- High-flying venture capital firm Carlyle Group cashes
in when the tanks roll, writes Jamie Doward...
- It is the sort of thing they really could have done without.
For 15 years one of America's most powerful venture capital groups has
tried to play down suggestions that its multi-billion dollar funds get
fat on the back of global conflict. But now, with the invasion of Iraq
under way, a new book chronicling the relatively short history of the Carlyle
Group threatens to draw attention to the company's close links with the
- Dan Briody, author of the Iron Triangle, Inside the Secret
World of the Carlyle Group, alleges the company's executives were so worried
about his book they told staff not to talk to him. The Carlyle Group rejects
this and argues the book is little more than a cuttings job based around
some of the more crazy conspiracy theories found on the internet. It also
points out that only around 7 per cent of its funds are invested in defence
companies, far less than several other venture capital groups.
- 'Peel away the layers of factual errors and self-righteousness
and all you're left with is baseless innuendo. This book should be exposed
for what it is: a compilation of recycled conspiracy theories masquerading
as investigative journalism,' said Chris Ullman, Carlyle's spokesman.
- But Briody's account of how an upstart venture capital
firm went from nothing to managing funds of nearly $14 billion in just
15 years, earning investors returns of around 36 per cent, is likely to
reinforce the controversial image of the Carlyle Group and raise concerns
about its influence in Washington and beyond.
- Sometimes called the Ex-Presidents Club, Carlyle has
a glittering array of ex-politicians and big league bankers on its board.
Former secretary of state James Baker is managing director while ex-secretary
of defence Frank Carlucci is chairman. George Bush senior is an adviser.
John Major heads up its European operations. To give the conspiracy theorists
plenty of ammunition, US newspapers have also highlighted the fact that
current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a wrestling partner of Carlucci's
at Princeton and the two have remained close friends ever since.
- Interestingly though, Briody's book chronicles how Carlyle
was founded by two relative unknowns - Stephen Norris, a former executive
with the Marriott hotels group, and David Rubenstein, a Washington lawyer
and former policy assistant to Jimmy Carter. The two men saved Marriott
millions by spotting a tax loophole that the company exploited to great
effect. Buoyed by their success, Norris and Rubenstein struck out on their
own and recruited two other co-founders, Marriott executive Dan D'Aniello
and corporate financier William Conway.
- Initially the group - named after New York's Carlyle
hotel - shied away from the defence sector and its early investment record
was spectacularly unsuccessful. It backed a management-led buyout of Caterair
and appointed George W Bush to the board. The company bombed and was quickly
branded Crater Air by Wall Street. Norris, who presided over the deal,
jumped ship, followed by Bush Jr shortly before the company's woes became
public in 1994.
- The appointment of Carlucci to the company board marked
a new phase in Carlyle's history. It was Carlucci who spearheaded the $130
million acquisition of BDM Consulting in 1990. The company was a specialist
in the defence contracting business and had a formidable network of contacts
thanks to its CEO, Earle Williams, a close friend of Carlucci. It was a
good time for the Carlyle Group. Defence contracts were being slashed as
the Cold War ended and cheap buyout opportunities were everywhere.
- Carlyle identified a key target: Vinnell. Few people
have heard of Vinnell. It started life building airstrips, but by the 1970s
was training Saudi troops to protect oil fields. Unlike other US firms
it stayed in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and by the time Carlyle
snapped the firm up in 1992 it had built up the country's national guard
from 26,000 to 70,000 troops. Carlyle sold its interest in Vinnell in 1997.
- But perhaps Carlyle's most famous acquisition was United
Defense in 1997. The company had developed a huge 40-tonne howitzer, the
Crusader, which, despite widespread opposition from the army, was commissioned
by the Pentagon. The $665m contract was signed just two weeks after the
attacks on the twin towers and less than a month later Carlyle decided
to take the company public in a move that was to earn the group nearly
$240m. Months later the Crusader programme was scrapped while United Defense
was handed a new contract to build a lighter gun.
- At the same time it emerged that the bin Laden family
- estranged from their terrorist son - was an investor in the Carlyle fund
that owned United Defense. The backlash was ferocious. Carlyle hired a
PR firm but the group was under siege. In an astonishing move Democrat
Representative Cynthia McKinney cited the Carlyle Group as an example of
an organisation 'close to this administration poised to make huge profits
off America's new war'. The bin Laden family sold their stakes in the fund.
A spokesman said their investment was valued at 'only' around $2m, although
Briody quotes insiders who say the family's investment had been significantly
greater in the past.
- In the wake of 11 September came a fear of anthrax attack.
One company that benefited was Pittsburgh- based IT Group, which won a
number of contracts to clean up anthrax-infected buildings, including the
Hart Senate Office Building. Carlyle owned 25 per cent of the firm, which
it subsequently sold on. Likewise its investment in US Investigation Services,
a company that specialises in checking the background of employees, saw
business improve dramatically.
- 'I do not exaggerate when I say that Carlyle is taking
over the world in government contract work, particularly defence work,'
one employee told Briody. Other Carlyle companies also benefited, including
EC&G which makes X-ray scanners, Composite Structures, a maker of metal-bond
structures in fighter jets and missiles, and Lier Siegler Services Inc,
a major military contractor, providing logistics support.
- Carlyle - whose high-profile investors include George
Soros and Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal - refutes suggestions
it profits from war. Co-founder William Conway even went on record saying
'no one wants to be a beneficiary of 11 September.'
- This may be true, but unfortunately for the Carlyle Group
its investments are beneficiaries of this new era of multilateral conflict.
Indeed, a case can be made that even those companies Carlyle wouldn't class
as defence investments - and which aren't examined by Briody - have benefited.
- Last month it bought CSX Lines, an ocean carrier firm
that specialises in shipping heavy equipment. One of its biggest customers
is the US military. Late last year it bought Firth Rixson, a specialist
engineering firm that makes aerospace parts. It also has a 33 per cent
stake in Qinetiq, the government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.
- Whatever Carlyle says, its image as being at the apex
of what Eisenhower termed the 'military industrial complex' endures.