For GE Capital’s Coveted Antares Unit, New Owner Means Expansion Beyond Senior Debt

Ever since General Electric (NYSE: GE) announced it was selling GE Capital, middle-market dealmakers have been laser-focused on the sale of one group – the largest lender in the territory – GE Capital Sponsor Finance, home of private equity lending powerhouse GE Antares.

Canada’s largest pension fund, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board entered the realm of the rumored bidders in late May and emerged victorious. CPPIB agreed to pay $12 billion in a transaction that grants it access to U.S. middle-market loans.

“Senior debt is an attractive asset class for CPPIB’s investors,” says GE Antares CEO David Brackett.

CPPIB is an active private equity investor, and also invests in debt – including leveraged loans, high yield bonds and mezzanine loans, plus intellectual property and other financing options.

The pension fund beat out big-name bidders, including Apollo Global Management (NYSE: APO), Ares Management (NYSE: ARES), the Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX), Kolhberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (NYSE: KKR), Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: MTU), SunTrust Banks Inc. (NYSE: STI) and Guggenheim Securities that reportedly came out for the auction.

The acquisition of Sponsor Finance also gives the firm something it didn’t have before – relationships with more than 300 private equity firms. GE Capital’s Sponsor Finance unit is a large part of the reason the firm won Mergers & Acquisitions M&A Mid-Market Lender of the Year award for 2014.

Though CPPIB gains middle-market loan access through the acquisition, the Sponsor Finance unit is losing its GE access. “GE was a tremendous partner for us … together we built what we think is the preeminent player in the senior debt space,” says Brackett. Under the new ownership, the unit, which will now be known as Antares Capital, will have more autonomy, and plans to expand beyond senior debt into mezzanine and junior debt, according to Brackett. For its part, CPPIB is bringing a AAA rating and permanent capital base to the deal.

Brackett and John Martin, also CEO, will lead Antares Capital, which will remain headquartered in Chicago. A significant amount of Antares’ management team reinvested in the deal, alongside CPPIB. The monetary amount reinvested was not disclosed, and in the grand scheme of things opposite CPPIB’s investment, the management team’s contribution may not look that large, but “personally, it feels very meaningful,” says Antares CEO Martin.

Antares, perhaps the most prized subset of GE Capital Sponsor Finance, was birthed by executives who met at Heller Financial, the Chicago-based finance firm that rose to prominence in the ‘80s and ‘90s by focusing only on the middle market. The firm developed a culture of nurturing talent, and in 1996, a dozen Heller executives, including Brackett, left to form Antares Capital, which was backed by Mass Mutual Life Insurance Co. After acquiring Heller in 2001 for $5.3 billion, GE added Antares in 2005.

The fate of the company’s senior secured loan program, a joint venture between GE Capital Sponsor Finance and Ares, is not yet determined. “Given the nature of the process, we really did not have the ability to engage with Ares about what our partnership would look like going forward,” says Martin. “We were just able to start those conversations late yesterday, and those conversations are continuing.”

The sale of GE Capital Sponsor Finance is part of GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s larger plan to divest nearly all of GE Capital, which he announced April 10. Shedding the unit will allow GE to strip its Systemically Important Financial Institution status and focus on its industrial operations.

Even with the Sponsor Finance unit’s sale penned, GE has several more GE Capital divisions to unload. The only units the company is keeping are GE Capital Aviation Services, Energy Financial Services and Healthcare Equipment Finance, which are related to its industrial side.

Mitsubishi UFJ and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. are expected to bid for GE Capital Asia. And in early June, GE reportedly hired investment banks to sell its health care, railcar and franchise finance units.

By 2018, and with the sale of GE Capital, GE expects industrial earnings to make up more than 90 percent of the company’s total earnings.

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