Operating in idyllic Mariehamn, in the Åland islands, is a company whose name reflects the nature of both its own operations and those of its partners. Evolver will systematically develop its owner-led portfolio companies and refine its internal processes after becoming a newly-fledged fund.
With a ten-year track record of deal-by-deal funded investments behind it, Evolver transformed itself into a private equity fund after a successful closing of its maiden fund in April 2019. The team foresee only inspiring opportunities in the change, despite the extra administration involved. More precisely, the fund will enable a more influential partnership in the value creation of companies. Evolver’s eight-person team has spent a lot of time and hard work in forging its own value base so as to build a well-functioning dynamic composed of very different personalities. Now they plan to do the same with portfolio companies.
Sharing both the workaday and the ambition
Lasse Kittelsen, one of the founders, and Erik Flodin, who joined later, say Evolver is based on being down-to-earth and prioritising entrepreneurship. They believe it is essential to understand what being an entrepreneur means in practice. Alongside its grip on practical entrepreneurship, Evolver’s team possesses business skills and financing knowhow.
“In many respects we’re self-sufficient, which makes it easier to refine the procedures necessitated by being a fund,” says Kittelsen.
Before any investment decision, the team devotes a lot of time to ensuring that an owner-led company shares the same value base, ambition and desire to grow.
“A business owner must be able and willing to carry on. Companies in which the owner has struggled alone for too long, and now wants to retire, do not fit into our modus operandi,” explains Flodin. Being prepared to surrender a controlling interest is also essential.
“An entrepreneur sets out with us on a shared path of growth based on mutual respect. The target is to create the best possible version of the company.”
The roots of co-investing stretch back to the Åland islands in the 19th century, when the residents of villages and farms combined forces to transport their products for sale in the nearest towns. Farmers also became part-owners in the shipping companies established for that purpose. Combining expertise and capital that way produced an entity far greater than the sum of its parts. The traditional trading of goods now takes place in fiercely competitive markets, but the same goal is just as important – as well as the commitment to that goal.
“Operating in a closely-knit and trusting relationship with company managers, board members and owners also fosters an attitude of being open to new perspectives,” adds Flodin.
Skills need cross-pollinating
Kittelsen and Flodin point out that the overlapping of their team’s skills is an asset being utilised in ongoing projects. Team members participate simultaneously in screening different prospects rather than one member monopolising a single project.
In portfolio companies, the company’s CEO is primarily responsible for developing the company’s team. If there are shortcomings – for instance, in the work atmosphere or governance procedures – project teams can be set up and external consultants used to rectify them.
Evolver is experienced in investing in both Finnish and Swedish companies. There are many more similarities than differences in these countries’ corporate cultures.
“People cooperate with each other very well and the general approach is much the same. Making agreements is straightforward,” states Flodin and adds that Sweden is more used to people participating. He feels that giving feedback is linked more to the individual than the culture, but often seems burdensome in the normal work routine.
Change requires energy and discipline
Evolver emphasises the importance of a burning vision and dynamic energy. A team that knows what it is aiming for and is committed to achieving it is more focused and can work more effectively.
“In everyday work that also means making sacrifices that demand energy. Also discipline is needed, as well as people who, as sort of internal ambassadors, are champions for change,” explains Flodin.
“What drives us is realising the potential of portfolio companies and being aware that growth is possible – for the companies and for ourselves.” He believes the fund model opens up opportunities for implementing projects that would otherwise have been frozen by a lack of resources.
Astounding lack of women in the sector
Evolver’s team encompasses a diversity of backgrounds and a broad spectrum of ages, ranging from 30-year-olds to old-timers. A host of young trainees join them each summer. The applications for summertime work reveal a disturbing irregularity, though. Women are very prominent, but in entirely the wrong way – by their almost complete absence.
The lack of women in the investment industry clearly bothers Flodin and Kittelsen.
“It’s a real problem, and we’ve thought long and hard about the cause and how to address it. There are increasingly more women in consultancies and advisory associations, both as investors and as students.
“Perhaps women have the wrong idea about the real nature and wide scope of the work, and about developing companies,” they suggest.
Erik Flodin’s tips for strengthening a team
- A clear vision: knowing what your shared aims are
- Creating energy: being able to laugh and have fun together
- Courage to make decisions: being able to decide at the right moment based on information available at that time
Evolver follows the UN’s principles of responsible investment, and includes environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in screening potential investments.
“Sustainable development investment strategies dominate the sector, fortunately. Tesi encourages its portfolio companies and funds to embed responsibility into their strategies and also to inject expertise in this field into board work. That will bring about change and affect the future while we still can – while also building verifiably profitable business,” points out Tesi’s Investment Director Riitta Jääskeläinen.
What it is: Evolver Equity Ab is an Åland-based equity investment company. Its predecessor Evolver Investment Group Ab was founded in 2009 and financed projects by seeking investors on a deal-by-deal basis. The company has a track record of 11 platform investments, mostly in the security and HEPAC sectors, and six successful exits. Now extending its earlier investment strategy via the Evolver I fund through control equity investments in Swedish and Finnish owner-led SMEs.
Where it is: Torggatan 5, Mariehamn, Åland
Fund: Evolver Fund I, size EUR 50 million (first closing 1 April 2019). Makes equity control investments in responsible companies operating in sectors enjoying steady growth and direct or indirect macrotrend support. The fund will target businesses that have net sales of EUR 10-30 million and significant potential for growth and operational improvement.
Investors: Tesi, FoF Growth III, Sitra, Tradeka-invest, Veritas, Elo, Valio Pension Fund, Ålands Ömsesidiga Försäkringsbolag and Alandia Försäkring. Also Finnish funds and family offices.
Who he is: A partner in Evolver. Active in the equity and venture investment sector since 2012.
Education: MSc, Åbo Akademi.
Work experience: Director, Strategy & Business Development at gaming company Paf; CEO of Paf New Business Ab; and Executive VP, Business Development at European Game & Entertainment Technology Ltd. During his 20-year career in the Paf Group, he built the company’s successful online store and played a crucial role in transforming a local player into a gaming company of international renown.
Why Evolver in particular: Passionate about business development. Aims to be a catalyst for development from inside, in partnership with the company’s management. “Change the management” thinking does not do the job.