photo by Michael Miller

The former owners of Markem launch a venture capital firm

Published: Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two years after selling Markem Corp., the international printing technology firm it founded nearly a century ago, Keene’s Putnam family on Friday announced the launch of a return to business through a venture capital operation.

A private equity firm, Harbor Light Capital Partners, will focus on long-term investments in northern New England, said Todd Warden, the managing partner.

A former venture-capital executive in Boston before joining Markem in 2003, Warden said the unit has more than $30 million at its disposal, for investments in chunks of $1 to $5 million.

The enterprise, which has offices overlooking Central Square, is funded from part of the proceeds of the sale of Markem to Dover Technologies in 2006; the Keene company, which at the time had annual sales of $290 million, was later joined with a French firm in a combination known as Markem.Imaje.

Warden, 40, said the firm’s investments are likely to have a much longer time frame than is customarily the case in the venture capital field, where financial commitments can be as short as a few years.

“We want to partner with people over the long term,” he said. He described that approach as being consistent with the Putnam family’s involvement with Markem, founded in 1911.

“If we own something for 30 to 100 years, we would be very happy,” he said.

James A. Putnam, who had been president of Markem and is an advisor to Harbor Light, said the launch “begins to fulfill one of our long range objectives in the sale of Markem — to reinvest in companies we can be as proud of as we are of Markem.”

Other figures in the new enterprise are Richard Upton, whose background includes investment banking, and Darby Kopp, a former marketing and business development manager at Markem.

Warden said the investment focus will be on companies with revenues under $25 million — a business segment too small for some of the bigger venture capital firms.

He said the field of play will be in northern New England — a geography not commonly worked by Boson-based private equity outfits. “A lot of the money kind of stops at (Interstate) 495,” he said.

He said since quietly opening Harbor Light two months ago, he’s looked at about 40 possible investments, but has not made one yet.

Asked about the safety of Harbor Light’s own financial resources, given recent downturns in the equity markets, he said the money is in “a highly liquid state. We have no risk of its not being there.”

Warden, who is married to a member of the Putnam family, said that, following the sale of Markem, consultations were held with other families in similar situations — that is, substantial cash resources freed up from long-term business holdings and hundreds of family members with varied interests.

He cited, among others, a family in Seattle that had owned a lumber business for seven generations before selling the company; some of the proceeds were used to create an investment operation on which Harbor Light is partly modeled.

Not all of the proceeds of the Markem sale are committed to investing in operating businesses. The Putnam family also maintains an active philanthropic operation.

(Article originally published in The Keene Sentinel print edition entitled Markem founders move to equity.)