The Charlotte vs. Raleigh PE-VC Scene - 1

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The Charlotte vs. Raleigh PE-VC Scene - 1
If you're thinking about heading to the Charlotte Venture Challenge Thursday (Here's our initial story), where Red Hat founding CFO Manoj George and Klever Founder Phil Verghis are keynoting and seven local companies are competing, here's an interesting take on the opportunities in that region from Raleigh investor Merrette Moore.

Merrette Moore is the founder and managing director of Lookout Capital and Lookout Consulting, overseeing the day-to-day investment and consulting operations of the firm.

Merrette has over 15 years experience working in venture capital, private equity, investment and commercial banking. Firms he has worked with include Wachovia, Franklin Street Partners, MCNC, NC IDEA, and IDEA Fund Partners.

I am an unabashed Eastern North Carolina boy. I'm all about vinegar-based BBQ (B's and Skylight Inn are the best eastern style joints in case you're wondering), chopped cole slaw, pigs in a puppy, sweet tea, Natty Light (well, at least the idea that more of it is consumed here than the rest of the world combined), the Washington Redskins (back in the day, the closest thing we had to an NFL team), old colonial houses, tidewater accents, flat terrain, self-kicking machines (go check out the back of the parking lot at Angus Barn), the coast (especially Ocracoke), and small towns where everyone knows each other.

As a self-respecting Downeaster, I have always had a type of loathing for Western North Carolina that one has for a sports rival. I mean, that tomato-based sauce infected barbeque is disgusting and red cole slaw is flat out sacrilege. If I never had to drive on I-85 west of Burlington again, I would be the happiest man alive. And when I want to enjoy real skiing on real mountains, I'll go to somewhere like Aspen or Park City.

However much my NC geographical theology might play into it, I have always looked at Raleigh, as the largest city in Eastern NC, and Charlotte, as the largest city in Western NC, as adversaries. The extent to which this is perception versus reality is debatable, I guess, but I think most people would agree at least that there is some sort of "we do our thing over here and they do their thing over there" kind of dynamic.

This is particularly true in the world of finance. Charlotte is a money center banking mecca. It's also dotted with dozens of the proverbial middle market I-banks and private equity firms. Finance is a major industry in Charlotte. Moving money around is what they do. Raleigh, on the other hand, is a relative banking backwater, with an unremarkable mix of small community banks and major bank outposts. You can count the number of decent I-banks and PE firms on one hand. We have a bit more of a VC presence here, but given the conventional wisdom about the paucity of early stage funding options around here, it certainly does not distinguish us as Charlotte's financing strengths distinguish them.

As we enhance and expand our investment capabilities here at Lookout, we realize that we have to make concerted efforts to look for deals and investment partners outside of our Eastern NC stomping grounds. We do have to look at Western NC as well (doesn't mean we have to eat the BBQ, though), which means that we have to make the rounds in Charlotte. So we did last week, and we found out some interesting things.

First, Charlotte is busting at the seams with PE firms and I-banks. What I thought was a cottage industry is more like a full-blown kingdom. In the ten hours available, we had seven very productive meetings. And each person or firm we talked to mentioned a least five other folks in town that we should talk to that could be helpful. And every office building we walked seemingly had a PE firm or I-bank on every floor. You could do a half-day tour in Raleigh and hit every relevant PE / VC firm and I-bank with lunch or dinner to spare. It seemed like we could set up meetings back-to-back for a month in Charlotte and still not hit everyone.

Second, there is a ton of deal flow running through these firms and around the Charlotte area. We heard about more good deals in less than two workdays than we come across in a quarter in Raleigh. It makes sense, given that those firms know how to market and find deals. The Raleigh deal machine, by comparison, is less oiled, more rickety, which makes good deal flow considerably harder to access.

Finally, and I'm guessing this will come as a surprise, Charlotte has much deeper available pockets for not only private equity deals, but for venture capital deals as well. Even though there are not a ton of folks hanging a VC shingle in the Queen City, everyone we met with and talked to does venture deals "on the side". I laughed as at least a couple of them referenced doing "small deals" of $5 million in venture type stuff. Just because the NVCA doesn't include these deals in their reports and just because people in Charlotte are too busy actually doing deals to shake their pom-poms about getting one done (Oh, I'm sorry that's more a Durham thing than a Raleigh one), doesn't mean there isn't a lot of VC activity there as well. There certainly is.

I still consider Charlotte to be the axis of evil to Raleigh's legion of good. The CCCP to our USA. But I respect what they have going on there in the investment world and wish Raleigh had more of it. We'll be going there to find more deals. I just won't be eating the barbeque.