Trust and communication are key when navigating the world of private equity

Waterland principal and competitive sailor finds strong parallels between sailing and business
Trust and communication are key when navigating the world of private equity

IN the financial world, information is power, so communication with her team and clients is the hinge around which much of Laura Dillon’s day revolves.

“My day-to-day work is quite varied, but I do spend quite a lot of my time speaking to business owners, founders, family-run businesses, and entrepreneurs, to see whether we, at Waterland, could be good partners to help them expand their companies and to support them with their growth ambitions,” Ms Dillon says.

Waterland also prepares information for those meetings, including analyses of the markets in which they operate, plus the structure and position of the business operations.

“We also assess whether there are any other similar, or complementary, businesses in the market that could benefit from consolidation — either through new acquisitions or through our large network of companies we have throughout Europe that could help support their growth,” she says.

As an independent private-equity investment group that supports entrepreneurs with substantial financial resources and industry expertise, the company enables its portfolio companies to achieve accelerated growth, both organically and through acquisitions. 

Acting as an active shareholder in its portfolio companies, Waterland plays a key role in their strategic and operational development, growth, and performance, and has made investments in 650 companies.

Ms Dillon, principal and head of the Irish team, says: “I joined in March 2020, just as we all went into the first lockdown." 

Covid-19 has definitely made us realise that we can do a lot more things remotely than anticipated.

While video conferencing is efficient — and the reduced travel has benefited the environment — it is not the same as in-person meetings. The curtailment of travel, national and international, is an obstacle to building personal relationships.

“The lack of face-to-face meetings is a challenge across the four corners of Ireland, where we are operating, such as from Belfast to Cork and Galway to Dublin,” Ms Dillon says. “When we are allowed to travel again, we plan to, hopefully, meet businesses in every county in Ireland.”

Laura Dillon.
Laura Dillon.

On the plus side, lockdown economics have engendered a broader view of potential markets: “In terms of Ireland, as a nation we’ve been very flexible and very entrepreneurial in how we are operating.

"The current environment allows us to open up more export opportunities, as people realise that being separated by sea isn’t a big barrier anymore.”

Prior to joining Waterland, Ms Dillon was a principal at Riverside Europe Partners in London, having previously been co-founder and CEO at DSI Distribution Solutions, a leading healthcare distribution company in the Irish market. 

She began her career as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company, and also worked for Intelligent Finance, the internet bank of HBOS Plc. She holds an MBA degree from Harvard Business School and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from University College Dublin.

In the year since opening its Dublin office, Waterland has seen an increase in the number of companies and industries looking for capital and expertise to support their future growth.

Digitisation

“In particular, we are very interested in businesses connected with trends in ageing populations, outsourcing and digitisation, sustainability, and leisure and luxury,” Ms Dillon says. 

“We are exploring a range of specific opportunities in sectors Ireland has a leading international profile in, such as manufacturing and engineering, pharma, IT, food and beverage, and business and professional services.”

Waterland has had engagement from companies, both SME and entrepreneur, in every county.

“Unfortunately, the downside, at least for the moment, is that we can’t physically meet them,” Ms Dillon says. "Munster, in particular, has been extremely active, with sectors such as manufacturing, engineering, IT, and business services being really buoyant at the moment.

“We do really understand the limitations of traditional financing models and how difficult it can be for great management teams to grow at the rate they want to.”

The Waterland model is about supporting business owners and management teams to identify strategic opportunities and to execute those plans to accelerate their growth, organically and through acquisitions.

Brexit challenges

“Brexit is certainly creating challenges in the short-term, particularly as the UK is our largest trading partner,” Ms Dillon says. “However, I believe it will make Ireland a stronger nation in the long-term, as we form closer trading relations with continental Europe.

“We are already seeing this materialise, owing to the sheer scale of the opportunities that Europe provides, including opportunities from the US and Asia.

“That doesn’t mean the UK will cease to be important to us. It will just mean that our reliance will shift.”

In outlining Waterland’s long-term goals, Ms Dillon points to Ireland’s increasingly competitive business environment and businesses being able to grow at a desired rate.

“For us, the Irish market is one filled with entrepreneurial businesses that are often family-run and ready for the next step in their growth — these are the opportunities that most excite us. I’m talking to people across multiple sectors, and it is really about finding business owners to partner with to help grow faster than they could on their own,” Ms Dillon says.

Growth plans

“We have big ambitions and want to find Irish companies that share our ambition and wish to support their growth plans.”

Ms Dillon points to the strong entrepreneurial spirit in Ireland, which underpins its expansive ambitions: “You just need to look at the number of great businesses who helped during the global pandemic by diversifying, and changing the likes of manufacturing facilities and laboratories into testing and Covid-response production resources,” she says.

A life-long sailor, in 1992 Ms Dillon won silver at the Optimist World Championships, and four years later took bronze at the Youth World Championships, and became the only female sailor to win the Irish Helmsman’s Championships in its 60-year history.

“I do still sail competitively,” Ms Dillon says. “For the past decade, I’ve sailed with a Dutch team of eight and I’m lucky enough to helm a 41-foot classic boat. This has given me a really good insight into the Dutch mentality, which is particularly useful, as Waterland is originally a Dutch company.”

There are also strong parallels between sailing and business, she says:

You have to trust the entire team and focus on your own task, while allowing everyone else to excel in their roles.

“Across both, you have to deal with a number of factors all at once,” Ms Dillon says. “Some you can control, others you cannot. You also have to think about the strategy and the end goal: What is the wind doing? What are my competitors doing?

“From an operational perspective, you have to remain focused on how to make your boat go as fast as possible and in the right direction.”

Despite these uncertain and challenging times, Ms Dillon remains optimistic.

“Times of uncertainty create volatility, but a lot of opportunity, too,” she says. “It is all about thinking ahead and figuring out how to best position yourself to maximise the opportunities.

"The past year has posed many challenges, but we need to remember that things could be a lot worse, so we have to look at the positives.”

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