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VCs bring online, offline retailers together

More and more of the partnerships and mergers between bricks-and-mortar and e-tail firms are taking place thanks to venture capitalists, not investment bankers.

As bricks-and-mortar merchants reach out to sell on the Internet, they are turning to a surprising set of matchmakers--a handful of venture capital firms that invest in e-tail firms.

While VCs put money into those deals, offline retailers generally don't need money as much as other things.

"One of the things these venture capitalists bring is a sensibility of an organization that will succeed as a technology company. They often help in recruiting talent," said Nicole Vanderbilt, e-commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications.

Historically, deal-making, especially for major companies like established retailers, has largely been the arena of investment bankers, not VCs. But so far venture firms, not Wall Street bankers, are putting together the flurry of acquisitions, joint ventures, and partnerships to link e-tailers with retailers.

"VCs are very accustomed to taking a tiny company and incubating and parenting it," adds Vanderbilt. "For investment banks, that is not their core competency."

Few VCs have been more active as matchmakers than Benchmark Capital. Its signature deal so far is shepherding eBay's acquisition of last month of venerable offline auction house Butterfield & Butterfield.

As the first major acquisition of an offline firm by an online one, the purchase was designed to bring the prestige and brand of the 134-year-old Butterfield to upstart eBay.

Benchmark is also in a partnership with Toys "R" Us, the offline toy retailer that got squashed online last holiday season by upstart eToys.

"We know how to recruit some of the best people to run these things," said general partner Robert Kagle of Benchmark, which two years ago recruited power-headhunter David Beirne as a partner. Beirne, who had brought Jim Barksdale to Netscape and Robert Herbold to Microsoft for top positions, now works his recruiting magic for Benchmark's portfolio firms.

"Benchmark and us are going after it," said Gary Rieschel, general partner at Softbank Technology Ventures, another VC firm. He adds Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers but notes that Kleiner is building its e-tail strategy around Amazon.com.

In last week's joint venture of giant bricks-and-mortar chain Petsmart with start-up PetJungle, both sides name low-profile venture firm Global Retail Partners, an affiliate of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, as matchmaker.

"Their focus has been where the physical world and the online world come together," said Phil Francis, Petsmart chief executive. Global Retail Partners is run by Yves Sisteron, who has been funding start-up retailers--including Petsmart, Costco, Office Depot, and Starbucks--for several decades.

"We obviously have deep relationships with many existing retailers," Sisteron said. "I'm trying to find what is the best solution for each of those retailers to succeed on the Web and not be 'Amazoned' out of business."

But since 1995, Sisteron has been investing in e-commerce firms too, including CitySearch, Garden.com, GoTo.com, and Internet software store Beyond.com.

Like PetJungle, many of Sisteron's investments are e-tailing creatures of Bill Gross's idealab, which both incubates Net retailers and funds them initially, often bringing in traditional VCs later on.

Because of that history, Sisteron is trying to midwife deals between online ad and offline merchants, but he's not sure VCs generally are well suited for such matchmaking.

"How many categories can you do?" he asks rhetorically. "Perhaps 10, 12, or 15 categories, and that's pretty optimistic, because many are done."

But don't tell that to Benchmark or Softbank.

"Benchmark has been approached by no fewer than a dozen Fortune 100 companies to help bring them forward into the Internet era," Kagle said, declining to name specific companies. "Over the course of the next couple of months, you will hear about four to six more kinds of endeavors." But the only retailer in the lot is Toys "R" Us, he adds, with others in manufacturing, finance, and distribution.

Softbank's Rieschel mentions Buy.com's deal with Ingram, a giant distributor of PC hardware and software as well as books, as a deal his firm helped broker.

"We effectively put Ingram into the retail business," he said. Softbank also has encouraged relationships among the online financial firms in its portfolio, including E*Trade, eLoan, and InsWeb.

"It's not a typical role of a VC fund," he acknowledges. "You look for people with domain knowledge in a category and try to partner. As venture firms, we have the best knowledge in terms of what kind of alternatives exist in the market today."

But Lauren Cook-Levitan, an e-tail analyst at brokerage BancBoston Robertson Stephens, think VCs are branching out from their principal business with start-ups.

"You don't typically see VCs entering public, mature businesses," said Cook-Levitan, who acknowledges that the investment bankers in her company have demonstrated more talk than action to date on marrying e-tailers and retailers. "They are acknowledging that there is a retail expertise, a component of the retail world that is usable and will be useful online."

And a VC's involvement in a deal may be limited, said Jonathan Klein, chief executive of Getty Images, which bought online poster shop Art.com earlier this month. Both Benchmark and Softbank were investors in Art.com.

"The VCs were important in that they had a significant equity position in the company and were very involved on the board in terms of strategic investments," said Klein, whose firm, which owns millions of photographs that it hopes to sell to consumer through Art.com's Web storefront.

But Getty didn't need VCs to find the Art.com deal, said Klein, himself an investment banker in England before taking the Getty post.

"Our world is a relatively small world," said Klein, nothing that Getty has made many acquisitions to buy photo and video collections. "There are relatively few companies we bought that we hadn't heard of."

The VC involvement at Art.com did reassure Getty, however. "They had invested in Art.com six or seven months ago, and it was comforting to us that they had conviction in the model."