Up close and personal with the Argos Wityu team

Few economic activities are the subject of as many unfounded or preconceived notions as private equity. Yet a private equity fund such as Argos Wityu creates value by bringing together people with diverse and complex expertise in a wide variety of fields. First and foremost, it is made up of men and women with strong ties to their native environment who are devoted to local companies and investors. In this article, we profile four Argos Wityu professionals to illustrate a little-known reality: the people of Argos Wityu have diverse personalities, nationalities and backgrounds, but they have a common approach to their profession, and this what makes our firm what it is today.

These four individuals are drawn from among the partners, principals and associates of Argos Wityu, a community of 60 people and 16 nationalities. In Milan, we have a 50-year-old Italian who loves sailing and knows the A4 motorway service stations by heart; in Frankfurt, a 36-year-old German who runs marathons; in Paris, a 29-year-old Franco-Algerian who misses her rugby teammates; and in Brussels, a 37-year-old Belgian marvelling at the birth of his third child.

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Quintessentially European and cosmopolitan

Paradoxically, the variety of origins and career paths is the first thing that many of the men and women of Argos Wityu have in common. Jean-Pierre Di Benedetto, a managing partner in Italy, displays his Franco-Italian origin in his very name. A native of southern Italy, he studied in Milan and the United States, then worked in Great Britain, Japan and France. Maarten Meijssen, a partner in the Benelux region, was born in Flanders, attended university in Brussels, and also studied in the English city of Bath. Fabian Söffge, a principal in the German-speaking DACH region (Germany-Austria-Switzerland), grew up near Frankfurt, before studying in Canada and Denmark. But perhaps the most cosmopolitan member of the Argos Wityu team is Yasmine Karger, an associate in the French office. “My husband is of German origin, which explains the surprising combination of my given name and surname. My grandfather taught French, and when I was a little girl, he read La Fontaine’s fables to me,” she says. Yasmine was born in Algeria and lived there until she was 18 when she came to France to attend a preparatory class for a prestigious university. She remembers that when she first joined Argos Wityu, one concept made a particular impression on her: we buy complexity, and we sell simplicity. “That motto illustrates that we are not content to stay on the surface, that we want to embrace transactions that competitors would hesitate to take on. This really resonates with me and my own career path.”

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Yasmine Karger – Video

           

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The keys of the piano as a metaphor for private equity

Different paths, all leading to Argos Wityu. And yet, before becoming an obvious choice, private equity was also mysterious for most of them.

“When I was a university student in Belgium, I knew very little about the world of private equity,” recalls Maarten. “My knowledge was limited to a few articles I had read in the press.” After finishing his education, he started his career at a major investment bank in Belgium. He found the environment exciting, but also quickly saw its limits. “The first time a meeting was scheduled with a client, I asked my manager if I could attend. He said no, because I needed grey hair first.” Maarten was determined to get ahead, so he joined a major group specialised in corporate finance. He learned a lot, but wanted to be more directly involved in running the businesses. In the end, he was recruited by Argos Wityu, with a huge challenge: build a Benelux office from scratch. Combining finance, corporate strategy and an entrepreneurial challenge, private equity was in the end what met his expectations.

“If you had to play your professional activity on the piano, private equity would probably be the only one requiring you to touch all of the keys,” says Jean-Pierre, who started his career in London and New York as a derivatives trader. “It’s a fascinating profession that produces a lot of adrenaline, but it’s also very technical, even a bit dry or ascetic. When I was a trader, even if I needed perfect mastery of all the keys, I didn’t in fact use very many of them,” he says, extending the metaphor. After obtaining an MBA, Jean-Pierre decided to orient his career towards private equity, the sector he found to be the most complete and the most fascinating.

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The human aspect, principal driver of performance, is being tested by Covid

When asked what made them choose Argos Wityu, all four individuals cited the human dimension. The strong ties they nurture with their partners on a daily basis, they said, is the key to a fruitful collaboration with an investor or an entrepreneur. Only in this way can they convince and engender trust.

For Jean-Pierre, the key to success is knowing at all times what makes people tick, but agility, humility and empathy are also important. “I often remind my younger colleagues that we always know less than the people sitting across from us. They are experts in their business sector with many years of professional experience.” So the challenge is to find the right angle of attack, to use our social and human skills to demonstrate our credibility. This is a necessary precondition for any future success with a new company. “You have to be equally at ease at an embassy dinner as at an impromptu lunch in a service station with an entrepreneur,” says Jean-Pierre. And he speaks from experience. Pre-Covid, he logged 40,000 km p.a. on the A4 motorway between Turin and Trieste.

Fabian has a similar take. Since the start of the pandemic, he has tried to take advantage of every window of opportunity, every relaxation of restrictions to organise in-person meetings, while still adhering to safety protocols. “I spend most of my time meeting and speaking with people. In our profession, you have to create a certain chemistry with your partners. Every deal has a strong human dimension.” The pandemic turned out to be less harmful to business then Fabian had feared at the outset. Like everyone at Argos Wityu he has adopted new ways of engaging with the various companies in the portfolio. But convincing a prospect that we are the best partner is more difficult via video link. Like everyone, he is looking forward to returning to a more normal life. “Having lunch together, for example, talking about subjects we hadn’t necessarily planned to discuss, is very important for developing ties.”

Maarten also believes that person-to-person contact is the most rewarding part of his work, as much as he might enjoy financial analysis, legal reviews, and in general, the variety of his assignments. “Evaluating investment also means evaluating people. You must be able to determine in two or three meetings whether or not you want to be this person’s partner for the next five years. You can’t learn this from books, yet it is central to my work.” Before the pandemic, Maarten crisscrossed Belgium and Holland. When the lockdowns came, he also feared that deals would no longer be possible. He has been pleasantly surprised that digital tools have allowed for new types of discussion, but he misses the small talk, the chatting before and after meetings that give depth to the discussions.

“Honestly, I don’t see other investment funds putting as much emphasis on the human dimension,” says Yasmine. This approach is central to her two principal activities as associate. The first is searching for new investments, studying companies, getting to know their managers and identifying their complexities. The second is monitoring the companies in the portfolio. “The human factor is a very tangible reality. It’s not just marketing talk. I am in daily contact with CFOs who can bounce ideas off me, use me as a sparring partner, or as a solution provider.”

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The importance of downtime

The day-to-day demands of the job are among the many unknowns in the life of the investment fund professional. All four individuals agreed on two points: the subjects they handle are very diverse, and the pace is very high. “It’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job,” says Fabian. “Outside of rush periods, I devote around 40% of my 10-hour days to the companies in our portfolio and the remaining 60% to looking for new opportunities.” Fabian says he would not be able to do monotonous work, and he is particularly satisfied with the variety of his assignments. Understanding the companies in the portfolio and helping Argos Wityu’s partners grow their companies is what stimulates him. Jean-Pierre, meanwhile, describes himself as someone who is easily bored and says he has no such risk with private equity. “We work in small entities that are light on resources. We face human, technical and intellectual challenges. Every day I add five things to my to-do list but only manage to cross off two!”

To keep up the pace, everyone tries to find some downtime in his or her schedule. This is particularly challenging for Maarten, who, as of this writing, has three children aged 5, 3 and 3 weeks. “Last year, I invested in an electric bike that I ride to work every morning. I listen to podcasts with my earbuds and it is an excellent way to start the day.” In addition to running and rowing, Maarten decided in 2018 to learn to play the piano. Every Wednesday at 8 AM he has a lesson with his Russian piano teacher, a former Red Army concert pianist. Does he manage to put in the 30 minutes a day she demands? “Of course not!” is his immediate reply. Yasmine is also a sports enthusiast. Deprived of rugby and basketball (a sport she played at the national level as a youngster in Algeria), she has settled for running. “Everything depends on what phase we’re in, but obviously it’s sometimes hard to disconnect from work. My friends and family help me a lot. Sometimes I just have to speak to my parents over the phone and the problems fade away.” Sports also have a special place in Fabian’s life. He ran 10,000 m races when he was younger and at age 19, finished 12th in his age category in the marathon. Now that Covid has ruled out skiing, he runs 3-4 times a week.

As for Jean-Pierre, sailing is his getaway. His favourite place is the beautiful but dangerous Strait of Bonifacio. He sees important similarities between sailing and his profession. “Firstly, it’s a team sport. Each individual has to adapt to the group and vice versa. Only if everyone pulls in the same direction will you make progress.” He also says you have to find the right balance between planning in advance and changing course in response to uncontrollable events. “Our profession demands energy. Things are not always easy. Sometimes we face strong headwinds. But you won’t get anywhere if you don’t enjoy it.” Another theme that is central to both sailing and private equity.

 

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