Tag: buyouts

#18 Vania Schlogel, Atwater Capital

Fund Shack
#18 Vania Schlogel, Atwater Capital
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Vania Schlogel is managing partner and founder of Atwater Capital, an LA-based international private equity firm. You can watch the video version of this conversationĀ here.

Vania Schlogel is managing partner and founder of Los Angeles-based Atwater Capital, a private equity firm with an exclusive focus on media and entertainment. Vania cut her teeth at Goldman Sachs and KKR. She was on the board of Pets at Home, and she was CIO of Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment agency. And she currently sits on the boards of private equity back to media and entertainment businesses across the US, Asia and Europe.

ROSS BUTLER:

Vania, welcome to Fund Shack. You are quite an unusual private equity investor in as much as the creative industries don’t scare you. In fact, that’s what you focus on, specialize in. How did you get interested and involved in it?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

I saw so much value from marrying those two worlds. So the very kind of disciplined and rigorous private equity side of things with the innovation from the creative world. And I just always had the natural interest in it. The creative side of things, obviously as, as, as an individual who consumes content and music myself, and as an investor really experienced that marrying those two worlds could actually help an investment in terms of equity, value creation, generating returns on behalf of our LPs. And then I know this not many folks were doing it, so it seemed like a natural opportunity to get in.

ROSS BUTLER:

So what, what, when was your kind of Eureka moment that actually there’s an investment opportunity in this industry?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

When I was at KKR one of the investments that I was involved in was the buy and build strategy that built what is BMG today. One of the world’s largest independent music publishers, and it was really my first foray and ability to actually invest in the creative industry. And I think one of the things that was very successful about that investment is we, as investors were able to go in and provide a body of knowledge and expertise as to what we were good at and focus on that. And I think what we did really well is let the creative guys focus on what they’re good at. And so we were backing a great management team and company with capital and M and a and integration expertise. But then we also knew when to not overstep our bounds. I can’t recall who said it, but there’s, there’s this joke in the music industry about the CEO that wants to see himself in the music videos? I think the most successful thing we did is we made sure that we were not the CEO that wanted to be in the music videos or the shareholders or board members, however, you’ll term it. And, and that was my Eureka moment where I said, this is a great investment. It’s a lot of fun. I tangibly understand it. I get along really well with these creative executives. And from there on, it just became as you know, what happens in life, you one thing, and then suddenly more opportunities keep coming in that vein.

ROSS BUTLER:

So you, you had it with a traditional private equity house, but why do you think the traditional private equity market doesn’t see it as necessarily a big sector ?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Well, I,do think they see it as a big sector. I think that there is more appropriately put there’s a lot of opportunity from actually investing in the sector, but then taking the next step of being really operationally involved and plugged in with the creative sector. And I think the primary reason, honestly, why it is not a big operational focus for large private equity shops is because they’re very, very good at what they do on an operational level. So implementing an ERP rollout or optimizing a supply chain, these are scaled replicable, operational strategies and processes that they can apply to their portfolio companies, really building a deep partnerships. And the operating level with creatives is time-consuming and not always replicable to other portfolio companies. And so it’s more of, I think, a scaling issue and we’re kind of happy being the smaller fund that goes ahead and steps into that role as a partner to a lot of larger GPS.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Yeah. It’s a chemistry thing, presumably that, you know, people that set up creative business are probably quite different to almost any other kind of business, I guess, and you have a good kind of chemistry with them. It sounds like.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Yeah. And I think at the core, in any case investing is a human centric business, but when you do delve into the creative aspect and, and partner with creative executives who are very much more around, you know, emotion and being led by intuition, it is very important to jive on a personal level and to really take the time and build those relationships. And I will say that despite the fact that we have wonderful working relationships with a lot of creative executives, myself and a lot of Atwater’s executives are also personal friends with our creative partners. I think that works really well for the industry.

ROSS BUTLER:

It’s quite a rare individual to be both creative and to be able to be more financially focused as well. Do you come across many creative entrepreneurs that can and do do both?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

It is, I would say it’s more of a rarity. I definitely have noticed that a lot of a subset of folks that do this really well seem to be founders and entrepreneurs. So we back, for example, certain portfolio companies Oscar Hoagland, who’s the co-founder and CEO of epidemic sound. He does really well in terms of liaising with both communities. And so it’s not a common skill-set. We do see it, but I would say I see it most often among CEOs and founders, and maybe it’s because I don’t know us founders, we have a, a little bit of that craziness, the risk taking the innovative, whatever you want to call it, but just enough there that we’re willing to kind of get out of maybe the modality of thinking in a, in a typical private equity or consulting or whatever.

ROSS BUTLER:

So you will come your private equity firm Atwater it makes it a virtue of being operationally involved in these creative businesses. To what extent do the businesses that you invest in kind of welcome operational input and to what extent do they need it typically? Yeah.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Well, let me answer the second question first, because I think that’s the easiest every business, every individual, any organization of people can improve in one way or another. That doesn’t mean that our ideas are always right. And in fact, that’s one of the first things that we strive for in our relationships with management teams is feel free to kick us in the teeth and tell us if these ideas are completely asinine. And we genuinely mean that. And but is the, is the opportunity for improvement there? Absolutely. And the best founders and management teams recognize that then going to your first question about how welcome is that we as a fund, so we’ve invested about a hundred million dollars since I founded the fund in 2017. And in all our investments today, we’ve been a minority shareholder de facto.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

That means that even if I wanted to, from a governance perspective, I cannot come down with edX from above and say, this is what you must do. And in any case, I genuinely think that’s kind of bad, bad governance and a poor way of managing these relationships because a lot of the CEOs and founders that we work with have been in the business for years, sometimes from inception. And so it’s incumbent upon us to actually come up with ideas an operating level to, to present a Rolodex within the industry that is exciting for management because we’re very open about the fact that yes, despite the fact that we may be represented on the board and can vote shares a certain way. My personal experience has been in less management really wants to work with you. Your operational strategy is not going to be that effective. And so it is a foundational thing for us to come in as investors and really form number one, deep personal relationships. And number two, actually show up with the goods because we’ll get called out right away by these very demanding founders and CEOs. If we’re not showing up with something that’s helpful for their business,

ROSS BUTLER:

And what’s the competitive environment like for attractive assets in this sector,

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

I would say our sector is more, is more right for proprietary deal sourcing than potentially other sectors. And it goes back to what we just talked about, which is that kind of creative and founder led group of folks. There’s so much that is based upon relationships and how well networked are you in the sector? How well-liked are you do founders talk about you in a positive fashion. And it’s interesting, both what I’ve witnessed is both on a positive and negative level founders. It will, it will spread like wildfire among founders, if you are seen as either a great partner or not a very good partner to management. So I actually think within the sector being, being well-networked and well-liked lends itself to proprietary deal sourcing, which means it’s outside of a normal process being run for example, by an advisor. And in that kind of case, that’s actually the ideal scenario because it’s not a competitive process. Aside from your main competition being against yourself, are you presenting a compelling case to the founder and CEO and the existing shareholders that you’re worth it, that they should sell some of their shares to you because you’re going to, going to bring value.

ROSS BUTLER:

Yeah, I can imagine that the LA creative great vine is quite sophisticated and active, so the word would get round, but you’re not just you’re based in LA, but you have an Asian presence and you recently did a European deal as well. Talk to us a little bit about your kind of geographic coverage.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

It’s really funny because prior to parasite winning an Oscar, which is a South Korean movie, we would always get the strangest looks when I would explain that we have offices in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea, because most funds are based in New York and London and San Francisco. And then when they go to Asia, they immediately typically go to Hong Kong or Singapore, you know, kind of a financial hub. And the way that we explained it is we’re operational investors. And hence we launched in Asia in a very operationally relevant geography. So South Korea has the fastest internet speeds in the world. It’s a thriving and healthy democracy. It’s intellectual property protection laws are very robust. All that put together means that the monetization methods and kind of the business ethos, also legal protections endemic to South Korea, feel very natural for Western portfolio companies to launch into a, so you have to get over.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Obviously some of this is natural, no matter where you expand to globally, but, but you know, you need to be comfortable with the language barriers the cultural differences and being respectful and mindful of that. But once our portfolio companies launched there it feels much more like a fish in water in terms of them looking around and saying, Oh, okay, I can still sell my intellectual property for example, and monetize it the way that I would, whether I were based in Sweden or New York or, Seoul. So that’s one of the reasons that we set up a presence there. And going back to the example, also a parasite winning an Oscar, we identified very early on that for whatever reason, Koreans are very good storytellers. And so there’s always been a large body of a great intellectual property and content trends coming out of South Korea.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

And so as the fund focused a lot on entertainment, media, and content, it made a lot of sense to us to be present in cities that were driving these trends. And it’s one of those markets where a company can launch. And admittedly, it’s a very small country and a very small core addressable market, but given the ability to export cross border a company can look into expanding into adjacent geographies, Japan, Southeast Asia, China from the, that kind of launchpad in South Korea. I would almost liken it to Sweden in that sense, what Sweden is to Europe, pretty small addressable market, but, you know, Spotify did all right.

ROSS BUTLER:

Absolutely. And so speaking of Europe, you’ve got some activity there too

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Well. We’ve actually invested quite a bit in Europe. So we’re invested alongside KKR in a company called Neo nine studios, which is Germany’s largest production and distribution company in the country. I chair the board there were invested alongside EQT and epidemic sound, which is based in Stockholm. I also chair the board of that company. We just closed another investment alongside EQT in Malaga Spain, and a fantastic company called free pick.

ROSS BUTLER:

So under normal circumstances, your air miles are pretty significant,

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Wonderful from the perspective of never having to pay for a personal vacation ever again. Yeah. I was spending a lot of time in Europe, I lived in London for six years. And so from a, from a sector perspective, I actually think it’s a wonderful geography to in, I think it’s multiples cheaper than a lot of us media.

ROSS BUTLER:

You’re relatively small funds to have a kind of what appears to be a completely global footprint and also personally global responsibilities, a portfolio of companies all over the place. And I guess that’s a function of being a sector specialist. Would you say

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

That’s exactly right. And I wouldn’t say we’re truly global because we genuinely as a operational fund, we have to spend time building relationships and liaising with folks. And so we’re very much present in Europe and Asia, we don’t touch geographies yet where we don’t have executives or very strong partnerships. So that would include, for example, South America Africa, those are geographies where we’re not present, but in Europe we feel very comfortable investing in the region you know, regulatorily regulatory perspective culturally even our role relationship Rolodexes, we feel very natural about investing in the region. And also importantly, we have such wonderful partners in terms of larger GPS that we work with as well as a lot of founders company founders that we know who also keep us connected on all the grounds.

ROSS BUTLER:

Well, I was going to come on to that because it’s very interesting, the fact that you you partner with some of the biggest buyer houses in the world on some of their deals. So they like you and they bring you in, they’ve got enough money of their own. What do they want from you?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

That’s a great question. We feel a very strong duty towards our GP partners and today we’ve done, you know, we’ve, we’ve invested alongside KKR, EQT in TPG since the fund launched in 2017. And you’re absolutely right. We recognize very much that they have enough capital. They have a large committed funds and they certainly don’t need out water to come in to fill a hole. And hence there is a very strong expectation of performance on our side that in the Venn diagram of things not to get too nerdy, but they’re going to focus on, you know, these, these sets of operations. And we’re going to be over here focusing on our operational strategy and the two don’t really overlap. And that’s great that complimentarity of what we focus on and our expertise, I think is the reason why we get repeat business and repeat partnerships with these GPS.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

And the other aspect is just we have a very, the way that we set up the operations of our fund are centered around our operational expertise. So I gave you one example, which is we’re present in South Korea because we understand it to be a trendsetter city in terms of content and technology trends, our LPs in South Korea. In fact, for example, Kakao is not only a partner of ours, but also an LP of ours. And if you imagine a digital media and technology group for a given country that owns the WhatsApp, Spotify, PayPal, Uber, and a few other assets of a country that is cacao, and they are one of our greatest partners in LPs. And so when we partner with the larger GP, we can actually go in as one of the only if not the only fund in the world that can say that and say, Hey, when, when this company, this portfolio company is looking to launch in Asia, we’re gonna consult and give a great body of expertise around having done this before. And Oh, by the way, we’ve got a fantastic digital media company there as an LP who now has a vested interest in making a success story.

ROSS BUTLER:

Yeah, that makes sense. So what, what specifically, what sub sectors, what types of creative companies are hot right now, interest you from an investment perspective?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

We are very much focused on content and we focused on it from, from the inception and we built out a very strong investment thesis to the point where I almost feel sheepish saying content, because it’s such a broad umbrella term, the way that we segmented it is we got very deep into it. And so we’re looking for example, at content that is buoyed by the trend of online creator communities. We’re looking at content that has an over and exposure to growing over the top, or what’s called OTT streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon. So while we spend a lot of time in content, we actually very delve down into those sub sectors that we feel have kind of acyclical component, but also from, from kind of a meta-thematic side being buoyed by digital trends and digitization, which COVID, by the way only helped to hasten quite frankly.

ROSS BUTLER:

Yeah. It’s interesting. Like when the, in the first internet, boom, like 20 years ago, everyone was constantly saying content is King, but looking back, I sometimes wonder whether actually for that first wave, but networks were King because the ones that did really well were the companies that capitalized on people’s people’s networks and kind of get the sense as you say, particularly with lockdown. And now that everyone’s got decent broadband and streaming services. And so on that the content might finally be having actually it’s it’s time in the sun. You’re gonna, when you think about that, like orthosis,

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

I’ve had this debate so many times about content versus distribution. And I think one of the most interesting case studies is what happened with Netflix. And I re you know, prior to launching house of cards in January of 2013 it was a pure play distribution platform, and I’ll never forget the production costs that were quite heavy for house of cards that Netflix had undertaken. If you actually have the interest and go back to a lot of the equity analysts and what they were saying about Netflix, it was brutal. I mean, it was just, this is daft, this is how many subscribers they would have to get to recoup this, and it just ripped them to shreds and what happens, they launched house of cards and in quick succession orange is a new black, the Marvel kind of TV series spinoffs, et cetera, and their stock price within the next year two and a half 10 next.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

And, and so I think it’s I tell you that anecdote because where I land is that it seems more and more these days. It has to be the marriage both. Now, that being said I don’t know. I don’t mean that to say that there is not an opportunity for induction and content creators. I absolutely think that opportunity is there, but in, in order to really sell and continue selling in a systematic way and not be hit driven, these content creators need to focus on franchise defining or tentpole content to really have viable business models and also to try and own some of their intellectual. Are you going forward rather than just being a licensed, sor and working for fees in terms of the monetizing, their content? The other thing that I think is positive or content creators and intellectual property owners, is that pro in, in a, in a prior world, these content producers were selling into the traditional set of media buyers.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Then they were selling into the traditional set plus Netflix, and now the world has opened where now they’re selling into to Apple as well and other new entrance. And so it’s a great time to be a good content producer and intellectual property owner because the buyer set is proliferating. There’s just more and more buyers now of good and franchise defining content. I think one of the other things, and this is why we invested, for example, in Leonine is one. Yeah, the great things that happened from Netflix. And I actually mean this at associate level is because, so Netflix was able to aggregate eyeballs at a global level. There became this re-education process in the entertainment world that we are willing to watch local language, film, and TV, whether it’s the example of parasite, which is completely in Korean or dark, which is in German.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

And so this put the emphasis and investment again in local language content. And I think that’s really important and social level. I don’t think we want to see a world where 98% of content is created and generated out of Hollywood and has an American perspective to it. I think we really want to honor diversity of content and also local traditions and cultures. And I think that’s one of the great not to go on a tangent, but it’s one of the wonderful things that actually has come from technological distribution is a refocus, any commercial case that now puts investment back again on local language content.

ROSS BUTLER:

I understand that a lot better now, because when you started speaking, I was going to say that all sounds great, but there’s, there’s only one Netflix, but I mean, Hey, that’s not quite true, but also it sounds like Netflix allows a whole ecosystem to happen as well in the same way, as, I guess, Amazon allows a whole ecosystem of suppliers to feed into it and get greater distribution. Yeah.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think to be fair, there need to any time one seeks a sustainability and health of an industry, there need to be countervailing forces. So while I’m also very positive on some of the positive things that Netflix has engendered why, why did we invest in Leo nine Leo nine took five companies and consolidated them into the number one player because scale at a local market level is a net necessary countervailing presence to a global technology player like Netflix. So I think for the health of the industry, also the, for the health of consumer choices going forward and for greater investment behind local content we as investors are placing our bets and trying to have scaled local players rather than just a fragmented market.

ROSS BUTLER:

Oh, these kind of film production companies, they, they are, they’re kind of like finance houses in themselves. Aren’t they, to some extent cause they’re then financing projects,

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

They are. Yeah. And that’s, that’s also why scale matters because content behaves very similarly to venture capital as an asset class, meaning you have a few real outliers in terms of performance and a lot of losses along the way. That is the nature of content that also scares a lot of investors. And so the way that we approach the sector is with eyes wide open and saying, we understand that’s how the asset class performs, but we also understand portfolio theory enough to know that diversification diversifies a way that unique hit risk. And so if a, an asset is scaled enough, it’s producing it. Number one, it’s producing enough new shows or films. And number two, it’s typically paired with an existing library that generates stable cash flows. And so I think there’s a perception versus reality gap. A lot of times when it comes to investors that investing in the content space, they just look at that unique project risk of it’s going to be great, or it’s going to be an absolute unmitigated disaster. We don’t view it that way. We view it as, as long as we can get into scaled ventures. A lot of that unique risk can be mitigated.

ROSS BUTLER:

Hmm. The fact that you’re partnering with big buyout firms also suggests that the risk profile isn’t that venturing. Yeah.

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Yeah. That’s absolutely right. And, and Leonine, for example, spent the better part of two decades, for example buying up content and has eight, the best library in Germany. So as, as one example of why that’s so important when COVID hit and for a period in, in Germany productions completely shut down of new content, we were sitting on the country’s largest library. And so while we’re all hunkered down, bored out of our minds, looking for titles, and we’re going back to Tomb Raider and Home Alone and all those things that we watched in the past 20 years that library was generating fantastic cash flows for the company. And I think that’s a really good example of how an asset class that can be perceived as, so hit-driven actually ended up being one of the most sheltered and a cyclical assets as evidenced by what happened after COVID hit.

ROSS BUTLER:

Yeah. That’s amazing. Isn’t it? Do you want me, what’s your view of the future of private equity meeting, creative industries? Would it always be bore the specialist to some degree, or do you think there’s a larger opportunity opening up

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Trend of a lot of pro previous operators within the media and entertainment space? Raising capital, for example, they’re, they’re doing a lot of fundless sponsor activity. I, I, you know, there are certain situations I can’t comment on now, but very well-known media executives who have identified proprietary deals as we talked about earlier and then going, and either partnering with private equity or with family offices, the rise of, of family offices, for example, has opened up a brand new and innovative kind of funding pocket. And, and they’re going about it that way. So it’s, again, it’s one of those industries that, and I mean, media and entertainment within private equity that is not only within it itself, but also the, the industries that are tangential to it. So media itself is constantly evolving, but also the way that private equity invest into media, it’s constantly open to evolution and sometimes outright tumbled. And so I do see that going forward, there’s going to be much more of a trend and continue trend of very well-known operators who have left their operating posts and want to try their hand at investing. And they’ll find funding, whether it’s through respect partnership. Spacs also, that’s part of the reason why there’s been such a rise in space.

ROSS BUTLER:

So is it because of the sector?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Exactly. Because who knows the media and entertainment sector better than, than folks who have a deep operating expertise within it. And so now they have creative ways of finding capital and because it lends itself to proprietary deal sourcing, I just think this industry is very unique relative to investing in other industries,

ROSS BUTLER:

Given that you’ve always been in investments and something’s doing creative, you’ve had quite a buried career cause you KKR, you’ve got your own shop. And in between you were a CIO ROC nation with, can you tell us a little bit about what Roc Nation is?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

So rock nation is founded and helmed by Jay Z, who many people know. And, and one of the really interesting things about Jay, if you look at the history of his career. So yes, he is a very well known rapper and artist, but he’s also had a business savvy. So very early on, for example he structured the deal so that he the retention of his master rights reverted back to him, this is before artists were doing it at a broader scale. And I would say before Taylor Swift, for example, really got on that public messaging about it. And so he, he actually is, is a great example of someone who took his relationships and industry expertise and leverage that into an operational role by setting up rock nation. And so rock nation represents, I believe they started really in music now, they branched out to representing artists in outside of just music and then also athletes professional athletes and moving into those adjacent verticals and really what that comes down to is leveraging a Rolodex of relationships. And then having that credibility that, Hey, I care about your career, your art, I will be a good, good partner for you in a way that Jane the rock nation team can do.

ROSS BUTLER:

And, and culturally going from KKR to Roc Nation, and then to your own shop. I mean, they, they must be big leaps or was Roc Nation, very KKR-like?

VANIA SCHLOGEL:

Worlds apart. They are very, very different. And, and funnily enough, I would actually having experienced on the one, the Goldman Sachs and the KKRs and my career, and then on the other kind of the Roc Nation’s of the world I endeavored to set up the culture of Atwater to be a hybrid culture. So if you ever come to our offices, you know, you’ll see some funky art up, you know, music typically playing in the background. So it’s a little bit of a hybrid.