in another decade. “It’s actually a very tough filter,” Mr. Sheiner said. Investing in media or technology is typically off the table.

The first $1-billion was primarily spread between three investments. First was NSC Minerals, provider of salt for de-icing roads and for agricultural applications. Then came a hub for international medical students with the purchase of St. George’s University in Grenada. Most recently, the firm bought Virginia-based Capital Vision Services, which provides support services to independent optometrists under the brand name MyEyeDr. These deals were done with partners, including institutional investors such as pension funds.

With those transactions successfully closed, Altas set out to raise more committed capital about a year ago, bringing in a mix of existing and new investors to back its strategy of owning businesses over the longer term, typically for at least 10 years. The firm will participate in auctions under some circumstances, but prefers to go after opportunities where it can build relationships with owners and management teams looking for particular solutions.

In the case of Capital Vision, the business was owned by another private-equity firm that was looking to exit. The company’s founder wanted to buy the business alongside a partner that could stick around, Mr. Sheiner said.

The next step for Altas will be to staff up – by the end of the year Mr. Sheiner plans to add three investment professionals to the team of eight already in Toronto.