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Korea becomes proving ground for global PEFs

Respective logos of Bain Capital (from top left, clockwise), KKR, Blackstone and TPG Capital
Respective logos of Bain Capital (from top left, clockwise), KKR, Blackstone and TPG Capital
The exit strategies of global private equity firms in South Korea indicate that Asia‘s fourth-largest economy is becoming a new proving ground for capital allocation in the Asia-Pacific region, according to market watchers on Thursday.

The latest to do so was Bain Capital Private Equity, which inked a 1.7 trillion-won ($1.4 billion) deal to exit from listed botulinum toxin maker Hugel.

Bain Capital Private Equity on Wednesday agreed to sell its 5.4 million shares and some 800,000 convertible bonds -- which potentially amount to 46.9 percent ownership -- in Hugel to an investor consortium led by Seoul-based GS conglomerate.

The news came four years after the private equity arm of Boston-based Bain Capital, which oversees some $140 billion in assets globally, became the largest shareholder of the nation’s leading company dedicated to the popular material for cosmetic therapy in 2017. The transaction then cost 927.5 billion won to buy shares in Hugel and its controlling shareholder Tongyang HC, among others.

Since then, Hugel has not distributed dividends to shareholders, including the private equity investor.

The Hugel exit deal was another landmark in Korea for Bain Capital Private Equity.

The investor in 2017 sold off its entire stake in cosmetics firm Carver Korea to Unilever, with the equity transaction price rising fourfold in 15 months.

Bain Capital teamed up with Goldman Sachs to buy a 60 percent stake in Carver Korea from its founder Lee Sang-rok in 2016. A year later, the investors and founder with a minority stake agreed on a 3 trillion won deal with London-based consumer goods maker Unilever.

This demonstrates how international private equity firms targeting Korean assets are given more access than before to the domestic industry -- which is otherwise largely dominated by family-owned chaebol -- and are increasingly engaged in the domestic industrial shift with a higher chance of cashing in on their private investment, overcoming their past public reputation as a pump-and-dump corporate raiders.

Now, in addition to the Hugel deal, some private equity exits appear to be imminent in Korea.

US private equity firm Blackstone is eyeing an exit from Korean luxury handbag maker Simone Acc Collection as the company applied for a review for an initial public offering to the Korea Exchange in June.

Blackstone owns a 30 percent stake in the family-run manufacturer -- serving luxury brands including Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs and Coach -- since 2015, when the private equity firm invested $300 million for the minority stake.

Also, taxi-hailing service operator Kakao Mobility, backed by TPG Capital and The Carlyle Group, is also eyeing an IPO, as the company is reportedly looking for its IPO underwriters.

Moreover, global private equity firms are setting sights on the growth of what is now considered unpopular sectors in the Korean market.

New York-based Kohlberg Kravis Roberts is one example. Gaining prominence in a 2014 exit from beer maker Oriental Brewery with its valuation rising over threefold in five years, the private equity investor now owns a controlling stake in environment services firms TSK Corp and Eco Green Holdings with buyout deals in 2020.

Other international private equity firm-backed assets include Blackstone-backed medical distributor Geo Young and TPG-backed Health Balance, a red ginseng product maker known for its Cheon Ji Yang brand.

By Son Ji-hyoung (consnow@heraldcorp.com)
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