K Street firms starting to tap private equity, even go public

Investor interest follows two-year period of growth

Founder Steve Elmendorf says a deal between his firm Subject Matter and private equity outfit Coral Tree Partners will allow for expansion beyond Washington, D.C.   (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Founder Steve Elmendorf says a deal between his firm Subject Matter and private equity outfit Coral Tree Partners will allow for expansion beyond Washington, D.C. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 16, 2022 at 5:30am

The K Street firm Subject Matter, one of Washington’s top-grossing lobbying shops, recently announced a deal with a private equity outfit from Los Angeles, Coral Tree Partners. 

Though the firms didn’t disclose the specifics, they billed the arrangement as a partnership that Subject Matter founder Steve Elmendorf said would fund expansion into new services and beyond Washington. 

It’s the latest in a string of similar deals as the influence sector seeks out investment dollars, often to hire up in areas such as polling, public relations, digital and grassroots organizing and state-level lobbying. Some policy and lobbying shops have inked deals with private equity firms, and more are likely on the way. In another twist for the industry, a group of prominent Beltway firms banded together and went public on a stock exchange in London late last year. 

These moves represent a clear shift from two decades ago when advertising conglomerates, such as Interpublic Group of Cos., WPP plc and Omnicom, gobbled up many of K Street’s biggest operations. Few of those acquisitions worked out in the long run, and many ended with firms buying back their independence or simply closing up shop altogether when name partners and rainmakers departed, unusually after about five years when their payouts ended. 

Whether this new wave of deals will turn out better remains to be seen. 

Lobbying has been a resilient business, flourishing last year with $3.7 billion in revenue covered by public disclosure laws. But the business was not immune to the downturn of the late aughts, and some lobbyists say they’re worried that the boom of the past few years, as the White House and Congress crafted massive packages to shore up the pandemic-wrecked economy, may fade into congressional stalemate if the 2022 midterms produce divided government once again. 

“We’ve obviously come out of a two-year high-growth cycle, and going into the next year, I’m nervous about a potential contraction if divided government prevents legislation,” said Cristina Antelo, a Democratic lobbyist who runs the independent firm Ferox Strategies. “There could be consolidation with some of these smaller shops seeking economies of scale and increased expertise.”

Firms pursuing new investments see big opportunities ahead and say they expect the influence industry to grow, especially with possible access to new infusions of cash. 

A matter of growing influence

Subject Matter was the product of a merger between two firms in 2015 with the idea of offering clients lobbying and public relations services, but Elmendorf, once a senior aide on the Hill to then-House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, said his team had even bigger ambitions. 

“If we want to do more, invest more and potentially expand our geography, this will give us the expertise and the capital,” Elmendorf said of his motivations for the deal with Coral Tree. “None of us are businesspeople. We don’t have MBAs. So having some financial capital and expertise can help us get to a new level and expand our business.”

Subject Matter’s client roster includes Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Meta, Pfizer and UnitedHealthcare, according to recent disclosures. The firm hauled in nearly $20 million in federal lobbying fees that are publicly reported, though that’s not the total of its revenue. 

“I think the Washington and public policy marketplace is very interesting and attractive right now,” Elmendorf added. “There is so much going on that is so potentially disruptive for companies and organizations. They need to get into this more.”

Other firms that have announced receiving private equity investments include Hamilton Place Strategies, which closed a deal last year with Falfurrias Capital Partners. Hamilton Place founder Tony Fratto did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ken Spain, who founded the firm Narrative Strategies and previously managed communications and public affairs for what was known as the Private Equity Council and is now the American Investment Council, said investors see potential in K Street enterprises. 

“Private equity funds have found a way to derive tangible value from an industry once perceived as intangible and relationship-driven,” he said in an email. “One of the ways private equity has unlocked value is by combining data or research assets with the strategic capabilities of a communications practice.” 

Going public

As other firms pursue deals with private equity enterprises, five prominent shops joined together and recently went public on the Alternative Investment Market, a unit of the London Stock Exchange for smaller companies that often pose a higher risk to investors. 

The firms include Forbes Tate Partners, Crossroads Strategies, Seven Letter, O’Neill and Associates and the Alpine Group. They maintain their independent operations and client rosters but share human resources and lobbying disclosure compliance functions under the umbrella Public Policy Holding Co., which is the entity listed on the AIM. 

The K Street holding company opted for the AIM because it caters more to smaller businesses and has less in the way of ongoing costs associated with it, said Stewart Hall, a longtime lobbyist and onetime aide to Alabama GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby. He said the new public company was too small for the NASDAQ.

Hall, who serves as CEO of the Public Policy Holding Co., has seen the changes in business trends on K Street up close. He was a founder of the Federalist Group, which sold in 2005 to the WPP-owned PR firm Ogilvy. He left in 2010 to form Crossroads, which now includes former Sens. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, and John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. Clients include Airlines for America, Google and Nissan.

The holding company went public in December and has been a relatively stable stock. 

Hall said going public was an appealing option because it allows each firm to reward its talent with stock options, and “that’s a whole new ballgame. Most people in this town, in this business, have never had meaningful ownership.”  

But the name partners and former members of Congress stand to benefit the most if the stock price eventually takes off, according to an informational document filed in the UK. The filing explains that part of the reason for listing was to provide funding for more acquisitions and expansions, including into state capitals.

The document says that the firms together represent about 700 clients, 295 of which pay in excess of $100,000 per year. It describes the group as made up of “independent firms that offer public affairs, crisis management, lobbying and advocacy services on behalf of corporate, trade association and non-profit client organisations.”

It also described some of the financials and cited several partners  as locked-in selling shareholders, including Seven Letter founder Erik Smith, Jeffrey Forbes of Forbes Tate, Breaux, Lott and Hall. 

All the firms in the group, Hall said, seek to grow.

“We’re nowhere close to done,” Hall said. “We’re just getting started.”

Seven Letter’s Smith said he was looking for a way to lure new investment but didn’t want to relinquish control of the business, as was often the case when lobby firms sold to advertising conglomerates. 

“For entrepreneurs like me, the question is: How do you do a transaction where you’re able to retain leadership control of the organization you started and care a lot about while also having the possibility of seeing that business grow?” said Smith, whose firm’s clients include Ford Motor Co., the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Major League Baseball. 

Lobbyists across firms say clients increasingly want more services, such as polling and digital communications, and those practices help “condition environments for policymakers to act,” Hall said. 

“Our clients, for example, are spending more money than ever to manage both political risk and opportunity — not just the federal government, but states and globally,” Hall said. “It’s a much more complex and expensive puzzle.” 

Old days are gone

On the business side of lobbying, many of the firms that sold out to big advertising conglomerates decades ago bought back their independence, including Cassidy & Associates, once the city’s top-grossing lobby firm, and BGR Group. 

“This is a growth market,” said Bob Wood, chairman and CEO of BGR. “I don’t think there’s one model of success. 

“There are certainly these larger rollups occurring, but you’re also seeing a boom in boutique firms, small firms, where people want to control our own destiny,” he added. “The model that we use, we haven’t decided. What we're doing now allows us to be competitive. I think it’s exciting to see this type of investment in our field, and growth. And we expect to be a big part of that in the future.” 

Hall, too, sees immediate change on the near horizon for the business of K Street. 

“The influence industry and all its tools, I think it’s going to standardize and scale,” Hall said. “It’s been mom-and-pop for a long time, but our clients are requiring the scale. I think we’re at the beginning of something, not close to an endpoint. It may be a trickle right now, but I have a feeling it will turn into a torrent in the next 24 months.”