Value Added: Carlyle and the business of charter schools

Thomas Heath
Reporter May 22, 2011

Talk about charter schools and my eyes glaze over.

Talk about the Carlyle Group — the District-based private-equity firm — trading on its mystique and considerable connections to help charter schools, and I’m in.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

I could write philanthropy columns every week if I wanted to, but the Carlyle-charter school tale intrigues me because it’s really about business and deals and connections. The same kind of insider access upon which Carlyle has built its reputation — and its considerable fortune.

Networking is like oxygen to the professional services world, where hefty fees begin with relationships. It seeds the clouds that make the rain.

A Carlyle comer named Cedric Bobo has figured this out. He built a charter school board headhunting firm called Charter Board Partners to find business executives who will donate their time to help District charter schools.­­­

Want to schmooze at some high-powered Carlyle fundraiser? How about the chance to expand your business connections? Been dying to meet that lawyer or accountant or real estate maven?

Through Charter Board Partners, Carlyle has recruited more than 30 professionals from 14 companies including professionals inside Carlyle and outside from some of its most important business relationships.

One school alone has a board whose membership includes executives from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Latham & Watkins, and McKinsey & Co.

Carlyle’s pull helped raise $250,000 for the startup.

“Someone at PriceWaterhouseCoopers took a meeting with us because Carlyle asked them to,” said Carrie Irvin, who is working with Carlyle on the charter schools. “That led to a $50,000 gift. Carlyle opened that door.”

It started with Bobo, 36, a principal in Carlyle’s U.S. buyouts group who was trying to get his 1-year-old son, Aleksandr, into one of the District’s select preschools. He wound up talking to two education reformers, Irvin and Simmons Lettre, who said the schools needed a channel into the business community and asked Bobo for a vehicle to help find ­­peo­ple.

So Bobo invented one.

“I put the squeeze on people,” Bobo said. “I say, ‘McKinsey, you are a valuable partner to Carlyle in serving our investors and I want you to become our partner in serving D.C. schools. I call PricewaterhouseCoopers and say, ’You employ tons of people and are part of this community.’ And I don’t call junior vice presidents. I call leading partners.”

Michael Pickrum, chief financial officer at BET Networks, said he was drawn to the project because he believes in education and because he was able to work with high-level professionals.

“I do not network for the sake of networking,” said Pickrum, who is a friend of Bobo’s. “It was not, ‘Hey, I get to work with so-and-so.’ It was knowing that some of the committed, brightest, talented people in the city would be involved. And they were focusing on the issue that I care about.”

David S. Dantzic, a Latham & Watkins attorney who has been working on Carlyle deals for years, said he has been interested in fixing public schools since he was a child talking about the education system with his mother, who was a New York City public schools teacher.

“It’s great to be able to work with people who I work with day in and day out . . . in a context outside of what we do day to day. It strengthens the personal relationship, and that in turn strengthens the business relationship.”

The lineup of those involved with the charter board startup would make any headhunter salivate. In addition to Carlyle and its vendors, there is the Walton Family Foundation, named for the clan that gave you Wal-Mart; Teach for America, a high-powered group of education reformers; and Covington & Burling, the elite D.C. law firm.

Bobo tapped Carlyle associates Evan Morgan, 26, and Dan Bowles, 26, to help. Morgan and Bowles work closely with Carlyle’s three founders, helping with speeches, presentations and special projects. They also worked with long-term Carlyle managing director and uber-networker Ed Mathias, who is advising Bobo.

Charter schools are government-permitted alternatives to traditional public schools. They are essentially free-standing small businesses with their own profit and loss statements, formed by passionate educators. They generally have 12-member boards split between educators and businessmen, and budgets between $8 million and $10 million.

“The business part has really been the tough piece,” Bobo said. “It has been a tough time getting business people to join charter school boards.”

Although some charter schools perform better than their traditional public counterparts, they are not a panacea. Some fail. So Bobo and his team are trying to professionalize the schools’ infrastructure to give them a better chance of survival.

Bobo devised Charter Board Partners as an assembly line of sorts for business-minded board members who could help fill in the gaps for educators. They find, recruit and offer up slates of business professionals to the charter school boards for their consideration.

Investing. Fundraising. Strategizing. Following best business practices. Carlyle is trying to help them do all of that.

“You think school, I think business,” Bobo said.

As a private-equity firm, Carlyle’s traditional business model is to buy companies, transform them, and then sell them for big profits. A crucial part of the model is having qualified managers to operate its worldwide portfolio of 270 companies and sit on their boards.

With that in mind, Bobo is promoting the school boards inside the private-equity firm as a training ground for future Carlyle portfolio company board members. Carlyle has 10 professionals, including high-power deal types, serving with charter school boards.

Bobo makes no bones about what he calls “the personal benefit” to those who help, including those who want facetime with Carlyle.

“We’re the client and [accountants, law firms and others] get to work with us outside the workplace,” said Bobo, a Harvard Business School graduate. “You lend your business skills to the board, and you deepen your relationships with your customers.”

And hopefully, one day deepen your profits.

Follow me on Twitter @ addedvalueth.

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