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Private-equity industry eager to leave election spotlight

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The private-equity industry suffered bruising political attacks during the presidential campaign, but Washington-based Carlyle Group and other firms have emerged financially stronger and, they say, more aware of the importance of public transparency.

“This scrutiny has been a good thing for the industry, because it’s caused us to engage more, be more public, generate more data and proactively work to explain who we are, how we do it and who benefits,” Carlyle spokesman Chris Ullman said. “No one loves to be beat up, but at the same time, with scrutiny and daylight comes information and, hopefully, appreciation.”

Carlyle, once viewed as one of the most enigmatic firms in private equity, is now one of the most public. One of its co-chief executives, David M. Rubenstein, is an outspoken champion of private equity and has taken a higher profile in the Washington and national business communities.

Throughout the campaign, the industry was forced to defend itself as President Obama and fellow Democrats attacked the business record of Republican Mitt Romney, who once ran private-equity firm Bain Capital. Much of the criticism focused on the practice of buying up companies and then stripping away jobs to make them more efficient, which is sometimes how private equity makes money. The industry has sought to demystify its operations and justify its profits, which can benefit public pensions and retirees, university endowments and foundations.

The presidential race pushed private-equity companies “to try and present an understandable picture of what these firms do, who they do it for . . . a more full picture,” said Colin Blaydon, director of the center for private equity and entre­pre­neur­ship at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

During the tumult of the campaign, Carlyle’s principals maintained a neutral political profile. Indeed, Carlyle and the Obama administration worked together on a deal to save an aging Philadelphia oil refinery and the thousands of jobs that went with it. The White House helped navigate the bureaucracy and cut through red tape to enable Carlyle to buy the firm.

And as Carlyle’s most recent financial report reflects, it came out of the election season financially stronger.

On Thursday, the private-equity giant reported that it earned a third-quarter profit of $19 million, or 40 cents per unit, compared with a loss of $10 million during the second quarter.

The firm, whose investments run the gamut from refineries to railroads to real estate, reported total assets under management — a key industry metric — of $157.4 billion, up slightly from the second quarter and up nearly $10 billion from a year ago. It posted economic net profit that was better than expected, $219 million, compared with a loss of $191 million a year earlier. Economic net income includes unrealized gains on Carlyle’s investments.

Carlyle also continues to raise billions of dollars every year that it deploys around the world, generating profit from its investments, and maintains the tax breaks it has enjoyed for years.

The heightened public scrutiny came as some of the industry’s largest players were becoming more accustomed to opening their books as publicly traded companies. The Blackstone Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Apollo Global Management are also listed on stock exchanges.

But unlike some of its competitors, Carlyle’s stock price is well above its initial public offering price of $22 a share in May. Its stock closed Thursday at $25.42.

In addition to having to comply with disclosure mandates from the Securities and Exchange Commission, private-equity firms feel compelled to tell their story to investors, Blaydon of Dartmouth said. “They have a stock out there whose price depends on the markets understanding them well,” he said.

Dan Primack, senior editor at Fortune.com who specializes in private equity, said the industry has wised up to its public relations problem and is doing something about it.

“Private equity was behind the eight ball in terms of public relations five or six years ago,” Primack said. “They didn’t even have a trade group in D.C. But in the past 12 months, the industry as a whole has done a much better job in pushing its message to the public. That message is one of economic growth and job creation.”

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