Women in Private Equity to Know: Rena Clark

by McGuireWoods LLP

Rena Clark is a managing partner for Laurel Oak Capital Partners, an independent sponsor making investments in businesses that provide industrial products and services. Clark is a former partner with GenNx360 Capital Partners and has 25 years of general management, private equity and entrepreneurial experience. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering with honors from Lamar University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School.

Q: What attracted you to PE?

Rena Clark: Early in my professional career, I had the opportunity to serve as CEO for two PE-backed, lower middle-market industrial manufacturing and services companies on separate occasions. The first business was a turnaround that my team and I "nursed" back to profitability in 18 months. The second was the carve-out of a division from a large, multinational company that we successfully "stood up," including establishing a market identity, in 12 months. Both experiences — building a team and a business — left me wanting to become more involved in making investment decisions at the portfolio-company level. I felt that being involved in helping to shape and influence a portfolio would be even more rewarding. 

It was almost eight years later before I would get the opportunity to sit on the opposite side of the table as an investor when I joined a middle-market buyout firm. It has been an even better experience than I imagined all those years ago. Working with other investment professionals in pursuit of acquisition opportunities, driving diligence, raising leverage, getting a transaction closed and working closely with the senior management team of a business to drive strategy and operational excellence has been incredibly rewarding.

After eight years at a committed capital fund, I'm now pursuing a similar strategy on a smaller scale, targeting lower middle-market companies, this time as an independent sponsor raising capital on a deal-by-deal basis. This new platform has a smaller circle of decision-makers. The activities and results are just as gratifying.

Q: Why is it important for more women to pursue careers in PE?

RC: I truly believe that diversity of thought and opinion really does result in the best ideas being put forward. Consider a business's growth and prosperity: When ideas come from a set of diverse perspectives, it can result in great outcomes because you are looking at the situation from all angles and vantage points. Differences in viewpoint can lead to a healthy and robust dialogue and decisions that can result in tremendous value creation.

When everyone in the "room" has a similar or the same profile (life and professional experiences), the ideas and conclusions that come from the investment deliberation can sometimes have "blinders." This can result in making decisions that are limited and not inclusive of outside, and potentially valuable, perspectives.

Some would argue that the PE class overall has been highly successful, saying things like "Just look at the returns. Things are fine just the way they are." Since I don't believe in a "limited pie," I would counter that those same returns would be greater if the group and the thinking were much more inclusive of folks with differing world viewpoints.

Q: Can you share a personal story that you feel exemplifies the value of women in PE?

RC: For eight years in my old firm, I was the most senior woman in the firm and the only woman involved in making investment decisions. I rarely saw women anywhere around the table: investment bankers, lenders, co-investors or in the senior leadership of a company we were looking to acquire. The only other women in the firm in the early years either worked on the administrative side or were part of our analytical team based in India.

As a part of my responsibility, I would periodically travel to India to interact with our team there. Occasionally, the analysts from India would travel to the United States on assignment. It was very rewarding when I had the opportunity to work directly with them on a transaction. It was clear to me that my presence mattered to the young women professionals based in India. My success provided them with something to aspire to, something that made their professional hopes and dreams possible.

Q: What advice would you provide to women attempting to enter PE?

RC: There are three things that are required to enter PE: focus, tenacity and a tremendous amount of patience. General partners and the professionals who support the activities of an investment firm, because of their small size, are quite tight-knit. They form based on not only "what you know" but "who you know." Unlike most opportunities in finance, which tend to be more numerous and varied, openings in PE are few and far between. Most middle-market PE firms don't recruit every year and will sometimes have more than a few years between investment hires. Pursuing opportunities in this sector requires significant networking with current and former colleagues, personal contacts and strategic referrals — and that's just to get in the door to be seen.

I would finally implore those looking to enter the space to not get discouraged and please, please stick with it. It did not happen overnight for me. I was told that my background is unorthodox and atypical, but what I found was that there are tons of folks in PE who have unorthodox and atypical backgrounds. I did not get disheartened, I stuck with it and today I have an opportunity to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for women.

To contact Clark, email rena.clark@laureloakcapital.com.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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