Hiring Circle meets Sara Neves, M&A Associate at Stephens
Sara discusses life as an Associate in lockdown and the keys to Stephens' recent success
Georgie Banfield spoke to Sara Neves, M&A Associate in the Financial Services team at Stephens. Despite the global pandemic, Stephens recorded their most successful year to date last year. Here Sara speaks about life as an Associate during lock-down, and the keys to the success of Stephens and their FS team in 2020.
Sara, you’re originally from Portugal and started your career in Lisbon. Tell me more about how you ended up coming to London and working at Stephens.
Yes, I’m originally from Portugal and studied both my undergraduate degree and masters in Lisbon. Following graduation, I started an internship with a Portuguese investment firm. At that time the team was quite small and while I enjoyed the work and what I was learning, I felt I needed to be in a bigger environment. London was the obvious place to focus my next move, mainly because it really is the epicentre for the financial services sector, but it was also an opportunity for me to start a full-time job in investment banking and therefore widen my opportunities. The team I joined was very international which I enjoyed – they had been through several acquisitions, so it was a good environment to start in. As well as this I was working in a mid-market environment as a generalist with lots of cross-border work. However, 2 years after I started, the business was sold. It was not ideal for a number of reasons – the new owners looked to completely restructure and change the direction of the team and I knew as a junior it wouldn’t be the best environment to learn in. On top of that, they were more of a commercial bank than an investment bank and I could see them retracting from the London market, so that was an appropriate time to look for other options.
It was at this time that I moved to Stephens. Juniors usually join through the Analyst programme, but I had a friend who worked here who knew of the opportunity and I joined in 2017 as an Analyst 2 in the Financial Services team.
What was it that attracted you to the Financial Services team at Stephens?
I had been more of a generalist up to this point, but it was an excellent opportunity to join the team at Stephens and I had worked on some FS transactions in the past, so it was not all new to me at the time. Most important was that I liked the team, so I was very happy to follow this route. Also, in terms of Stephens generally, they hadn’t been in Europe very long at that time but it was clear they were expanding and had a good junior team as well as good, new MD’s – it was an exciting time to join.
Can you tell me more about a typical day as an Associate within the FS team please?
In terms of a day-to-day, I would have to describe two era’s; pre-Covid and post-Covid. The majority of our projects are very team focused so day-to-day you're rarely working on something by yourself. As an Analyst you’re learning the basics, focused on more analytical tasks and learning how to manage the transaction. Moving from Analyst to Associate you are more heavily involved in the project management and giving senior people support with meetings, as well as reviewing the Analysts’ work – both general marketing and as part of live transactions.
In terms of a day-to-day, I would have to describe two era’s; pre-Covid and post-Covid.
In pre-Covid times we would regularly get together in a meeting room to discuss resources and the details of each project so everyone would know where they stood on each workstream. The flow of interaction on each workstream was clearer and I would say roles were more defined when we were in the office.
Once Covid started there was an adjusting process as it was clear neither we nor the clients knew what was happening! Things slowed down a little, but once people started to work it out, Zoom meetings became much more efficient. Post-Covid, the underlying processes are the same but the execution is currently all done working from home. The projects are still very interesting and everything seems to flow faster.
If you are on live projects it is definitely a more intense time as although you are following a tight deadline, there is always work the client will request that you can’t predict. On a live transaction I regularly meet and speak to a wide range of people. For example, if we are working on the sell side, we would be meeting with management and everyone from the CEO to CFO to department heads to learn more about the business so we can translate those conversations into marketing documents and financial models. We also discuss the potential investor universe and are asking questions such as, what is the management really looking for from the sale or transaction? Once you learn more about the company and their growth aspirations you can do a better job in terms of finding the right partner. It evolves from there. Then you approach buyers and make contact with your client in terms of the process – when it is going to be launched etc.
On the marketing side the work is more related to support and preparing materials for various discussions. These can range from simple credentials to more in-depth analysis on a specific sector depending on the client and the particular meeting. In this case we would also be speaking to a lot of people such as CEO’s or CFO’s or Corporate Development teams. For private equity we would speak to principals or partners who are responsible for specific portfolio companies.
What effect has Covid had on your role and experience as an Associate?
I would say what has been positive is all the time that has been saved - you don’t lose time travelling between meetings. From a team’s perspective we have had more regular catch ups which has been positive.
We’ve also seen more approaches for new opportunities coming in so in terms of pipeline this has been excellent.
The biggest change for me was that now anyone can join any meeting at any time; I've definitely had more exposure to everyone on the deal team, the management teams, other advisors, lawyers and I talk to them on a regular basis. We’ve also seen more approaches for new opportunities coming in so in terms of pipeline this has been excellent. One successful transaction leads to another.
So how does the origination process work at Stephens?
As I say, we do get some new business through responding to external approaches e.g. pitches, RFPs,– someone approaching the team if they have seen you’ve done a great transaction and they want to do something similar. Though I would say that overall the majority of business opportunities come directly from MD’s relationships – the important point is they have relationships with management teams as well as in their private equity network too. If you are close enough to a management team and you know what their aspirations for buying and selling are then you can pitch your ideas. With private equity clients you monitor their portfolio and work out what might be coming up for sale and also present ideas to them for acquisition – this works on both the strategic and private equity side too.
Also the nature of our private equity relationships have deepened over the last couple of years since we set up our private equity team at Stephens.
I understand that the Financial Services team had a particularly successful year in 2020. Can you tell me more about the transactions you were personally involved with and how lock-down affected the processes?
One of the deals I worked on through the year was advising Carne Group (the digitally driven platform for the asset management industry), on its €100 million investment from Vitruvian Partners. This deal actually started pre-Covid; I attended the pitch and kick-off meeting in Ireland, but then Covid hit and we agreed that we had to delay the external process. But in terms of internal preparation work – that all continued.
Obviously lock-down had an impact on transactions, but it helped that it was a world-wide problem, so everyone was on the same page.
We had weekly calls, a lot of screen-facing time and it involved lots of self-organisation, particularly as most information was flowing through email – since Covid everything seems to flow through email! Obviously lock-down had an impact on transactions, but it helped that it was a world-wide problem, so everyone was on the same page.
Other deals our team worked on were the €62m sale of Share plc to Interactive Investor Ltd which we managed to close right at the beginning of lock-down last year as well as advising ICG on their investment in Broadstone (a leading independent provider of specialist pensions, trustee and employee benefits solutions). We also just announced Equiniti’s sale of EQi, their D2C trading platform to Interactive Investor so that was exciting.
Why do you think these transactions were so successful?
I think the Carne transaction worked so well because they provide regulated services and their clients are mostly asset managers, so their business was not affected by Covid.
Overall, the Financial Services sector has been quite resilient, companies have been recovering well, and M&A activity hasn’t been as affected as in some other sectors
That’s why it had good momentum and lock-down didn’t interrupt the business flow. Overall, the Financial Services sector has been quite resilient, companies have been recovering well, and M&A activity hasn’t been as affected as in some other sectors, which has been positive for our team.
What do you personally enjoy about working on live transactions?
I believe closing a deal is a truly rewarding and satisfying experience. I particularly enjoy it when you help a client execute a strategic goal or decision or are working with a smaller management team and know that deal will be transformational from a strategic development perspective.
Ultimately the experience of working on live transactions teaches you to truly understand a company inside out – it is genuinely stimulating work.
I also enjoy the fact that you advise or help the client in their decision-making process and strategic planning and get to interact with clients at a high level. It’s very rewarding when you get the opportunity to learn how they think, how they present their company, and how they react to certain situations.
At the end of the day, you learn a huge amount and are exposed to a lot when you work on live transactions. Ultimately the experience teaches you to truly understand a company inside out – it is genuinely stimulating work.
Despite lock-down, Stephens overall had one of their most successful years in 2020. What do you think was the key to that success?
I think our record has been very important – the fact you can demonstrate to the market that you can do a good transaction at a good price. That attracts some inbound calls from potential clients who, for example, see that you were able to get a good valuation or outcome in a previous transaction and they’re keen to discuss more.
I think our record has been very important...That, combined with the effectiveness of our relationships are so important too
And clients themselves are more open to hearing new ideas even if they don’t know the firm well or if there is no history to that relationship. That, combined with the effectiveness of our relationships that I mentioned before are so important too – knowing the management team well, knowing when to pitch ideas and backed up by a great record.