In This Section

Looking somewhere in the middle

March 10, 2006

by: Kelly Holman

Accel-KKR LLC didn't set out to specialize in middle-market private equity buyouts in the high-tech sector. Its founders, an unusual combination of dealmakers, were focused in 2000 on the bright prospects of the Internet, just as many other investors and entrepreneurs were.

But that vista quickly turned as dark as night when the dot-com bubble burst, and Accel-KKR suddenly needed to make a rapid course correction. It did.

Today the Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm has made a name for itself acquiring small but fast-growing technology companies. Even as top-tier buyout groups lick their chops over the possibility of doing deals involving big software corporations, Accel-KKR keeps its attention on midmarket and small tech outfits with $15 million to $150 million in annual revenue: software developers, hardware makers, Internet firm and information technology services businesses.

To be sure, it's hardly the only middle-market private equity group interested in technology businesses - a number of buyout groups, large and small, have made technology their core investment focus.

But Accel-KKR's board and the background it represents set it apart. Members include financial engineering icons Henry Kravis and George Roberts of Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts & Co.; KKR partner Marc Lipschultz; veteran venture capitalist and Accel managing partner Jim Breyer; and former Wells Fargo & Co. chief executive Paul Hazen.

"You're basically taking the combination of a premier venture capital firm and one of the best-known buyout firms and combining the skill sets of both," says Erik Jordan, an investment banker with Trenwith Securities LLC, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based investment bank.

The combination goes back a half-dozen years to when Accel Partners, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture capital firm, and New York buyout titan KKR served as the cornerstone investors for Accel-KKR's first fund. While the size of the fund hasn't been disclosed, published reports peg it at around $300 million.

Accel-KKR's mission at that point was summed up in the boilerplate of an early press release: investing in early-stage technology companies, more specifically, "the next wave of Internet development - the integration of online and offline assets." The firm even made a minority-stake investment alongside Accel Partners in June 2000, when the pair put $26 million in South San Francisco, Calif.-based Model N Inc., a company making specialized software for life sciences companies.

Then the economic tide turned, abruptly sinking the valuations of technology and Internet stocks. Small and potentially volatile tech companies were abandoned by Wall Street's capital markets, leaving a slew of modestly sized companies with serious financing needs.

Accel-KKR officials say their firm never had any "busted" investments. But it quickly shifted its investment focus and its strategy and started pursuing established businesses with positive cash flows.

The reason, says Accel-KKR managing director Tom Barnds, was simple: "We saw a bigger opportunity in the middle-market buyout technology landscape."

In particular, Accel-KKR was, and remains, attracted to companies backed by entrepreneurs or family founders. While it would be wrong to say the firm isn't interested in leveraged buyouts of public companies, it prefers to invest in private companies. Why?

For openers, deals to take a public company private today tend to be more complicated and time-consuming processes. Also, most public companies in Accel-KKR's size range aren't generating stable cash flow - or, worse, they're losing money, says Ben Bisconti, a managing director at the firm. And the chance for private business owners to realize liquidity through private equity can be an equally alluring proposition.

Take, for example, what happened in October 2002 when Accel-KKR executed its first leveraged acquisition of a privately owned business. The firm carried out a $45 million recapitalization of Newburgh, N.Y.-based CRS Retail Systems Inc., a retail software development company. The transaction allowed its chief executive, Kathy Frommer, to serve as a general manager of the business. It also provided liquidity for Ms. Frommer's father, who'd owned 50% of the business alongside her.

Accel-KKR's calculated gamble on CRS was vindicated three years later when it sold the company to Epicor Software Corp. of Irvine, Calif., for $121 million in cash. The exit generated a cash-on-cash return of 3 times the firm's investment in CRS, which had executed one add-on acquisition under Accel-KKR's ownership: the October 2004 purchase of Lynnwood, Wash.-based Apropos Retail Management Systems Inc., a provider of retail management systems for specialty store and general merchandise retailers.

The tech-buyout firm also harvested another one of its portfolio companies in 2005, Alias Systems Corp. Accel-KKR and its co-investor in CRS, Toronto's Teachers' Private Capital completed the $197 million sale of movie graphics technology company Alias to software maker Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif. The deal generated a 3-times return for Accel-KKR and an internal rate of return of more than 100%, a source close to the firm says. Accel-KKR and Teachers' had acquired Alias in June 2004 for $57.5 million in cash.

Accel-KKR carried out another majority-stake purchase, a deal of undisclosed size, in January when it purchased a controlling interest in Saber Consulting Inc., a 200-employee developer of software that allows state and local governments to manage functions like voter registration and elections.

When San Ramon, Calif., boutique investment bank Martin Wolf Securities LLC introduced Accel-KKR last year to Saber, the Salem, Ore.-based company run by Nitin and Karan Khanna had arrived at a critical point. The Khanna brothers, both in their mid-30s, wanted to realize liquidity on their investment in the company. But they were also looking for something else at the same time, recalls Bisconti - they wanted to remain managers of the business.

"They were looking for a partner to back them so they wouldn't have to sell out to a large software company," Bisconti says.

The firm worked out a recapitalization that enabled Nitin Khanna to remain president and chief executive of Saber, while Karan Khanna was named chief operating officer. The deal left the two brothers the company's next-largest shareholders behind Accel-KKR.

While Accel-KKR executives declined to comment on Saber's financial performance, a source familiar with the company says it generates between $25 million and $40 million in annual revenue.

Last week Saber executed its first add-on acquisition with the $40 million purchase of Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Covansys Corp.'s state and local government software business, which is located in Columbus, Ohio.

Meanwhile, as it was making deals over the past 15 months, Accel-KKR also bolstered its ranks of dealmakers. In January 2005, it announced the hire of former Thomas Weisel Partners LLC software banker Robert Palumbo as a managing director. The appointment represented more than just an addition to the staff. It was also a reunion of 40-year-old Palumbo, an ex-Deutsche Bank AG technology banker and Barnds and Bisconti, both 37. The trio cut their technology teeth together as young M&A analysts at Alex, Brown & Sons in the 1990s.

Accel-KKR bolstered its rank-and-file staff in 2005 with the hires of former Goldman, Sachs & Co. vice president Jason Michael Klein as a vice president and Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Nicolas Chammas as an associate.

But despite the new faces, Barnds says he and his fellow managing directors aren't planning to launch forays into new investment areas or make other changes.

"We think there are thousands of opportunities in the middle market; we see ourselves continuing to focus on this segment of the market for years to come," he says.

Back to News Room Archive | Back to Recent Transactions