The Private Equity (PE) community is vibrant these days, especially the CFOs who are steering their firms through challenging times. The current market landscape is nothing short of volatile, with economic uncertainties looming large and the ever-present risk of breaching debt covenants — an indication of underlying distress and underperformance. In this article, we explore various operational strategies that can help PE CFOs navigate these challenges effectively.

The Current Market Landscape (Driven by the Past Market Landscape)

In the current market — characterized by higher interest rates, tightening credit conditions, inflationary cost pressures and softening revenues — we are seeing EBITDA compression in nearly all industries. Combined with ultra-high valuations of acquisitions in the past three years, which resulted in significantly higher debt, this situation is leading to an environment with increased risk of breaching debt covenants for many PE firms that could potentially lead to financial stress and reputational damage.

Understanding Debt Covenants in Context

Debt covenants serve as vital guardrails in PE financial structures by ensuring that firms maintain certain financial ratios and benchmarks. Typically, this represents either minimum liquidity, a leverage ratio — such as the multiple of earnings to net debt — or an interest cover ratio, which is a multiple of earnings to interest costs. In all three scenarios, lower profit and cash flow against the plan can drive pressure on the covenant and result in the need to engage with financial stakeholders.

Adherence to these covenants is not just about compliance; it's about the financial health and sustainability of your firm. Breaching these can lead to financial penalties, increased debt servicing costs or eventually to loan recalls. Thoroughly understanding debt covenants requires not only reading and interpreting the terms but also understanding how they relate to the company's current and projected financial situations.

Any company with debt covenants must develop monitoring and reporting capabilities to ensure operational actions are in place to protect and deliver on the financial obligations of the business. In common PE structures, most are not hedged against interest rates, which can cause significant liquidity pressure because of higher interest cash burdens to the organizsation.

Operational Strategies to Managing a Potential Covenant Breach

  1. Enhancing Cash Flow Management:
    Effective cash flow management is more crucial than ever. Implementing stringent budget controls and optimizing working capital can provide more financial flexibility and prevent covenant breaches. In many cases where a company begins to underperform, cash can become ‘trapped' within the balance sheet of the business, and taking action on working capital can often quickly unlock needed cash in the short to medium term with easy measures such as collecting in time. Establishing a 13-week cash flow and weekly cash process progress reports across the business as well as managing cash management are two important actions to driving liquidity improvement.
  2. Cost Optimization:
    Regularly reviewing and rationalizing operational costs can yield significant savings. While this comes at a cost, it typically carries with it a return on investment that investors are willing to fund. Cross-functional support is critical, especially when the CFO leads across the organisation in cooperation with the COO and head of sales. By utilizing a weekly liquidity committee, leadership can monitor and manage progress. Embracing technology and automation can also be a game-changer in reducing expenses and improving efficiency; however, it is often the shift towards a company-wide, cost-conscious culture that that can quickly bring control over spending that is not aligned to the strategic goals of the business. Insightful reporting, KPIs and disseminated cost targets to operational leaders are critical components to cost optimization.
  3. Revenue and Profit Enhancement Measures:
    Continuing the cross-organizational lead by the CFO, efforts to diversifying revenue streams and exploring new markets or product lines can strengthen a firm's financial position. It's crucial to not only maintain but enhance revenue streams during these times. Next to that, keeping control of what revenue and contracts are profitable and where you lose margin is essential to marshalling your sales teams. The role of the CFO and finance department can give direction to where pricing controls, product mix or other commercial drivers affect the health of the bottom-line profitability of the business as well as which revenue streams to go after and what contracts to renegotiate.
  4. Asset Management Efficiency:
    Efficiently managing your assets, including considering the sale of underperforming assets, can significantly improve your balance sheet. Regular reviews of asset performance are essential to identify and address any issues promptly. It's key here to manage assets by the return on capital they can generate and fully understand asset utilization and how to properly measure it. Controlling capital expenditures, reviewing the return on investment of product line or divisional performance and controlling the investment cycle in R&D are all important roles of the CFO function to ensure value is returned for cash deployed.
  5. Stakeholder Communication:
    Maintaining transparent communication with stakeholders, especially lenders, is vital. Regularly updating them on your firm's financial performance and operational strategies can build trust and may provide more leeway in covenant negotiations. Communicating how the firm is managing the risk of covenant compliance will prevent lenders from being blindsided if the organisation does breach covenant. CFOs and their lenders are partners with the shared objective of having the business succeed and should try to mitigate potentially touchy discussions down the road.

Long-term Focus for PE CFOs

The focus shouldn't just be on immediate covenant compliance. It's equally important to look ahead and plan for long-term financial stability. This means continuously monitoring market trends and being ready to adjust financial strategies accordingly. By taking action on the sales and operational strategies noted above, CFOs and their business partners can set their business on a course for financial resilience and can allow the leadership team to focus on the company's core mission.


In conclusion, navigating through the current market challenges requires a multi-faceted approach focusing on cash flow management, cost optimization, revenue and profit enhancement, efficient asset management and effective communication with stakeholders. While the market conditions are tough, with a strategic operational focus, the risk of breaching debt covenants can be significantly mitigated.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.