It was considered one of the riskiest private equity investments ever.
CVC Capital Partners, a then-mid-sized London-based firm, paid a steep $2 billion in 2006 to buy Formula One, the world’s dominant auto racing circuit. The timing wasn’t great. A number of racing teams were threatening to bolt in a pay dispute. The deal’s success also hinged on F1 founder Bernie Ecclestone, the famously domineering boss who would later sidestep bribery charges.
Yet a decade later, Formula One has turned into a spectacularly profitable deal for CVC, catapulting the former Citigroup Inc. unit into a top global buyout firm. CVC has made about $4.5 billion on its initial $1 billion stake, a 450 percent return that’s twice the average for private equity. Much of that came when CVC loaded Formula One with debt to pay itself dividends -- too much so in the eyes of critics.
Now the firm is looking to exit the investment, possibly in a matter of weeks. After an aborted initial public offering in 2012, it’s actively shopping the firm and has retained Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to solicit buyers. The price tag could be as high as $10 billion.
CVC, with a 35 percent stake, could walk away with a total return of eight times its original investment.
The most likely suitors are media companies hunting for programming content, rather than another buyout firm. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Plc, the Qatar Investment Authority and RSE Ventures, chaired by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, are interested in investing, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified as the process is private.
“CVC took an opportunity that seemingly by virtue of circumstance and good stewardship is set to produce returns far higher than most deals of its size and vintage,” said Oliver Gottschalg, a professor at French business school HEC Paris.
Not everyone is as pleased with the outcome, citing declining F1 attendance in some markets and the large dividends to investors. Team ownership of Formula One is the “ideal model,” said Xander Heijnen, a former spokesman for the Grand Prix manufacturer association.
“Has CVC’s ownership been good for the sport? Not really,” he said. “They have improved the structure and governance, but ideally all of the money made within the sport should stay within it, and that isn’t the case with the financial investor model.”