Unless you’ve been asleep, hibernating, or out of the country for
the last 12 months, you will be well aware that the Private Equity
phenomenon has well and truly hit Australia.

I can’t remember when it actually hit my radar, but the KKR bid
for Coles
[Updated 20/4/07] last year (ie 2006) was one
of the first to come to my attention. I was certainly aware that KKR
was part of the successful bid for Myer,
but that didn’t seem to be much cause for concern. Coles
hadn’t known what to do with the iconic and once hugely successful
Myer brand for a long time and its stores were floundering despite Dawn
best efforts. Count in that the consortium included
the Myer Family and it all seemed like a good idea.

But then the separate semi hostile bid for Coles raised a lot of hackles
in the community here. Coles was another iconic Australian brand grown
from the battler success story of C.J. Coles — albeit suffering at
the hands of the much more successful Woolworths.
A lot of Australians just didn’t like the idea of big money from the
USA trampelling all over our heritage.

But the big one of course has been the APA bid for Qantas.
There’s nothing much more iconic than the Flying Kangaroo.
Unlike Myer and Coles, Qantas is a succesful business. But Qantas represents
more than an icon. It represents the working conditions of thousands
of Australians and more than a million people in this country value
(like me) our Qantas frequent
Now of course APA claims to be majority Australian
owned and Australian controlled – it needs to be to satisfy the conditions
of the Qantas sale act. However a significant amount
of foreign money is involved in the bid and questions remain around
the degree to which the act applies to Qantas’ subsidiary Jestsar.
What will happen to the working conditions of QANTAS and Jetsar employees.
Will they all be moved to Australian Workplace Agreements,
in the process losing hard won benefits? Will maintenance operations
be moved overseas? And, for millions of Australians, what will happen
to my frequent flyer points.

Notwithstanding that I think the last of these questions is really
of much import, the others are of great concern to those involved and
represent possible encroaching by example of the working conditions
of millions of Australians.

However, to my mind, none of these is the most important concern.
What bothers me most is whether the private equity partners in this
deal (or any other for that matter) have any concern for what happens
to their prey in the long term. Take Qantas as a case in point. APA
cares for one thing and one thing only – the profit they can make from
the deal. My concern is that APA will simply convert value into cash
in its own pockets.

Now I might be wrong about this. Certainly the supporters of private
equity argue that these arrangements enable owners to free themselves
of the short-termism of public equity. They can be allowed to make
losses, or at least not grow profit at the rate required by the market
for extended periods. This, in our mind, is a good thing.

However, is this really what they will do?

I guess we will have to wait and see.