While venture capital firms scour the landscape to find buyers for weak portfolio companies that might otherwise shut down, they are loathe to apply the same sell-to-survive philosophy to themselves.
While a half dozen mergers between venture capital firms have been announced in the past year, mostly in California, industry participants in the Southeast say no similar movement is on the horizon in this region because of complex ownership and personality issues.
“Those are hard things to do,” Aurora Funds’ Jeff Clark says of venture mergers. “A key issue is how the skill sets of the partners mesh. You need to have complementary skills to succeed.
“And then there are the sticky issues of how to divide the pie,” he says. “It’s often just too much trouble to work through.”
Yet several firms are finding a way to do it.
Novus Ventures, a $110 million fund based in Cupertino, Calif., and Artemis Ventures, $13 million fund based in Sausalito, Calif., tied the knot last month to provide expanded reach for the combined firm.
Two firms with North Carolina ties also have been involved in mergers during the past year. Saratoga, Calif.-based Redleaf Venture Management, which had an office in the Research Triangle region during the dot-com boom, linked up with Aspen Ventures of Los Altos, Calif., and Core Capital Partners of Washington, D.C., which has invested in firms in Raleigh and Statesville, N.C., acquired another Washington-area venture firm.
Fade out, not link up
But those familiar with the venture markets from the Triangle to Atlanta say there’s no talk yet of deals here, even among firms that lost big on Internet bets. It’s more likely that weak venture firms would just close up shop than merge, they say, such as Fusion Ventures of Durham and eHatchery of Atlanta did last year.
“I don’t foresee that happening,” John Ciannamea of Academy Funds says of mergers. He notes the creation of his Charlotte-based firm wasn’t a merger as much as a renaming of two constituent venture funds.
Ciannamea and Glenn Kline, former director of Centennial Ventures, which funded spin-offs from North Carolina State University, formed Longleaf Ventures in late 1999 and later changed the name so its two funds would be under the same umbrella. The $10 million Centennial fund became Academy Fund I, while the $36 million Longleaf fund became Academy II. The firm is in the midst of raising its third fund now to back various university spin-offs across the Southeast.
“We didn’t have two pots of money and two staffs that we blended together,” Ciannamea says. “We basically just expanded the idea that Centennial started with beyond N.C. State to work with other universities with a new fund.”
Joint funds possible
Industry observers also say venture firms are more likely to invest together rather than merge. Aurora worked with Harbert Management, a Birmingham, Ala.-based money management firm, in its third fund, expanding its investment focus across the Southeast. But Clark says Harbert isn’t participating in the fourth fund that Aurora is now putting together.
Likewise, Fairview Capital of Raleigh and Chapel Hill, N.C., money management firm Franklin Street Partners created a joint investment fund several years ago because they shared several investors. Jim Lumsden of Fairview says there was talk of eventually having one fund administrator but that the firms eventually went their own ways because of a clash in strategies.
“The divergence came when they decided they didn’t want to raise a blind pool, which is what I thought we needed to do,” Lumsden says. “They wanted to do one-off deals with some of their investors, and they have been very successful at that, but it’s not the direction I would have followed.”
And that, observers say, is a primary reason more venture firms don’t join forces.
“Marrying firms could prove to be culturally shocking,” says Alan Taetle of Atlanta’s Noro-Moseley Partners.