Private equity firms are betting billions on the rise of e-commerce. Execs at Blackstone, Trilantic North America, and others explain their strategy.

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E-commerce companies have benefitted as people shop from home during the pandemic, and private equity is taking notice.

E-commerce M&A grew 50% between 2019 and 2020 with private equity representing 34% of deals (up from 31% in 2019 and 26% in 2018), according to Pitchbook data pulled by investment bank JEGI Clarity. 

KKR and Blackstone are gobbling up warehouses while Providence Strategic Growth backed e-commerce holding company Assembly, showing there’s big demand for companies that help merchants sell on third-party marketplaces with services like advertising, design, fulfillment, and analytics.

Chris Vollmer, managing director of strategy consulting at Medialink, cited Shopify tech firm Big Commerce’s IPO pop last year as an example of the big exits that PE firms anticipate from e-commerce. E-commerce tech firms also typically have recurring revenue models that appeal to investors.

“There’s a lot of reasons why they’re hunting around for everything from infrastructure to analytics and user experience,” he said.

Amazon dominates US e-commerce, but PE firms are also looking for other firms that are capitalizing on e-commerce, like Shopify, Walmart, Kroger, and international player Flipkart.

Insider identified 10 firms that have invested in e-commerce companies, using original reporting and publicly available information.

Advent International

Advent International is pushing into companies that buy and roll up brands that sell products on Amazon, and retail and e-commerce is a big part of the firm’s investments. 

“What we’re now starting to see is the evolution of e-commerce into marketplaces,” said Jeff Case, managing director at Advent International. “It’s creating ways for entrepreneurs to be sellers.”

The PE firm has invested in two rounds of funding for Thrasio, a company that was valued at $1 billion in July 2020 that acquires and operates brands that sell on Amazon. Thrasio has raised a total of $1.6 billion, according to Crunchbase.

Thrasio has acquired 90 brands including pet odor remover Angry Orange and Bitly Socks and is on the hunt for more consumer product companies that do $1 million to $10 million in annual sales on Amazon.

Thrasio provides these sellers resources like product development, marketing, and supply chain management to accelerate their growth.

Advent International has also invested in consumer brands like The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, travel retailer Dufry, and haircare brand Olaplex.

Blackstone

The decline of physical retail like shopping malls has opened up a significant new e-commerce strategy for PE giant Blackstone.

Blackstone started buying and investing in industrial real estate like warehouses more than 10 years ago. The warehouses are leased by Amazon and other e-commerce companies and used as “last-mile logistics” centers to quickly deliver packages to customers.

While other PE firms have also invested in industrial real estate, Blackstone is a giant in the space, owning about 880 million square feet of space globally from 250 deals. A recent deal with LBA Logistics gives Blackstone a 60% stake in 71 warehouses in last-mile hubs like California and Seattle.

Tyler Henritze, head of acquisitions Americas at Blackstone Real Estate, said the firm has gone from buying a broad portfolio of properties — some which could be located an hour’s drive away from major cities — to focusing on smaller properties in urban areas. 

“We’re trying to own warehouse space with as much proximity to rooftops and customers as we can get,” he said. “If you look at Amazon’s network and where they lease space, that’s a good proxy of where we want to go.”

He also noted that while Amazon dominates in areas like same-day delivery, retailers like Walmart and Wayfair are also investing in logistics to speed up package delivery.

Investcorp

In January 2021, PE giant Investcorp acquired Unilog, a software company that helps hundreds of small to midsize businesses sell online.

Harsh Shethia, head of Investcorp’s India business, said that the acquisition is part of a larger strategy to invest in mid-market companies that bring e-commerce to India, which has lagged in online adoption. 

Unilog sells software that sellers use to create e-commerce websites and content. In addition to providing capital, Investcorp helped Indian-founded Unilog build its US business.

Investcorp’s other India e-commerce investments include FreshToHome, a grocery service; and logistics company XpressBees.

India’s e-commerce market is split between Amazon, Flipkart, and Reliance, making it more fragmented than the US where Amazon dominates e-commerce.

Shethia expects e-commerce’s growth to continue after the pandemic ends.

“Some of the behavior of people is going to shift — we know that this was a breakout moment,” he said. “It’s a secular, long-term trend.”

KKR

PE giant KKR is snapping up warehouses used by Amazon and other e-commerce companies to jump on the online shopping boom.

In a deal with High Street Logistics Properties worth $835 million, the firm in December bought warehouses that cover 9.7 million square feet in cities like Atlanta and Dallas. KKR also acquired two Amazon warehouses in July 2020 for $176 million in Kenosha, Wisconsin, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal.

All told, KKR owns 32 million square feet of industrial properties in the US.

“We believe that the current environment will lead to continued acceleration of e-commerce penetration which drives demand for large modern distribution centers like the ones we are acquiring,” KKR’s Roger Morales, partner and head of commercial real estate acquisitions in the Americas, said in July. “Logistics real estate represents a growth opportunity as more and more US consumers migrate to shopping online.”

Outside of real estate, KKR’s e-commerce investments include Italian e-commerce 3D packaging company CMC Machinery, and is a majority investor in Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu.

Permira

PE firm Permira has invested in three e-commerce companies over the past six months: software company Mirakl, European online marketplace Catawiki, and online marine classifieds company Boats Group.

Mirakl is a big name in e-commerce technology and sells software that helps retailers like Best Buy Canada and Carrefour launch and run marketplaces, letting more sellers do business through the retailers’ websites. Permira invested in Mirakl’s $300 million funding round in September 2020.

Permira led Amsterdam-based Catawiki’s €150 million (about $180 million) December 2020 round of funding. Catawiki is an online marketplace for objects like collectables, jewelry, and art.

Permira’s other e-commerce investments include peer-to-peer payment company Klarna, WeddingWire, and online design marketplace Minted. The firm also sold e-commerce software firm Magento to Adobe for $1.8 billion in 2018.

Providence Strategic Growth

Providence Strategic Growth wants to gobble up Amazon tech firms.

The PE firm is backing an e-commerce holding group called Assembly that seeks to be a one-stop shop for e-commerce sellers.

Assembly has acquired four e-commerce firms including Helium 10 and Refersion that help vendors sell products on platforms like Amazon and Shopify.

Matt Stone, managing director at Providence Strategic Growth, said that the goal is to acquire dozens of similar early-stage companies.

Stone said the firm’s e-commerce strategy is based on a playbook it’s used to roll up companies in other industries like healthcare, payments, and security.

“We have not completed the full marketing stack of what an [e-commerce] customer would need — there’s probably 20 to 30 different things that a customer would need,” he said. “That’s something that we’ve done in several other verticals that has worked well.”

Rockbridge Growth Equity

Detroit-based Rockbridge Growth Equity has invested in digital media and advertising companies, including Amazon adtech firm Quartile Digital in October 2020.

Quartile Digital sells technology to help brands manage and measure their advertising on Amazon and other retail platforms.

Kevin Prokop, managing partner at Rockbridge Growth Equity, said that the firm’s investments are geared towards companies that use data to improve digital media and advertising. He cited Quartile Digital’s focus on small to mid-size brands as key to solving challenges with e-commerce advertising.

Prokop said that his firm is open to other e-commerce investments, but not advertising-focused ones.

The firm’s other investments include GSTV, Robb Report, and White Glove.

Summit Partners

Boston-based Summit Partners has made more than 25 e-commerce investments, and its recent ones show the growing role that advertising and data is playing in the sector.

Its portfolio includes Jungle Scout, which sells software that figures out what people search for and buy on Amazon to help marketers determine what items to sell, how to price products, and see what competitors are selling. In March 2021, Jungle Scout acquired Amazon adtech firm Downstream for an undisclosed amount as part of a $110 million raise led by Summit Partners.

Summit Partners was also an early investor in Klaviyo, including its $200 million Series C funding round in November. Klaviyo pulls customer and sales data from e-commerce platforms including Shopify and Magento to target email and ad campaigns at audiences like heavy spenders, potential shoppers, or newsletter subscribers.

Trilantic North America

Trilantic North America gears its investments towards entrepreneurs and e-commerce brands.

The PE firm invested in two e-commerce companies over the past two years: e-commerce platform Gorilla Commerce and footwear and apparel brand Orva.

Gorilla Commerce owns petcare and home products brands like Gorilla Grip, Sofa Shield and Kangaroo.

Orva helps shoe and apparel brands like Adidas and Ugg boots with services like merchandising and supply chain management.

Amazon’s immense marketplace can make it hard for brands to stand out. Jamie Manges, partner at Trilantic North America, said the firm focuses on companies that use data to drive sales.

“Our strategy was to focus on players that we felt had differentiated models and teams that are committed to building businesses as opposed to just selling product,” he said.

Vista Equity Partners

PE giant Vista Equity Partners has long invested in advertising and retail technology.

Vista Equity Partners combined its ecommerce investments like Shopatron, a company that helped sellers manage inventory; and e-commerce platform MarketLive into a tech company called Kibo that handles tasks like payments, merchandising, design, and fulfillment for retailers like Jelly Belly and outdoor apparel company Helly Hansen. 

The firm is also a majority investor in Numerator, a market intelligence firm that helps retailers and advertisers measure the effectiveness of their promotions. When grocers and retailers struggled to keep up with demand in the pandemic, Numerator focused on providing them with data about what people buy.

Outside e-commerce, Vista Equity Partners’ investments include adtech companies Integral Ad Science and Mediaocean.

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