The economic and credit conditions of the past year have brought dramatic changes to Marge Magner's private equity business at Brysam Global Partners, but not in the ways you might think. When Magner, who headed Citigroup's global consumer group before her departure in 2005, and Robert Willumstad, former president and COO at Citi, founded Brysam in early 2007 the plan was to be activist investors in consumer financial services concerns in emerging markets, specifically banks serving nascent middle-class populations.
But in those days, capital and credit still flowed freely, and in the market Magner and Willumstad found companies with high valuations that could pick and choose their capital sources. "Maybe 18 months ago when we visited an emerging market people would say, 'We don't need capital, there's so much available,'" Magner says. "You don't hear that quite as much now, and valuations have come down quite a bit as well. In the emerging markets there are good opportunities."
In February, Brysam acquired a 10-percent stake in a Russian bank with more than 1.2 million customers; last September it announced a 28-percent stake in Mexico's Ixe Grupo Financiero. The fund also owns a piece of an Indian bank. Magner's team is focused on finding investments for the $500 million fund in many of the usual emerging-market investment targets: Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, even Vietnam and South Korea. "Difficult times create opportunity for investments all over the world," she says. "There's no real shortage of that."
One shortage Magner is experiencing is the expertise and partnership of Willumstad. Chairman of American Insurance Group when he and Magner founded Brysam, Willumstad left the fund and took over as CEO of AIG when Martin Sullivan was ousted in June. "Not having him here is a big adjustment; personally there is more responsibility on my shoulders," she says. But when Willumstad made his news known, Magner and her team of primarily former Citi colleagues "had the opportunity to look each other in the eye and say, 'What do we want to do here?'" she says. "We all said, 'We want to stay here and we want to do this.'"
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