Teresa Bernstein – ACON Investments
In the world of investments, Teresa Bernstein says navigating high finance is a lot like swimming in open water: You must frequently look up for a landmark to guide you—or else it’s easy to veer off course or get swept away by the current.
Bernstein would know. With three titles at the Washington, D.C.-based firm ACON Investments—general counsel, chief compliance officer and chief operating officer—she’s also a devoted swimmer and runner. In both pursuits she knows the difference between treading water or moving forward, she says.
To meet investment goals, manage portfolios and communicate with investors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bernstein stressed the importance of shifting between short- and long-term thinking. Through her roles, she’s helping ACON do just that—remain ready to pivot, whenever necessary, for the benefit of clients.
“With interruptions and uncertainties, it’s important for companies to start investing again and make the best of the new normal—even in these still uncertain times,” she says.
Founded in 1996, ACON Investments is an international private equity investment company managing long-term investment funds; acquiring diverse portfolio companies in a wide range of industries; and managing partnerships within the U.S., Latin America and southern Europe.
“Our investors trust us to invest their funds and make long-term investment decisions for them that make sense financially and, more recently, ideologically,” she explains. “They want us to use their funds to make profits of course, but also to make longer-lasting, resilient companies that can be good employers and promote sustainable business practices well into the future.”
When COVID-19 hit, she says the first order of business was focusing on the immediate crisis moment—which included tending to employees and the existing businesses from a health and safety perspective. That also involved setting up employees to work remotely or implementing safety measures to allow essential workers to continue on with their work, ensuring portfolio companies had sufficient liquidity or credit available, and establishing internal task forces to address needs ranging from HR to operations, marketing and financing.
“Each entity needed to develop its own operational guide,” she says. “That required everybody to come out of normal job mode and coordinate amongst themselves on the best ways to alter operations and develop new plans.”
Once the initial shock subsided in late spring, she says ACON refocused and returned to a long-term investment mindset. That meant reevaluating assets and making sense of what types of businesses would remain viable in a COVID-19 world—in short, continuing to build a portfolio that would never be swept out by the tide.
Health care, packaging, industrials and staple goods or related products in the delivery and supply chain of groceries and everyday household items, are regarded as durable prospects, she says. The goal is to find companies with the right growth prospects and sufficient flexibility that can adapt to changes brought about in this unpredictable world.
“People will always need food items,” she says, as an example. “We look to find assets that make sense in a world given virtually all circumstances. You bank on those things that are not damaged by every shift in the economy, and you keep an eye out to avoid what looks like insurmountable challenges.”
She says diversity and innovation are essential, both to her employer and other firms. Some of ACON’s portfolio companies adapted quickly at the onset of the pandemic, retrofitting machinery to produce face shields, supplying products that could be used for DIY mask-making, repurposing a paint facility to produce hand sanitizer and other innovations.
“Getting through this crisis takes innovation, but there are a lot of smart people in our country with new ideas,” she says. “The world will change. We may not interact the same way as before, but opportunities will emerge.”
That evolution of opportunities is certainly reflective of Bernstein’s experience at ACON. Joining the firm in 2013, her role shifted over seven years. By 2019 she added the titles of chief operating officer and general counsel.
“The firm was smaller when I joined, with a more singular strategy,” she says. “As our investor base grew we started to branch out to expand the business—all while continuing to do what we do best.”
In a way, the pace of change reminds her of her childhood, during which she moved every two years due to her father’s work in the oil industry. Living everywhere from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, she landed at Cornell University for her studies, earned a degree in comparative literature in 1998 magna cum laude, all while working full-time as a server in a restaurant.
She followed that with a law degree, achieving the same honors at the American University Washington School of Law in 2003.
While she daydreams about days with only one thing to focus on, she says she’d never be happy with that. Her love of life revolves around fervent multitasking on projects, raising three children and a puppy with her husband, and of course, training for her next race.
“I’m just not as productive without multiple balls in the air,” she jokes. “The most important thing is that you can’t put life, investments nor businesses on hold.”
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