Nielsen is getting serious about going private and will talk to potential buyers in January

Key Points
  • Nielsen is expected to meet with private equity buyers in January, sources say.
  • The hiring of David Kenny has piqued the interest of Bain Capital.
  • Blackstone and H&F are expected to make a joint bid for Nielsen.
David Kenny
Michael Short | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nielsen Holdings plans to host management presentations for interested private equity buyers in January after hiring a new CEO earlier this month, according to people familiar with the matter.

David Kenny took over as Nielsen's CEO on Dec. 3, replacing Mitch Barnes. Nielsen had been reluctant to engage in sale discussions before naming a new CEO, said the people, who asked not to be named because discussions are private. Blackstone, working in tandem with Hellman & Friedman, and Bain Capital are planning to meet with Kenny to discuss a potential deal in January, said the sources. Other private equity firms will be invited as well, the people said.

Nielsen is a global information company most famous for its TV ratings. It also provides detailed data on retail and consumer behavior. It has a market capitalization of about $9.2 billion and an enterprise value of nearly $18 billion.

The company is in the midst of a rough patch thanks to regulatory changes around consumer data privacy and a struggling digital advertising market. Nielsen said in July it expected annual revenue to fall 1 percent, after forecasting growth of 3 percent, causing shares to fall 25 percent in one day. In August, hedge fund Elliott Management disclosed it had taken an 8.4 percent stake in the company.

High-dollar private equity deals, which dominated the mid-2000s, have largely disappeared since the financial crisis of 2008. A deal for Nielsen could be an indication that leveraged buyouts, which have gained consistent momentum in aggregate dollar value since 2009, could become another credible way for larger companies to exit the public market. Buyout deal volume this year is already at its highest level since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Driven by Elliott

Elliott has pushed the company to find a buyer. Nielsen said in September that it was working with investment banks JPMorgan Chase and Guggenheim Securities, as well as law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, on an "expanded" review of strategic alternatives, including a sale of the company.

That prompted interest from a number of private equity firms, said the people. The firms include a consortium led by private equity firms Blackstone and Hellman & Friedman, two of the people said. The Financial Times reported the two firms had joined together for a bid in October.

But Nielsen had pushed away from engaging with potential buyers until it hired a CEO, two of the people said.

Kenny is a tech industry veteran, and was most recently the head of IBM's artificial intelligence platform after joining the company through its acquisition of The Weather Company, where he was chairman and CEO. He previously co-founded and served as chairman and CEO of digital marketing agency Digitas, which sold to Publicis in 2006 for $1.3 billion. Prior to that, he was a partner at consulting firm Bain & Company.

Kenny's hiring has piqued the interest of Bain Capital, two of the people said. A deal with Blackstone and H&F would return Nielsen to two of its previous owners. Six private equity firms — Blackstone, H&F, KKR & Co., Thomas H. Lee, Carlyle and AlpInvest — took Nielsen private for $10 billion in 2006. It returned to the public markets in 2011.

Spokespeople for Bain and H&F did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Nielsen declined to comment. Blackstone also declined to comment.

Elliott has had recent success pushing companies toward a sale, including Travelport and Athenahealth.

If Nielsen does go private, it will be one of the largest leveraged buyouts in recent years and in the ballpark of some of the largest LBOs ever. Blackstone also closed a $17 billion deal for the majority of Thomson Reuters' Financial & Risk business earlier this year.

Elliott Management pushes Nielsen to sell itself