Ann Chung is relatively new to Blackstone, but she’s been investing in the consumer space for her entire career.
Her commitment to the profession is clear when you get her talking about her role. Excited by the opportunity to collaborate with entrepreneurs and management teams, she helps “build great brands that stand for something.”
Chung points to a deal she was a part of early on; it concerned a hands-on, science-minded pet food company that she helped relaunch and rebrand. As its nutrition-forward, farm-to-table strategy was the first of its kind, the results spoke for themselves, and they continue to provide a blueprint of sorts for how she frames opportunities.
“Focusing on what’s good and important first will ultimately drive performance and the financial outcome for everyone,” she says.
Blackstone keeps her plugged into a global network with access to a wide set of investment possibilities and differentiated resources. But it’s the creativity involved in conceiving and executing new deals that keeps her most engaged—especially, she admits, now during the COVID-19 era, with she and her husband taking care of two small children.
An Uncommon Career
“I didn’t have a straight shot to Blackstone, and I most certainly do not have the typical background for someone at Blackstone,” Chung says.
Yet those early career years working with different private equity firms informed her approach to investing, reinforcing a philosophy that stresses the fundamentals, a high level of rigor, and attention to detail that she carries with her today at the firm.
Chung started her career as an Analyst with a bank. Enamored by the analytics, she became interested in consumer product-focused investments, and as opposed to spending time on some rather abstract entities, she became “excited about working with companies where I actually knew what they did.” Some connections through friends resulted in a position in private equity, where she began building her investing career. She dove into consumer-related companies that encapsulated a variety of experiences, all the while learning alongside colleagues who represented a variety of investment styles. It proved difficult, but valuable.
“I constantly tell people who want to get into the field to make sure your first experience out of college is challenging enough to push you to learn as much as possible. It’s really hard to get back those first few years in establishing the basics.”
In her case, the strategies of each firm that employed her provided exposure to a wide range of approaches that kept her responsibilities intellectually stimulating, but she’s quick to point out what truly makes any employment situation rewarding.
“What’s ultimately most important is working with a high level of honest collaboration with all parties and making sure you enjoy what you’re doing at the same time,” she says.
A Sustainable Adventure in Private Equity
“Fun” might not be the first word that first comes to mind for most people when thinking about private equity, but the brainstorming processes and personal interaction involved make it just that for Chung.
“If I really like a company, I try to look at every angle of the situation to come up with something that works and is an attractive proposition,” she says. “What’s interesting about this field is that some of the best companies don’t need your capital. They’re performing quite nicely, they’re treating employees well, and generally the entrepreneur or management team is living a very content life. Convincing someone to work with you can often require some top-notch creativity and a little bit of sales skills. Relationship building is one of the most important skills you can have in this business. It’s not just about being the smartest and coming up with the best deal. It’s also about having a strong set of people skills as well.”
Blackstone recently made a splash with a sizeable investment in Oatly, a Swedish vegan food brand company known mostly for its dairy-alternative products made from oats and for its fervent eco-friendliness. Its focus on sustainability dovetails nicely with Chung’s ideas about working with brands driven by purpose.
“When you fulfill your purpose, the financial outcomes will follow,” she explains. “With Oatly, we are trying to move environmental sustainability into the mainstream as a core tenant of our investment thesis. The company is very mission driven: Everything they do and every partner they work with must meet their high sustainability requirements.”
She’s particularly energized by Oatly’s insistence on promoting sustainable practices and says that consumers are rightly taking notice, too, “providing a seal of approval with their wallets,” as the company’s explosive growth can be attributed in part to aligning with the core values of its customers.
Another reason for the interest in the headline-grabbing investment in Oatly stems from some big-name investors alongside Blackstone who include celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, Natalie Portman, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
“These individuals both loved the product and backed the company’s mission to drive real change. I’m really proud of this investment and that Blackstone was able to come together as an institution to fully support such a mission-driven company.”
Besides being an ever-growing public issue and a newsworthy hot topic, sustainability has steadily become more important at Blackstone, too. The company’s portfolio operations team and chief sustainability officer have taken an active approach to leveraging Blackstone’s large size to execute on related measures. Chung says that the firm’s sustainability program has made financial sense, saving select portfolio companies more than 15% in energy savings on average.
But perhaps one of the most significant investments the firm has undertaken concerns the pioneering efforts of its real estate group and the installation of 10,000 rooftop solar panels in the Manhattan neighborhoods of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. As the largest project of its kind in the country at the time of its construction, the initiative doubled the New York City borough’s solar capacity, becoming the first area in New York State to achieve LEED for Communities Platinum certification.
Commerce at Heart
A Virginia native, Chung knew she was going to be a Hoo from early on, having attended UVA’s Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) as a child. When she applied, was accepted, and found herself on Grounds as a first-year, it took some sampling across disciplines before the process of elimination—and some rave reviews from other students—swayed her to look into McIntire.
Elated to get into the Comm School, she says she was equally energized by finance and marketing, throwing herself fully into Professor Jack Lindgren’s “Promotions” class, as well her Finance courses. She even credits Professor Mike Atchison with encouraging her to accept that first position as an Investment Banking Analyst.
The emphasis on teamwork at McIntire continues to impact how she collaborates with others in her current role. She recalls the “Promotions” class traveling en masse to compete in nationals, studying for tests in group settings, and a finance project on Virginia wines that brought students together. Chung insists that all aspects of her work at Blackstone hinge on the ability to work effectively with others and that the Commerce School prepared her to excel in that skill.
“Whether it’s building a relationship with an entrepreneur to allow us to partner with him, working with my team to execute a transaction, or explaining to my investment committee why a certain company is a great investment, teamwork and collaboration are at the heart of everything I do today, and the Comm School was a fantastic experience to prepare for this critical element of my work,” she says.
For students interested in a career in asset management with a global investment firm, Chung advises that they pinpoint the aspect they enjoy most and attempt to build a career around it. The key differentiator? Enthusiasm: a vital ingredient for long-term success.
“When I look at the people I’ve met through my career, by far, the most successful people are those who genuinely enjoy what they do every day. The people who have really honed their craft do so because they love it. Whether it’s the wildly successful founders or the senior leadership at Blackstone, the hours and time investment required are an enormous sacrifice, and no one would do it—or should do it—without a unique sense of passion.”
Chung says finding that passion can take time, exploration, supportive leadership, trial and error, and the right combination of a fitting work environment matched with an engaging area of expertise.
“Putting myself in the right environment helped me to realize that I was truly passionate about what I was doing all along,” she says. “I just needed the right team and the right set of circumstances.”