With new fund on hold, Elevation Partners loses a rock star (not Bono!)

Is Elevation Partners’ headcount heading down? According to an email she sent to contacts, Patty Halfen Wexler, a principal at Elevation, is leaving the high-profile Silicon Valley private-equity firm at the end of the month. Her departure, and the fact that the firm has no plans to replace her, may reflect the reality that Elevation’s plans to raise a new fund are on hold until next year, according to a source close to the company.

Elevation, whose founders include the rock star Bono and guitarist-singer-investor Roger McNamee, has reason to downsize. It had invested $460 million — a quarter of its $1.9 billion fund — into Palm, the troubled smartphone maker, since 2007, and at various points had six people from its 21-person investment team working to help turn that company around.

Now that HP has agreed to buy Palm for $1.2 billion, a deal which is expected to close before the end of July, there’s just no need for so many bodies. (Expensive ones, too: Lookilulu, a site which profiles women in business, pegged Wexler’s annual salary at more than $200,000.) While Elevation has some money left in the first fund, it’s not likely to make that kind of big turnaround bet until its next fund, which industry insiders are saying may not come until 2011.

Elevation has been hiring the kind of senior personnel who’d be involved in raising and managing a new fund: In November, eBay CFO Rajiv Dutta joined as a managing director, and ex-Apple software chief Avie Tevanian followed in January.

BusinessWeek recently took a look at Elevation’s record and noted that it’s had the kind of duds one might expect in the high-risk world of private equity. The problem is that it hasn’t had the Google-style hits which make up for them.

Yet the firm, which has more than $500 million from in its first fund left, is still making bets which could pay off for investors. It cobbled together a $90 million stake in Facebook by buying shares on the secondary market from former employees and other insiders last year, and in January, it put $25 million in Yelp, an investment it may expand to $100 million through similar insider purchases. Those smaller-scale deals, though, don’t require as much hands-on attention.

Wexler, from what we’ve been able to gather, is leaving of her own accord. “She’s definitely a star,” says Lynn Fox, vice president of public relations at Palm. Wexler’s reputation as a brilliant business analyst means she was likely sharp enough to foresee a lack of opportunities for challenging work at Elevation, in the absence of a new fund and the big deals it might enable. And more mid-level departures may follow.

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