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John Moulton – entrepreneur of private equity

I use the term advisedly.  Having worked with many entrepreneurs who have had to leave the businesses they have created over the years, “succession anxiety” is a disease that can have some unpleasant outcomes.  In the middle of a sale process, it often leads to what looks like a narcissistic desire to prolong the process beyond all reasonable limits by tactical manoeuvring, walk outs and so on.  This is often put down to the entrepreneur’s need to use his negotiating skills to obtain the best deal possible on the sale of his creation.  But there’s often something else going on: these wonderfully talented people often have controlling personalities and dislike the idea that their creation can continue without them.

Is this the case with Moulton?  He is certainly an extraordinarily successful financier with a remarkable ability to analyse business and finance with extreme clarity and relentless honesty, even when looking at his own track record.  Having visited Alchemy’s old offices many times (on the stairs outside which Moulton famously personally served the hacks coffee during his flirtation with Rover), I always found it remarkable that the “honours boards” of new and exited investments included the deals that, inevitably in this industry, had gone wrong and ended up in insolvency.  Private equity guys just don’t do that – their failures “never happened”.

The press coverage has focused on the Moulton letter which is unemotional, even if it is brutally critical of both of himself and his firm.  Someone who knows him well who I talked to last week views it slightly differently.  According to this version of events, Martin Bolland, his talented and successful long term number two, felt he had to leave because of the preference given to the current CEO Dominic Slade.  Moulton then clearly lost confidence in Slade.  My friend’s explanation was that Moulton couldn’t believe that anyone could carry the torch he had lit and in the end preferred that no-one should.

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