Blackstone’s Blitzer Hunts Goldman’s Lost OpportunitiesPierre Paulden, David Carey and Sabrina Willmer
David Blitzer had his eye on Addy Loudiadis’s business at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for years.
By the middle of 2013, the Blackstone Group LP dealmaker had his shot. Pressured by regulators to boost capital under new rules, the bank started looking for investors to take pieces of Rothesay Life Ltd., the insurer that Loudiadis heads in London. Blitzer, whose private-equity firm historically has to control companies it buys, was fine taking a minority stake in a Goldman cash cow. In October, he struck a $297 million deal to buy 28.5 percent of Rothesay, with Singapore’s sovereign fund taking an equal share.
Blitzer has spent the past two years engineering unorthodox deals like Rothesay that no one else within Blackstone could do. The 44-year old New Jersey native runs Tactical Opportunities Group, a $5.6 billion unit with the mandate to make investments that fall between the cracks of the firm’s other businesses. The group has bought oil tankers, developed Brazilian shopping malls, and created a finance unit for U.S. landlords, capitalizing as banks are forced to shrink, and cutting deals that were the domain of Wall Street before its retreat from proprietary investing.
“An awful lot of what Tac Ops does was either done by the big banks on their proprietary trading desks or by hedge funds in their illiquid side pockets,” Tony James, Blackstone’s president, said in an interview last month. “Both those sorts of capital have been eliminated and unless they come back, there will be tons of opportunities.”
Since Blackstone’s billionaire founder Steve Schwarzman drafted Blitzer in 2011 for the newly created role, his group has evaluated more than 500 investments for the world’s largest alternative asset manager, a behemoth overseeing $272 billion across credit, hedge funds, real estate and private equity. In just over two years, the 30-person unit has exceeded fundraising targets and returns with annual gains near 20 percent. It could soon grow to $15 billion, said James.
Blitzer can thank New Jersey’s pension fund for his role. He’d returned from an almost decade-long stint running Blackstone’s European private-equity arm in 2011, a business he had started in 2002, and was leading efforts to strike partnerships with its largest investors. Blitzer was also formulating a special-situations group that could capitalize on more of the opportunities that Blackstone sees through its web of businesses.
Around the same time, New Jersey’s head of private equity, Christine Pastore, had approached Blackstone to ask for a discount on fees in exchange for handing over a big chunk of money. New Jersey had invested more than $1 billion in Blackstone funds, including with credit arm GSO Capital Partners LP, and wanted to see if it could lower the 1.5 percent management fee and 20 percent charged on profits. The discussion turned to investments that don’t fit into private-equity mandates. Tactical Opportunities was born.
Christopher McDonough, director at New Jersey’s $87 billion investment division, said it differs from special situation funds, which usually target specific opportunities such as distressed debt or real estate, by its size and scope.
“A lot of the time special situations funds focus on one particular aspect of the market,” said McDonough. “We haven’t seen anything of this scale.”
The structure is different from private-equity and also hedge funds, which have the latitude to buy exotic or wide-ranging assets. Blackstone will invest over a period of three years, compared with the five to six years for a buyout fund. Unlike a hedge fund, the money can be locked up for more than 10 years and profits from deals can be recycled back into new opportunities.
The New Jersey deal also includes lower fees, with Blackstone taking a 15 percent cut of the profit, less than the 20 percent charged by most private-equity firms.
Blackstone agreed to the terms after New Jersey committed $750 million, and more than $1 billion additionally to other private-equity funds and accounts. Its allocations to Blackstone over the preceding 12 months totaled $2.5 billion, the most in any year by a single investor.
Some of the largest institutional clients followed investing with Blitzer’s group, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund and New York State Common Retirement Fund, which collectively control about $500 billion in assets.
“We are very well suited as a firm to having this pool of capital that plays across the spectrum and can attack opportunities in the marketplace and do it very quickly,” said Blitzer.
James said Blitzer, with his “pied piper” personality, was a natural to head the effort. He’d joined Blackstone from Wharton Business School’s undergraduate program in 1991, six years after Schwarzman and Peter G. Peterson founded the firm to mainly buy companies with borrowed money.
During his time at the firm, Blitzer has helped Blackstone invest in United Biscuits, Allied Waste Industries Inc. and the company that makes soft drink Orangina. Along the way, he’s personally bought stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and last year the New Jersey Devils hockey club.
“When you start a new business with no money, no clients and no team, you need a leader, a personality who can bring in employees, clients and companies,” said James.
Blitzer tapped London-based Chad Pike, 43, Vice Chairman of Blackstone Europe and a former co-head of real estate, to help advise the unit, while Christopher James, 38, who’d worked on the firm’s 2007 initial public offering, took the role of chief operating officer. Blitzer also recruited some of Blackstone’s rising stars, including Jasvinder Khaira, a 33-year-old graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who sports purple and orange turbans. Khaira, like Blitzer, had played multiple roles in Blackstone, including working at GSO, within private equity, and on the IPO.
Blitzer wasted no time striking his first deal for Tactical Opportunities. Hunting for undervalued assets, he explored collateralized loan obligations, packages of leveraged loans that are sliced into securities of varying risk. He said he contacted Bennett Goodman, the head of GSO, to ask about the riskiest portions that offer the highest returns. Goodman backed his thesis that investors were avoiding the investments in the wake of the financial crisis even as they performed well.
Blitzer went on the hunt, starting with deals overseen by GSO. He found a piece of a CLO called Inwood Park that was put together in 2007 and owned by Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s estate, which needed to sell assets. GSO, as manager of the CLO, helped explain the structure, and Goodman, like Blackstone’s other group heads, sits on the investment committee for Blitzer’s division. In February 2012, Blackstone invested $38 million, paying about 70 cents on the dollar. It’s already returned most of the money through distributions and as of March 31 has a gross internal rate of return of 24 percent.
One of Blitzer’s advantages over hedge funds and other investors chasing trades is that he’s able to tap into ideas from across the firm. Its real-estate business, run by Jon Gray, is the world’s largest, overseeing $81 billion in assets. The private-equity unit headed by Joseph Baratta that buys companies has $66 billion; Blackstone’s hedge-fund business, run by Tom Hill, oversees $58 billion and the credit arm manages $66 billion.
“We’re trying to mine that expertise across the firm,” said Blitzer.
His investment group meets every Monday at noon in the Blackstone boardroom on the 43rd floor of its Park Avenue, Midtown office. For up to two hours, Schwarzman, James and other senior members of the firm screen ideas -- lucrative investments that fall outside the core mandate of each group. Teams from across the company are incentivized to pass on ideas since they get a share of the profits, said James.
“It’s the one activity in the firm when the best minds across Blackstone work together,” he said. “It’s thrilling in that sense.”
Gray’s real estate group, for instance, had looked at taking a control position in One Market Plaza in San Francisco, a two-tower complex near the city’s waterfront that it had sold to Morgan Stanley in 2007. The seller, Paramount Group, would only give up a 49 percent stake, so Gray passed the idea to Blitzer, who cut the deal in April.
Blitzer’s largest single investment for Tactical Opportunities has been Rothesay.
Goldman Sachs started the business in 2007 to take on retirement obligations. It was headed by Loudiadis, who had joined Goldman Sachs’s European derivatives marketing group in 1994 from JPMorgan Chase & Co., was named partner in 2000 and had risen to be one of the bank’s top sales executives.
Rothesay promises to pay pensions if retirees live beyond a certain age. The firm receives a portion of the pension plan’s assets and tries to hedge the risk they take on with derivatives. In 2013, the business had pretax profit of 184.4 million pounds ($310 million) and was responsible for pensions at companies including British Airways Plc.
Blitzer had followed Rothesay when he worked in London and considered investing in a rival. He said he talked to Goldman Sachs executives including Loudiadis and made sure they knew Blackstone was interested if they decided to sell.
By June of 2013 Rothesay had $9.66 billion of assets when more stringent capital rules imposed under new rules known as Basel III made holding Rothesay more expensive for the bank. By the end of the year, Blackstone and GIC Pte, the sovereign fund, bought a majority stake.
Blackstone “demonstrated their ability to combine creativity, flexibility and broad financial market expertise to analyse and execute on a complex opportunity,” Loudiadis said in a statement.
One reason for James’s excitement about the Tactical Opportunities business is drawing together the various strands and senior leaders of Blackstone. Another is the ability to keep raising money outside of traditional private equity. Schwarzman said last June he could imagine Blackstone growing to be a $500 billion investment firm.
The target isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. Blackstone has raised $132 billion in capital in the last three years, according to Luke Montgomery, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. Much of this has gone to newer products like those offered by Blitzer’s business.
’’Innovation is one of Blackstone’s edges,’’ Montgomery said.
Helped by the rise in assets and gains in the value of its funds, Blackstone shares have jumped 56 percent in the past year, compared with 19 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
Most Tac Ops investments have been made as banks pulled out of businesses in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and amid new capital requirements such as Basel III. Wall Street has also had to scale back trading because of the Volcker Rule, a centerpiece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, which seeks to stop banks with federally insured deposits from making trades that could threaten their stability.
Blitzer sees more opportunities from increased regulation, before the current financing vacuum will eventually disappear. His unit will then have to adjust, for instance by investing in public securities, he said, taking Blackstone further from its core business.
“The risk going in is that it was unproven,” said New Jersey’s McDonough. “Time will tell ultimately, but we are pleased about how the portfolio has come together.”