Nicola Zambon is a Private Equity principal with over 25 years of experience in PE and cross border M&A. A Bocconi graduate from the Class of ´94, he is the founder and managing partner of Cleon Capital, a firm assisting Southern European SMEs in obtaining flexible capital solutions combined with first class corporate development services. Prior to that, he was Director at the leading Private Equity firm InvestIndustrial from 1995 to 2007 and Partner at Ergon Capital from 2007 to 2014. Zambon is currently on the board of directors of the Bocconi Alumni Community – Madrid Chapter.
Find out more about Cleon Capital under www.cleoncapital.com.
On behalf of BSPEC, I would like to thank you for accepting our informal invitation to this “Coffee Break with”. Would you present yourself with a brief overview of your professional and academic background?
Thank you for having me. After graduating from Bocconi in 1994, I worked for SDA Bocconi before transferring to London with the intention of working in Investment Banking, as many of my colleagues did in the 90s. I crossed paths with Private Equity in my job search, and ultimately decided to start working for a small firm named InvestIndustrial, that is today the largest Southern European fund. We were initially a small team of three people, which, on one hand, gave me an insight into the entire business from the internal functioning of the firm to the relationship with investors, as well as the different layers of market analysis and even legal aspects. On the other hand, by choosing a smaller firm, I gave up the stability, both economic and professional, that one could find in a larger, well-established firm. Looking back, I believe I made a trade-off between having 360 degrees view of a PE firm and having a higher paying job with overall stability. I ended up working there for 13-14 years before moving to Argon Capital, and finally founding Cleon Capital four years ago in Madrid, Spain.
After joining the first team of InvestIndustrial, what consolidated your interest in Private Equity?
After about a year and a half of working at InvestIndustrial, I started truly understanding the foundations of Private Equity. What I liked was the extent to which you were exposed to the real life of companies. As opposed to an initial job in Investment Banking or consulting where I would have been exposed to a company at a specific moment, in PE we treated the entire life cycle of the company. You coexisted side by side with them during a period which can last between 3 to 7 years making it all the more interesting to me. This approach, however, also makes it much more difficult to learn PE mainly because of the wide spectrum of activities that have to be mastered to fully understand it. Years are needed to get there.
What personality traits did you find necessary to successfully dive into PE ?
I find that an entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely essential to succeed at this job. Being prudent but at the same time optimistic and bundling that with having initiative and being creative. It isn’t a desktop job, and most people who’ve accomplished good things in this sector have in common that they have people skills, on top of being technically very well prepared. It is necessary to be crafty, ingenuous and able to resolve complicated situations in short time periods. It isn’t easy to have all of these things. On top of this, having a little luck and landing on a prosperous economic cycle can also be an important factor when it comes to having positive results.
What was the impetus that gave you the confidence to start Cleon Capital and be able to deal with everything of a PE firm from start to finish?
I think that gathering experiences makes you very aware of your own weaknesses as well as of your capacities. When your confidence in being able to meet the challenge outgrows the fear of starting an unsuccessful project, I believe you can start your own creation. This realization can happen in different moments of your career or it can never happen at all. The foundation of creating the firm was without a doubt developing the capacity to address my own weaknesses, and to get comfortable with them. Subsequently, there comes also a moment, both in your personal and professional life, when because of an overall stability the ideal moment to do it arrives. There and then. It’s a mix of both personal and professional circumstances.
How would you compare PE in Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom?
I think having experience in different countries is a huge competitive advantage. In mid-market, the typical PE professional lacks international experience. That is a big limitation when working with SMEs with the intention of internationalizing themselves. If you’ve the luck of offering a more international profile, you can definitely use it to your advantage when looking for opportunities. If you go to the lower mid-market PE, it is very country-specific. Large buyout and higher mid-market player are more global. If you’re a lower mid-market PE professional with an international profile you have a competitive advantage vis-à-vis your competition. That is just the way it is nowadays. I would also highlight that it is very different to do private equity in a small to mid-sized fund than at a global multi-strategy asset manager. It is a totally different job. The work that you will be doing at a large firm like KKR, nowadays, has more in common with an Investment Bank than with a midsized PE firm. It is, thus, extremely important to differentiate among the different segments and different products.
In America there is a very linear path for someone wanting to work in PE. Usually, after a bachelor’s degree, they join a big 4 or an investment bank where they work for a few years, and later on they get picked by a PE. Do you follow this line of recruitment at Cleon and how do you view this?
I firmly believe that the standard path is the standard path for a reason. The normal way is that someone joins a PE firm after some experience in some of the firms that you mentioned. I would recommend anyone interested in PE to follow that path. However, the issue that arises here is that by following the same path as others, you won’t differentiate yourself from other candidates, which is why I would strongly recommend to put the emphasis on internships in funds. Nowadays, there are many search funds, independent sponsors, or fundless sponsors who represent a new format that is rising in PE, dislocated from the traditional large buyout funds. I believe young people like you need to take advantage of this situation by starting to work and most of all to learn while also differentiating yourself from others at the same time. If you’re truly interested in the entrepreneurial side and are excited about having your own deals and operations, you will have more exposure.
How are you able to make these companies grow so much in so little time ?
At the end of the day, a big part of our job is to surround yourself with people that work very well and to get ahead of the market trends. It’s also crucial to have the capacity to act very fast. We have four active investments, we don’t currently manage all four and their activities from start to finish, which would be impossible given the size and activities of these companies. We have to manage a network of people and need a certain “sixth sense” that allows us to make tough decisions, that affect many people, in tough moments. Without good advisors, colleagues, investors and lawyers, it’s simply impossible to move forward with such a firm. I like to compare it to a spider web with many interconnected threads: when you speak with a portfolio company, you´re simultaneously dealing with the CEO, the competitors, the market trends, all while maximizing your own position and listening to everyone on board. It is truly a team sport.
How do you see the future of Cleon Capital and your own?
The objective is to keep growing and keep making more investments while maintaining the best possible results for your investors and staying ahead of events and managing situations in the best way possible. While we have the excitement and the motivation to help enterprises to achieve their goals and simultaneously generating high profits for us. When you’re able to close the cycle it gives you a huge satisfaction because you’ve benefited the companies, the workers, the clients of the companies, your investors, the managers, which makes this job a very satisfactory one when you align all the stars. This alignment needs a lot of dedication, a little bit of luck, and a capacity to never give up and never give in.