Apax Partners has raised €4.3bn ($5.6bn) from investors within 10 months in the largest first close of a private equity fund since the height of the financial crisis more than three years ago. But the final size is expected to be a fifth smaller than the last fund raised by Apax.

The UK-headquartered buyout group, which revealed the first close – that is, the first deadline for investors to commit money to a fund – in a letter to investors obtained by the Financial Times, intends the Apax VIII fund to reach €9bn.

That is a fifth smaller than Apax’s VII fund, emphasising how many private equity groups have had to scale down their ambitions.

The fundraising marks the largest first close of a private equity fund since the $6bn first close of Hellman & Friedman’s seventh fund in February 2009, suggests data by Preqin, the research firm.

It takes place against the backdrop of lower investor appetite amid lacklustre performance by most private equity funds set up during the debt-fuelled buyout binge years.

Apax’s last fund – which raised €11.2bn – was set up in 2007, with an annual net return of 4 per cent to date, says data by the Washington State Investment Board.

Investors talk about the sector dividing as investors favour the private equity firms with strongest performance records. Several of the largest, best-known European buyout groups have raised funds recently, despite the eurozone crisis.

BC Partners last month completed an 18-month exercise to raise a €6.5bn European fund, while rival Cinven announced a first close at €3bn on its fifth buyout fund. But others, such as UK private equity groups Terra Firma and Duke Street, have delayed or abandoned efforts to raise funds.

CIC, GIC and Future Fund, the Chinese, Singaporean and Australian sovereign wealth funds which jointly own a 10th of Apax’s management company, have committed a combined €900m on the same terms as other investors.

The private equity group has committed €470m of its employees’ money to the fund – more than the average of 2 to 3 per cent in the industry.

Apax’s most recent deals include the €1.5bn takeover of Orange Suisse, the mobile operator and the $6.3bn purchase of wound care specialist Kinetic Concepts.

Three of its investments – UK retailer New Look, healthcare logistics group Marken and General Healthcare Group, the UK’s largest private hospital group by revenues – have struggled to cope with debt

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