Robison Energy President and CEO Daniel Singer, who took on some private equity financing at his family business ahead of a significant market transition, says the decision to do so was difficult.
"It changes the dynamic," Singer says. "It's literally like turning something from red to blue. It changes the culture of the boardroom, if you will."
Nearly 10 years ago, petroleum-based products used for heating were becoming taboo in New York City, which prompted many to switch to natural gas, a sentiment that would proliferate far more broadly. While on the surface that could have been a threat to Robison Energy's traditional business model, he says the company has always been willing to adapt to whatever the demand is. As the company did so, he says they discovered that a lot of their customers, especially larger multi-family home customers could benefit from the change, especially at a time when oil prices were skyrocketing. Oil burning equipment was becoming obsolete, as was the fuel, so the math was increasingly compelling to convert. But that conversion wasn't that easy.
"The problem is a lot of our customer base were either small, privately held building owners, a lot of more co-ops and condos, that would really benefit from it and have a relatively short ROI, they just didn't have the $300,000 or $400,000 sitting in their bank account to cut the check to do it," Singer says. "And the credit markets were particularly tight at the time. So, we wanted to not only develop a platform where we would help them do the conversion — convert to a product that we didn't even sell yet — but convert the building, sell them the new product that they'll need, service the equipment and then lend them the money to do it as a package for them that would make it attractive."
However, Robison Energy didn't have the facilities to be able to build that lending platform. So, they went out to find someone who did. That path led them to private equity, particularly because they didn't feel they had the necessary lending expertise to launch that aspect of the business.
"We didn't just want money," Singer says. "We wanted expertise. And so finding the right partners was what we sought out to do."
He adds that the company wanted to make sure they took on the PE partner in a way that didn't change the culture of the company — where he and his brother would still be seen by customers as the faces of the business.
Singer, along with Arent Fox's David Barbash, Hubbard-Hall's Molly Kellogg, R. Klein Consulting's Ruben Klein, and BankProv's Brent Mathews spoke at this year's Boston Smart Business Dealmakers Conference about determining the future of a family business. Hit play on the video to catch the full panel discussion.