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Pursuing Gender Equality as a Competitive Advantage

The New York Times

By Leslie Picker

Balancing motherhood with the demands of private equity was not the usual track in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men. But even after Ms. Mullin nervously told the TSG partners her news, they did something unexpected: They promoted her. And kept promoting her, three children later.

Now, Ms. Mullin, 41, is the No. 3 executive at TSG, as senior managing director. And she is no longer surrounded only by men. After a concerted effort, 50 percent of the firm’s employees are women.

That contrasts with the sluggish grind toward gender equality in all areas of finance, with perhaps none slower than private equity. Firms often blame a lack of female applicants, while women say the clubby nature of the industry has been a hurdle to their entry.

This year, 13.7 percent of professionals at private equity firms in North America on average are women, which is a few percentage points higher than in 2014, according to data compiled by Preqin.

For Chuck Esserman, TSG’s co-founder and chief executive, and Jamie O’Hara, the firm’s president, the gender balance pursuit was not just the politically correct thing to do, but they also saw it as a competitive advantage. The 28-year-old firm focuses exclusively on companies that make consumer goods, like Glaceau Vitaminwater and Pureology, which manufactures shampoo and conditioner. Because women make the majority of purchasing decisions in the household, TSG wanted their expertise at the table.

In its most recent fund, TSG reported a net return of 50 percent, more than double the industry average. The firm takes a distinct approach compared with traditional buyout shops, adding less leverage and investing in the business from the outset of their acquisition, rather than slashing expenses from every angle. On Tuesday, TSG said it had raised $2.5 billion for two new funds. The firm has a total of $5 billion in assets under management.

Three decades ago, when Mr. Esserman helped start TSG, which is unaffiliated with the better known private equity firm TPG Capital, it was a novel concept to focus exclusively on one industry. That maverick legacy was applied when they started embracing greater gender equality a dozen years ago.

“Better decisions come from diversity,” Mr. Esserman said. “Realizing that over 80 percent of the purchase decisions were made by women meant that a balanced perspective in the organization could further enhance the success we had.”

Ms. Mullin credits the mentorship she has received from Mr. Esserman and Mr. O’Hara.

She is well versed in handling a balancing act. When she was in high school in Marin County, Calif., she wanted money for a car, but after school, she was already committed to tennis, swimming and an after-school tutoring program. So she found a job at the Marin Bagel Company, and from 3 to 7 a.m. Ms. Mullin would pack orders to be delivered that day, then go to school and participate in extracurricular activities after.

She did not know it then, but keeping up that schedule in high school was a precursor to being a mother and a private equity executive. These days, Ms. Mullin will be on the road two or three days a week, often leaving her home by 5:30 a.m. to catch a flight out and then back home by 7:30 p.m. to put her children to bed.

Ms. Mullin’s husband started a renewable energy company after the two graduated at the same time from Stanford Business School, and is just as likely to drop the children off at school, she said.

“We’ve been growing two careers and three kids,” she said, adding that her secret to doing it all is the support she receives from her husband and making sure that when she is home with her family, her attention is focused solely on them.

Outside the home, she has faced her share of preconceived notions about her role in the boardroom. When Ms. Mullin was pregnant with her second child, she was working on selling one of TSG’s portfolio companies. A banker asked her if she had arranged certain travel associated with the deal, assuming that she was an assistant, rather than an investment professional, she said.

Returns are blind to gender, of course. Although the latest fund’s returns were the best ever for TSG, the average has been 24 percent since the beginning. However, having women involved has helped make TSG more competitive when buying certain types of assets as well as driving strategy in the aftermath. That has kept limited partners happy.

“It’s an important component in the way they approach the market — their ability to talk to a management team that’s focused on cosmetics, beauty, fashion, where these women have enormous insights,” said Thomas E. Galuhn, the president of Mesirow Financial Private Equity, a fund of funds with $4.6 billion in commitments. His firm is a limited partner that has invested or committed $193 million to various TSG funds since 2002.

Mr. Esserman, who has two daughters, was surprised that more firms did not seek the same kind of gender balance. There is still a long way to go toward equality in private equity, Mr. Esserman said, but the overall mind-set is bound to change.

“The larger issue is that people don’t believe there’s benefit in having gender balance,” Mr. Esserman said, referring to women in private equity. “We’ll see a time in the not-too-distant future where our industry embraces it.”

Correction: December 10, 2015 

An article on Wednesday about TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity firm that has made strides in gender equality, misstated the number of female investors it had 2004. In that year, when Hadley Mullin, who is now a senior managing director, was hired, there was one other full-time investor and one contractor who were women; Ms. Mullin was not the only female investor there at the time.