I get asked a lot of questions about how to build a business, and how to do it with as few headaches as possible. Not that I’ve totally figured it out, but I’ve certainly made my fair share of missteps and gratefully have learned something along the way. From investing, to hiring, to reducing headcount, to managing the ups and downs of an economic recovery period—one thing remains unchanged: leadership matters. And if you’re talking about key leadership positions, the one that companies most often get wrong is the CFO.
Why? Well, the answers are as varied as the reasons they fail, but it generally has to do with asking the right questions from the beginning. In other words, the interview process is often to blame.
I wrote an article for CFO Magazine about “hiring the right interim CFO” and how to ensure you set your company up for success when it comes to hiring one of the most important positions. Whether you are looking for an interim CFO (who can move into a full-time position) or looking for a full-time financial executive, here are some things you should know before you greenlight your new hire:
8 Things To Know Before Hiring An Interim CFO
If you are a PE-owned company and need to bring in a short-term finance chief, find someone who has worked for a PE-backed company before.
The interim executive needs to have a track record of wins. That generally means a significant tenure at multiple companies.
Find someone with industry experience, because it’s much easier to stand at the finance helm of a manufacturing, healthcare, IT, or services company if you’ve done it before.
Similarly, the interim CFO should have experience working for a company of similar size and scale.
It’s not enough to understand the numbers (sales, revenue, overhead) — you need someone who understands what the numbers mean.
For the best results, find a pro who has a high IQ and a high EQ (emotional intelligence), because the interim CFO needs to quickly gain favor from others in the organization to gather information and build a story around the numbers.
Be sure to have conversations with key stakeholders in a candidate’s prior roles. Choose the references; do not use the references the candidate gives.
While enthusiasm is a wonderful aspect of a new leader, a short-term executive should have a stabilizing effect, not a disruptive one.
For more details and to read the full article in CFO Magazine, click here.
One of the biggest mistakes private equity funds make when searching for an interim CFO for their portfolio company is looking for someone who can do everything a full-time CFO would. Searching for this diamond-in-the-rough candidate ends up taking just as long as it would take to find a full-time candidate, and in the meantime, the portfolio company is without a strong financial advisor.
Instead of wasting time and money looking for an interim candidate who can do everything, PE funds should concentrate on the three most important things they want their CFO to achieve in the two to six months that they’ll be at the company. Do you need to push through key changes in specific business areas? Do you need to identify internal control shortcomings and their associated risks? Choose the interim CFO candidate who can address your most pressing needs.
The Four Qualities of a Successful Interim CFO
While an interim part-time CFO may not be the agent of change that a full-time CFO will be, they should have qualities that allow them to quickly onboard and effectively solve problems in the short time they’re with the portfolio company. Characteristics to look for in an interim CFO include:
Strong Collaborative Skills—An interim chief financial officer needs to build a strong relationship with both the PE fund and the portfolio company leaders. They also need to build trust with the portco’s in-house finance team. This requires transparency and a willingness to collaborate.
Ability to Adapt Quickly—Since they’ll be with the portco for a limited time, a temporary CFO needs to hit the ground running. They should work with the PE fund to quickly define goals, requirements, and deliverables for the company’s transition period. Ideally, the interim CFO should have experience in the portco’s industry so that there isn’t a steep learning curve.
Desire to Solve Immediate Problems—An outsourced CFO should be someone who’s excited to jump in and solve the three most important, immediate challenges that the PE fund has identified. The CFO should recognize that they may not see the full results of their efforts before they leave, but that they’ll be making others on the portco’s team look good.
Excellent Communication Skills—An interim CFO should be adept at interpreting financial data and presenting it clearly to the leadership team. Strong communication skills will help the CFO quickly establish credibility with their team and smooth the transition post-acquisition.
Narrowing Down Your Interim CFO Candidates
As you narrow down your pool of interim CFOs, review each candidate’s career moves carefully. If a candidate has a new job every year but isn’t a professional temporary CFO, that could be a red flag. If they are a professional CFO consultant who has worked with many different companies, see what experience they’ve had in your portco’s industry and with similar challenges.
When interviewing your final candidates, ask for references. Tell each candidate which references you want to see rather than just taking the ones they give you. When you talk to their references, ask them how the interim CFO addressed their most pressing issues. You should look for a candidate who has completed the same types of goals that you have identified as being the most important for your portco right now.
Every quarter we gather Vice Presidents in PE to discuss current industry topics and to offer these peers the chance to gather, share information, and decompress with one another. In our most recent event, we discussed how scarcity and inflation are impacting human capital in PE as well as how firms are approaching finding opportunities in a choppy market. We’ve listed our top takeaways below.
These forums are invite-only and follow Chatham House Rules, so listed below are high-level takeaways only. Are you in private equity and interested in joining fellow PE VPs during our next PE VP Forum? Register here.
Scarcity and inflation impacting human capital: One of the unsung areas where inflation is impacting the economy the most is human capital.
Firms are taking a closer look at culture to increase retention and not just thinking about wages, but the total employee experience and related rewards.
Investments are being made in portco HR (CHROs, VPs, Directors) to collaborate with marketing functions on recruiting content to promote the benefits of an organization beyond dollars per hour. Portcos are also utilizing their current staff to recruit and network with candidates, such as incentivizing them with referral bonuses.
Another interesting concept is building in-house training programs to grow net-new talent pools instead of taking and losing employees to and from competitors.
Finding opportunities in a choppy deal market: The confluence of rising interest rates and geopolitical pressures are causing the deal market to become increasingly choppy. Firms are looking for ways to find opportunities in the face of risk and rising recession risk.
Teams are getting creative in deal sourcing by exploring new channels by moving down-market and supplementing with add-ons, focusing on proprietary or limited process situations, looking for failed auctions, and continuing to build new relationships.
It’s becoming increasingly necessary to be mindful of quality when selecting which deals to pursue and heightened diligence in underwriting, particularly when modeling downside scenarios. This has become even more important as we’ve seen multiples climb higher and higher over the past 12 months. Deal teams are adding extra layers of scrutiny to verify that businesses are valued at a level that will be appropriate over the coming foreseeable months.
Teams are spending significant time exploring targets’ operating leverage to understand performance in downside scenarios.
A number of firms are seeing an economic reset as an opportunity to find unique opportunities to potentially get quality assets at lower multiples, gain market share, and/or consolidate markets as weaker competitors seek safety and circle wagons.
We thoroughly enjoyed getting to gather with PE VPs to discuss these current industry hot topics. We’d be happy to connect you to the PE-grade, exact-fit, third-party resources you need to assist you in this pressurized market, just contact us here.
Learn more about how we can specifically help Deal Quarterbacks and access a toolkit that can help you do your job more efficiently here.
We recently spoke with Mark DeBlois and Rufus Clark, two of the Co-Founders and Managing Partners of Bunker Hill Capital, a private equity firm investing in entrepreneur and founder-owned lower middle market companies in North America. Bunker Hill has offices in Boston, MA and San Diego, CA.
The four partners at Bunker Hill have worked together for over 20 years as private equity investors with lower middle market companies. As lead investors, they actively work with portfolio companies leveraging their extensive board-level and strategic planning experience.
When I caught up with them on the journey of Bunker Hill Capital, it was refreshing to hear how, in a world consumed with change, nothing can quite replace years of dedicated experience, a focus on relationships, and a time-tested investment ethos.
Tell us about the founding of Bunker Hill Capital.
We were senior members of the buyout team at BancBoston Capital, one of the largest bank-affiliated investment companies in the US, and it became increasingly apparent that going it alone would allow us to control our own destiny. Having a private equity mindset is different from how a commercial bank approaches investing, and we wanted to manage the business without these inherent limitations. Also, being able to change our investment strategy and how we invested was just as important.
An example is our ability to work closely with a variety of value-added partners including operating professionals and strategy consultants. Our relationships with them are a cornerstone of how we invest, proactively create value, and build relationships across the marketplace. As part of establishing Bunker Hill Capital, we were able to develop relationships with a wide range of strategic partners that was not possible when part of a large institution.
So, we spun out to start our own firm, Bunker Hill Capital, just under two decades ago.
Since then, how has the market changed?
The transaction dynamics have changed with the growth in the alternative asset class. The amount of capital flowing into the asset class has increased dramatically as has the number of PE funds, pushing up multiples over time.
Our core market, the lower middle market, includes companies with revenues between $5 million and $100 million—of which there are approximately 360,000 in the United States today. Compare that to the next level up, where there are about 22,000 companies with revenue between $100 million and $500 million, so our opportunity pool is 16 times larger.
In our market, we can source deals either as one-off deals directly from owner-entrepreneurs as sellers, through intermediaries such as accountants and attorneys, or through limited auctions, where an investment bank brings together people they know who can close deals and who have years of experience in the lower middle market, such as ourselves.
So, it’s actually the market dynamics in this end of the lower middle market that have not changed as dramatically that allow us to continue to reap the benefits.
An area where we have seen change is increasing prices in each market segment. However, as much as they have all gone up, the relative delta between the lower and upper middle markets has remained constant. For example, hypothetically as the first PE owner we may pay between 6.5x and 7x on EBITDA for the companies we invest in (compared to 2003, which was 5-6x). We then sell these companies to strategic buyers or the next market level up—large PE funds that pay between 8x to 10x on EBITDA multiples. So when we sell our companies to these strategic buyers, we capitalize on this multiple arbitrage.
What differentiates Bunker Hill Capital?
Bunker Hill Capital is well-known in the lower middle market, having been in this market segment for over 20 years, which is very unusual.
We are unique in that we have the luxury of staying in the smaller end of the market. People tend to think bigger is better. We think we can have more impact strategically on these smaller companies over a shorter period of time, compared with the larger deals that are more like steamships: huge and take a lot longer to turn.
Our key criteria for buying companies is to be the first PE owner buying from founders and owner-entrepreneurs who either want to remain in the business or have identified their management team. This is 70 to 80 percent of our deals.
This is important because these founders are looking to crystalize the value of their sweat equity, and take some of their chips off the table for a variety of reasons. Finding a partner who will risk their own money to do this and take the company to the next level is key. The founder can then continue to enjoy the benefit of their minority capital stake, thereby continuing to increase their wealth by getting a “second bite of the apple.”
We do extensive strategy and infrastructure work at the companies we buy to allow them to scale. The larger funds, in the next level up, buy from folks like us as they can’t grow just organically; they need to grow through acquisition to get the kind of returns and exit multiples to satisfy their investors. Therefore, by definition, they must combine organic growth with acquisitions. And that’s where we come in.
How is Bunker Hill approaching the investment process to generate differentiated returns?
Early on from Fund I we refined our due diligence process, such as building relationships with our network of strategic partners. A lot of these refinements we did during Fund I, so the due diligence process we have now follows the same repeatable model. This has resulted in a time-tested methodology.
We believe the 20+ year evolution of our methodical investment process is world-class. Being a fiduciary to our limited partners, we are very hands-on in the businesses we invest in. We collaborate closely with our management teams and give them the tools they’ve never had before to better serve the business.
Post-close, we go through a 90- to 120-day strategic planning process to implement the findings from our detailed pre-sale due diligence and formalize the strategy into what we call a “Full Potential Roadmap.” This is coupled with a “Key Initiative Tracker,” which breaks down the Roadmap into an implementable plan, and is then tracked and monitored weekly and/or monthly with clear accountability and performance-based outcomes.
Finally, this plan is driven by the growth initiatives we are going after and how we want to scale the business’ revenue. But perhaps more rewarding is that after going through the process, most of the CEOs thank us for these invaluable tools that help them empower their own people, hold them accountable, and transform their business.
How is working with a Founder-Owned business unique?
Owner-entrepreneurs and founders can run the spectrum on experience and/or business sophistication, so identifying where along this spectrum the founder is and recognizing this is part of our due diligence process.
We place enormous emphasis on these founder relationships and if the chemistry is not quite right, we may decide not to proceed for the benefit of all parties. This is where the buck stops, especially if the owner is critical to the business.
Working with a wide variety of owners and CEOs is like working with any new person. We don’t delegate this relationship down to junior staff, as it is very personal at the managing partner level. You have to quickly figure out their strengths, growth opportunities, skills, and communication style, and we have to work with all of this while going through complex transactions – working through strategy, implementation, and everything else that goes along with the transaction.
Sometimes the owner is the CEO, and sometimes that’s not the case. The strongest CEOs are proactive and are on top of the Key Initiative Tracker. Some of the best CEOs we have worked with are self-aware enough to know where their highest value is in their role with the new company, including using the Key Initiative Tracker to mentor and track their direct reports, and then leading the charge on implementing these growth initiatives throughout the organization.
Can you talk about the role of ESG in Private Equity?:
ESG is a hot topic now. Most PE firms were doing a portion of this before it really got labeled. We were always doing environmental and social due diligence with potential investments.
Historically, we have intentionally looked at where the company could be more environmentally friendly and socially aware. Examples include increasing the recycling of waste materials, cutting down on energy consumption, and recruiting the most qualified candidates for roles.
Within our Key Initiative Tracker, we formalized this by putting in a group of ESG initiatives and being more explicit about it with our companies.
For example, we are being more proactive when we are sourcing overseas with a supplier code of conduct that includes detailed standards that our suppliers have to abide by.
On the social side, we have a strong bench of DEI candidates throughout our companies. DEI is built into our recruiting approach when hiring the most qualified person for the job.
For someone entering Private Equity in today’s landscape, what advice would you offer to them?
Find partners you can trust and work with. There are lots of ups and downs. You work hard and go through a lot— it can be very rewarding, but you need to have trusted partners over a long period of time.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and like everything else there is an evolution. There is no replacement for experience. It is complex enough doing what we do, and over the past couple of decades we have been able to cultivate relationships and refine our process along with the types of companies we invest in.
Also, don’t be afraid to surround yourself with smart people, not only inside the GP but also with your outside advisors. The relationships we have with our world-class executive network have been mutually beneficial. For example, our CEOs that are still assisting in our deals 20 years later is only something you can build over time. You can’t flip a switch and say, “I want that Day One.” It comes with being in the trenches together over a long period of time.
Interested in hearing what other PE experts have said in our interview series? Check them out here.
Michael Fieldstone is a Co-Founder and Partner at Aterian and has worked in private equity investing for more than twenty years. Prior to founding Aterian in 2009, he was a principal at both Sun Capital Partners and Apollo Management, and part of the Mergers & Acquisitions Investment banking group at Salomon Smith Barney. With regard to taking the entrepreneurial plunge with Aterian, he says: “We set out to build a firm that appreciates all the stakeholders of a company. To be collaborative in working with management teams. To create a transparent atmosphere in which we are dedicated to solving problems. Success to us is taking companies to new heights, and in doing so, creating value for employees, customers, vendors, the environment, underlying communities, and our investors.”
While his sentiments seem lofty, Fieldstone and his Co-Founders, Brandon Bethea and Christopher Thomas have seen numerous successes over the last decade-plus, and have ridden the waves of economic uncertainty with grit and fortitude. The result: growing already great family-founder companies in ways they didn’t think possible.
During our inaugural BluWave 2022 Top PE Innovator Awards, we recognized Aterian specifically for their innovative practices across proactive due diligence, transformative value creation, progressive PE firm operations, and ESG. Michael recently sat down with me to share some of his experiences and strategies for both creating value and supporting middle market companies during rapid growth.
Sean Mooney: How do you make sense of growth versus value investing in today’s marketplace?
Michael Fieldstone: This is a perplexing question for many investors. The multiples in private equity have changed so much over the past two decades. For example, at the turn of the 21st century, the average multiple was 7x; today, it is an average of 12x. This appreciation applies to both large LBOs as well as those in the middle market which we participate in. Additionally, the range of multiples can be extreme – as one can buy into an out of favor or cyclical industry such as oil and gas for less than 5x or invest in a high growth software or social media company for 20x+. The last time growth investing was so robust was in the late 1990s, and this phenomenon was driven by venture capital firms and tech companies themselves. Moreover, large non-tech companies had to follow suit and develop or acquire an internet or digital strategy to keep up. Many large companies such as GE, as we know, had a difficult time adopting startup practices organically. Other large companies such as Polaroid or Kodak became walking dinosaurs.
This time around, PE firms are also participating in high-growth – almost venture-like investing –as both an offensive and a defensive strategy. With technological disruption impacting most sectors (i.e. e-commerce, fintech, alternative energy, streaming/media distribution, cybersecurity, Medtech – and the list goes on), and with cheap and abundant capital, why not invest large amounts alongside mega trends even if at higher valuations? The alternative is to invest against mega trends – for example, into a large, non-omnichannel retail chain – which is like building a plane while it’s flying.
SM: On what side of that investor equation do you see Aterian?
MF: It may sound diplomatic, but our approach to market is a combination of value and growth investing. We typically invest in companies that are “mature” – certainly they already have sales and have typically been in existence for many decades. Then we look to accelerate their growth through investments both organically and through add-ons. We enhance their existing infrastructure and customer relationships in ways the management teams desire but may not have had the capital or organizational expertise to do so under previous ownership. We look to drive innovation, including through new products or services, with greater conveniences or capabilities to become more vital to customers. A great example is Aterian’s backing of a company called The Pace Companies, a leading commercial plumbing contractor in NYC. Three years ago, we partnered with its founder, Andru Coren, to help him achieve his vision of being the leader in all the subcontractor trade groups in NYC and surrounding areas, including HVAC, mechanical, electrical, and fire protection. While driving this strategy, we also identified the greater regulatory need to assist developers and building owners on reducing their carbon footprint through energy-efficient buildings. Flash forward to today, through the formation of holding company Eaglestone with shared services, we have executed on Andru’s vision by acquiring over a half dozen companies and becoming a leading infrastructure company in NYC and surrounding areas where we provide a full suite of services including plumbing, HVAC, fire protection, solar, and EV charging stations, all in the context of improved energy efficiency building standards.
SM: What are the key areas Aterian focuses on in its valuation creation plan, and what in that plan is the hardest to achieve?
MF: There are no corners to cut – at the root of any plan is extensive third-party customer and industry research to figure out where the company fits into its marketplace, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to improve its competitive advantages in partnership with management. Oftentimes, our due diligence prior to acquiring a company confirms management’s strategic plan and it is all about getting there faster with the appropriate resources, whether hard dollars or human capital. Additionally, often uncovered in our due diligence phase, we learn about untapped market opportunities, and after confirming their strategic viability, we develop a plan to penetrate such markets organically or through acquisitions.
Organizational development – retaining and recruiting top talent is typically the biggest challenge to achieving any plan. The breadth of the team required to grow a company, all while keeping an eye on existing strategy execution is most critical as well as our greatest challenge. Sometimes we bring in independent board members (who have been in similar positions) as another set of eyes to assure the organization is ready to embark on growth and transformation.
SM: How do you ensure seamless acquisitions/investments so that founders feel supported? What are some of the strategies/tactics you use?
MF: It took years for us to learn this, but the most important thing with founders is to listen to what they are looking for, both professionally and personally. Additionally, it is important to align expectations upfront. Some founders want to continue to run and grow their companies, while others want help on an immediate succession plan. We have successfully worked with founders in both situations.
Another critical component of ensuring a seamless process is open and robust communication. PE-owned companies are much different than family-founder businesses. Most founders have heard horror stories about partnering with a private equity fund, along the lines of PE saying, “it’s our way or the highway.” They are afraid they won’t have any influence over the company culture and direction, and this poses a big risk for founders who want to stay in the business. Our goal is always to keep the culture intact as much as possible during the transition, and we do our best to communicate to founders that we want to invest in their teams as well as their valuation plan. These founders want transparency and candor, they don’t want “razzle dazzle.”
We also offer founders the opportunity to speak with other family- or founder-owned companies we’ve partnered with. This open book approach helps ease some of their fears, when they can hear directly from references who have found success working with Aterian already.
SM: What does Aterian specifically do to win founder- or family-owned business trust “early and often”?
MF: The most important thing we can do to build trust is to say what we do and do what we say. We also need to discuss business goals and objectives in a small group at least a couple times a year. Actions speak heavily as well – supporting companies analytically or by providing other resources they may not have both help build the bridge that we are actually on the same team.
SM: What are Aterian’s internal company values, and how do those get operationalized (or actualized) across your investment portfolio?
MF: We have three core values, and from these fall every action with regard to both our internal and external operations. The first is transparency. With our management teams, our lenders, our investors, everyone. It is our belief that while good news should travel fast, bad news even faster. Without transparency building trust is nearly impossible; and, without trust, you can’t properly evaluate or make decisions.
The next core value is the concept of being collaborative, and hands-on. We expect this from our management teams, and we certainly aren’t sitting back as passive board members. Having said that, it’s important to strike a balance – when to tackle something head on and when to let go.
Lastly, we value long-term thinking. We typically hold onto companies for four to six years but make decisions as though we will own them forever. Warren Buffett has this great quip about the types of companies he wants to buy; he says they should be equivalent to a great piece of art that you would be proud to hang in a museum. In a sense, that’s how we see it. We are willing to put in the time, energy, and resources to make a company art museum worthy.
Interested in hearing what other PE experts have said in our interview series? Check them out here.
Charlie Gifford co-founded private equity firm New Heritage Capital in 2006, and has been investing in founder-owned, lower middle-market businesses for 22 years. He leads the firm’s origination practice, focusing his efforts on generating new investment opportunities and developing and maintaining intermediary relationships. In addition to his passion for the New England Patriots, Gifford is a strong believer in the concept of capital-and-thought partnerships for the companies in which his firm invests. The result: incentives for both founders and investors pointing in the same direction.
I caught up with him to get his take on everything from identifying the right-fit investments and what makes a great partner, to why expertise matters and the opportunities ahead for PE in 2022.
Sean Mooney: You co-founded New Heritage Capital in 2006, what was the genesis of founding the firm?
Charlie Gifford: I met my two current partners in 1999 while working for our predecessor firm. As that firm grew and began to move upmarket, the three of us were still interested in partnering with founder-owned businesses that had yet to access the institutional capital markets. Furthermore, we wanted to continue the model from our predecessor firm—one that incentivized all-star founders to stay on board for three to five years to help us grow the business. We wanted to be a capital partner and a thought partner to these founders. So, we essentially do an equity recap where the owner’s met their liquidity objectives, but we also allow the business owner to remain in control. Of course, the ultimate goal is to achieve superior returns for our investors, and we inherently believe the best way to do that is to identify bullish founders—owners who are interested in maintaining control post-close, and who are motivated by what we call “long term greed,” not just “short term greed.”
SM: You have a unique approach to investing called The Private IPO®—can you talk a bit about that, and how it’s differentiated from other forms of investment?
CG: I always like to point out that in the public markets you wouldn’t want to invest in a company where all the board members and executives are selling their shares. But in private equity, this is the standard model. A company gets acquired and as soon as a day later all the key executives can be laid off. This is counterintuitive to how great companies are built. We think it’s better when the founder is voting with their wallet and not their feet. In this way, we attract a self-selected cohort of maniacal owners who want to stay on board, want to remain in control, and are dedicated to growing their business.
In our Private IPO® solution, we provide significant up front liquidity for founders but also let them keep more control and earn a big piece of the upside. The founders we partner with come for the control piece, but they stay for the equity structure on the backend. If the business meets its growth targets, then they get a huge equity stake on the backend. As their partner, we help them to develop a growth strategy that allows them to double, triple, and even more in size, maximizing that backend equity value for everyone.
SM: What do you look for in a good investment, or partner? In other words, how do you identify founder-owned businesses that are the right fit for both New Heritage and the founder-owner?
CG: Interestingly, one of the very common traits we see in our partners is the individual that has worked at a large strategic competitor in their industry. They have grown a little skeptical about the prospects of growth: perhaps the company has taken their eye off the ball, isn’t innovating, or doesn’t treat the employees well. These founders have identified a clear market opportunity, so when they spin out of their current company they immediately begin to take market share by offering a better service or product. This new company is more nimble and meets the needs of their customer base more effectively.
SM: How do outside experts and advisors play a role in your business?
CG: If we look at the concept of market efficiency (where we are now versus 1999) there used to be no such thing as market networks. PE funds were left trying to figure out every detail out and conduct diligence on their own. The market is extremely competitive right now, particularly in terms of full-time talent; but the ability to call on BluWave for specialized project needs or interim executive talent means you have a better shot at not getting beat to the punch. In general, we are all attracted to growth, strong management, and industry tailwinds; but without the ability to get smart fast, it’s near impossible to be competitive.
SM: The pandemic certainly changed business as usual. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the past two years? How has it affected your future outlook?
CG: One of the benefits of being a 15 person firm, many of whom have worked together for over a decade, is that there is a real comfort level in being candid, and a true sense of “all for one and one for all.” Everyone at the table has a voice. Our approach is collaborative and collegial. So, when the pandemic hit, we worked remotely for six months; but people wanted to come back to the office as soon as it was safe to do so. We inherently believe that this is an apprenticeship business and you learn by watching and doing. As for the future outlook, we think it’s bright. Our companies managed through COVID very well and the resiliency of the private markets has been incredible. We see strong earnings and strong deal flow in 2022.
SM: What are some major PE themes you’ve seen in 2021 that you think will have implications for next year (and possibly beyond)?
CG: For starters, PE will likely continue to pay up for good companies, and will be forced to close quicker with fewer contingencies. But I am just waiting for the music to stop, because things cannot go up and to the right forever. Having said that, it does say a lot about our country that our economy is still robust given all of these economic challenges created by the pandemic.
One common refrain we will continue to hear is the difficulty to attract workers and rising cost of labor. Due to this “missing middle”, prospecting and rainmaking has suffered somewhat, because everyone is working tirelessly on the necessary tasks to close deals in advance of year end.
SM: Now for the most important question: How do you really feel about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots?
CG: When you’re talking about the GOAT it’s hard not to wish him well, given the fact he always did what was in the team’s best interest by accepting a below-market contract. What he’s accomplished is truly remarkable. That said, I’m a Pats fan first and a Brady fan second, and now Belichick seems to be having the team playing it’s best football of the season around the holidays after a rough start– a true telltale sign of a Belichick coached team. It looks as though America’s worst nightmare is back…without Brady this time.
Before assuming the position of President of Membership for the Family Office Exchange (FOX) three years ago, Glen W. Johnson spent a decade as one of its members. As the preeminent organization for “collaborative, peer-driven” family offices and trusted wealth-related advisors, Johnson has helped steer FOX through a pandemic, up the hill of its membership growth, and through the shifting tides of direct investments.
BluWave recently joined the FOX community as a partner to their direct investment council. I sat down with Mr. Johnson to learn more about how the organization is evolving to meet the needs of its existing and new members (many of which are the result of recent liquidity events), what trends they are seeing in the family office space, and how the current purpose-driven generation approaches family wealth—and what this means for the decades to come.
Sean Mooney: For our readers, can you give me a brief overview of FOX, your focus, and how you create value for family offices?
Glen W. Johnson: FOX is a global organization based in Chicago, Illinois, and for the last 32 years, we have been a key membership-driven support network for ultra-high net worth families, family offices, and advisors with members in over 24 countries. Simply put, we identify trends in core issues that our members face, help them see around corners so they can plan for three to five years ahead, and help them simplify complexity.
We accomplish this in three various ways: First, we share best practices and offer expertise for families in transition. This can be in areas of governance, technology, or family education—in terms of shifting resources and responsibilities across generations. Second, we provide research across multiple areas that impact family offices and advisors. We do this by gathering data from both members and non-members, then synthesizing that information into digestible, actionable information to support decision-making. Third, we’ve curated a community that matches families and offices with their closest peers, and others who can share knowledge (and help provide expertise and guidance) on everything from succession planning to direct investments.
It’s this collective intelligence that brings our members back year after year and provides a tremendous amount of value, particularly at times (like now) when things are shape-shifting under our feet. Collaboration is more important than ever, and FOX is essentially rooted in that principle.
SM: According to one of your recent surveys, family office creation is on the rise and FOX has been growing rapidly as a result. In your opinion/experience, what accounts for this growth?
GWJ: There are roughly 6,000 family offices based in the United States alone. Half our recent members are newly formed family offices. Some of these were formerly embedded family offices within a family-owned business, and now they are creating stand-alone family offices outside the business as a result of a business sale or in order to run more effectively and separate the activities in a more streamlined way.
Based on what we are seeing, here are a few factors we believe are contributing to this growth:
Recent major liquidity events of family-owned businesses.
As a family moves beyond business identity they look for ways to have a new identity and coordinate their efforts and group activities.
Offices themselves have changed and include virtual options: 65% of offices we work with have less than seven staff members within their office, and many of them have outsourced a variety of activities because they have limited scope internally. Some are virtual altogether with full outsourcing so there are many ways to provide family office services to a family that may not have existed a decade ago.
SM: What are some of the trends you’re seeing in the family office space?
GWJ: In 2021 (and these will likely persist into 2022) we’ve observed three core trends impacting family offices. While not surprising, talent tops the list: finding, hiring, retaining, and engaging employees. Over the last 18 months, how and where people work has changed. In the family office industry, most employees are expected to be in the office four to five days a week; but now they want more flexible work environments. A perfect example of this is how difficult it is for family offices to find accountants—they are in high demand and so unless family offices are willing to shift their thinking, it’s going to continue to be difficult to hire in this area.
The next trend we are seeing is in terms of transitions within the family themselves—either from founders to the next generation; or the second generation to the third generation often involving extended family members (cousins, in-laws, etc.) outside the nuclear family unit. For those who are transitioning, they are squarely focused on planning and educating so that the changes are streamlined. Beyond this, we are also seeing transitions in family office executive leadership. Many of the advisors have been with the families for decades, and they are close to retirement and looking to turn over the keys.
The last key trend is the rapid adoption of technology that began in 2020—mostly due to the pandemic. Essentially, family offices moved from decades-old legacy systems to new tech-enabled systems in under two years. One major upside: this integration of technology into daily life, from family meetings to advisory meetings, is allowing the next generation to participate more easily. However, the sheer complexity of family assets still means someone has to do the work in order for the technology to be effective. The enhanced focus on cybersecurity is also apparent, as family offices need secure portals for communication and reporting on key data.
SM: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re seeing on the direct investing side?
GWJ: Direct investments continue to be on the minds of families; they did take somewhat of a pause at the beginning of the pandemic given the focus on the crisis, and valuations continue to be quite high; so, families have to find the right strategic deal for any direct investment to make sense.
But direct investing has been the core strategy for families for decades. What we’ve seen is an increase in collaboration between family offices that happened less regularly before. For the most part, private equity has been taking the lead on lower market buyouts; and families see the upside and potential of that. Pooling resources allows families to reduce risk [in industries they aren’t as familiar with] and take advantage of companies that land between $3M and $20M EBITDA, who are looking to sell. Families are also looking at platform plays such as buying up HVAC companies and other firms within an industry.
We are also hearing a lot of talk now about ESG and “business drivers” which both contribute to innovation. The lightbulb has gone off, and company leaders and investors are realizing they don’t have to sacrifice return for ESG.
SM: How do trusted advisors and experts play a key role in terms of your family office members? Why is this part of the network (makes up roughly 25-30%) so important to family offices?
GWJ: Since our inception 32 years ago, advisors have played an integral role in legal, accounting, and investment strategy for our family offices. The confluence of best-in-class executive consultants, industry experts, and the needs of family offices is paramount to the success of our organization; and it’s really what makes the membership experience a win-win for everyone involved.
This synergy is important because we continue to see a large shift in outsourcing, and talent is a key driver of this. Family offices face continual challenges in finding staff, so they are outsourcing key functions (mentioned above). Some of the needs are episodic and sporadic, like estate planning attorneys, for example. Our advisor community is extremely robust, and many of the family offices are working with and coordinating the activities of 15 to 30 advisors at a time—and this will likely continue. In fact, we’ve seen a 40% increase in offices that are outsourcing their services.
To put a fine point on it: the average family office portfolio has between 6 and 10 direct investments, and this creates a lot of complexity in sourcing and due diligence. Trusted third-party advisors help our families more confidently navigate these complexities.
SM: What is the biggest myth about family offices and/or family wealth management?
GWJ: Shows like “Succession” (and other TV portrayals of wealth), ultimately showcase a lack of strong values and a myopic focus on in-fighting and “who gets what.” For the most part, this is a total misperception but is, unfortunately, more entertaining than the reality.
After working with family offices for 30-plus years, the truth is that they play a vital role in job creation, building stronger communities, and impacting social change through philanthropy and nonprofit donations. Money can certainly magnify the underlying issues faced by any family, but at the end of the day, all families want their children and grandchildren to be productive, happy, and spend time with each other. The other myth of the family office goes something like this: 50 to 100 individuals running around the family members, fetching their coffee, walking their dogs, calling them a car. That certainly makes for better television than reality: an attorney or accountant sitting at their desk drawing up paperwork or filling out tax forms, or staff and others educating the next generation on the complexities of wealth.
In fairness, our members tend to be collaborators—they want to learn from peers and share knowledge, so it’s somewhat self-selecting in a sense. As a result, we get to see the best side of families and their family offices.
SM: Last but not least, a game of “would you rather.” So, based on what you know, would you rather run a family office or a family business?
GWJ: This is a hard one, as each of these has a totally different impact. At this point in my career, I would likely rather be running a family office. Mostly because the idea of working deeply with a family across generations—keeping them successful through that work—would be more rewarding than growing a business. I spent my earlier years as an attorney and often witnessed situations where families were fighting, mostly because they didn’t know how to communicate and weren’t educated on various aspects of multi-generational wealth.
Through this, I came to believe that wealth is secondary to a family staying together across generations—the most important variables are their shared values and visionary alignment, and this is often just a matter of creating an open environment for communication and collaboration so certain individuals don’t feel left out of the process. Gratefully, the current purpose-driven generation understands the importance of inclusion, and I think we will continue to see family offices innovating, making socially impactful investments, and providing a healthy path forward for future generations.
Scarcity is impacting pretty much every aspect of our lives, from groceries to car parts to, in particular, people. Finding the right people for your business has always been a herculean task but in the COVID and post-COVID era, it’s even harder. The highly-publicized Great Resignation has led to millions of capable people outright leaving the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of job openings in the United States doubled from spring 2020 to July 2021, leading to skyrocketing business demand for talent.
Business leaders are desperately trying to onboard team members with the specific skills they need for the new post-COVID normal because the solution to their shortages can’t be to do nothing. So, the question becomes, how do you find the right people in this challenging environment? Per our BluWave Business Builder Index, the PE industry’s emphasis on human resources has grown from 18% of activity in 2018 to 39% of all tracked activity as of Q3 2021. With the private equity industry’s single biggest focus area being people, this should give every business leader a sense of where they should also be spending their time and attention, as well as a sense of the importance of human capital in today’s business climate.
The private equity industry finds the right people by first taking time to understand the exact type of person they need for each role. They do this by assessing what key attributes are needed via scorecards – including functional role, cognitive aptitude, industry expertise, wage rates, culture, availability, and geography needs.
In order to connect with the individuals that have these needed attributes, proactive private equity firms are utilizing specialized recruiters. How is a generalist recruiter sitting at a desk in New York going to truly understand how to recruit for a niche, mid-sized company in the Heartland? Well, the truth is: they don’t. Specialized recruiters allow for quicker and better results due to their expertise across the key attributes that you’ve identified you need.
Industry Expertise Matters
Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, I was in the private industry for nearly 20 years. During this time, I learned that every industry has unique nuances that are critical to understand. If your recruiter doesn’t know these distinctions, how could they possibly be expected to assess who’s good in each industry? Moreover, while the world is large, most industries are “small.” Really good people in each industry know each other and know who’s good as well as who’s not at different things. Recruiters who specialize by industry typically know the people you need and who’s available before you even call them.
Functional Role Expertise Creates Advantage
Just like every industry has unique aspects, so does each functional role in an organization. The skills needed to be successful in a CEO position are quite different than those needed in a CFO role. Proactive firms get this and use different recruiters, aligned by functional area, for each of their core C-Suite hires such as CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CHROs, etc. There are certain parts of business that I intimately and expertly understand. However, there are many others like digital marketing, legal, and tax that I do not, so I hire experts who know what great is and use their skills accordingly. Hiring managers should adopt this same mindset when engaging specialized recruiters.
There are 197 million square miles in the world and nearly 8 billion people. Even with LinkedIn, it’s hard to know everyone. It’s much easier for recruiters to know who is excellent within their own geographic regions. Geographic alignment for recruiters becomes particularly important when you’re recruiting into smaller cities, more rural areas, and lower-level positions where it’s harder to relocate top candidates. The more local your recruiter is, the better chance they’ll already know who you need.
To Each Their Own
Different people have different skills that enable them to succeed at different size companies and earn different wage rates. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that most recruiters perform their best when staying within their company size and wage range sweet spots. Some focus on “rock stars” that lead large companies and/or earn more than $1 million per year. Others focus on mid-size companies and/or $500k-$1million wage ranges. Others on SMBs and $250k-$500k wages. And then there are a sea of people who focus on everything below. Make sure you align your selected recruiter with the company size and wage range they focus on. That way they’ll have a built-in network that is already good to go. If they don’t, the recruiter will likely default to getting one of their junior associates to learn on your dollar and start canvassing LinkedIn, which invariably leads to mixed results.
Hiring the right people is never easy. In the current climate, it’s significantly harder. It’s essential to eliminate as much bias and variability as possible, focus on capabilities, and align your search partners with key candidate success factors. By taking the time to understand what attributes you require in a candidate and then utilizing a specialized recruiter that synchronizes with your scorecard, you’ll find that your hiring success rate and speed of placement will improve dramatically.
If we can help quickly connect you to the specialized recruiter you need, please contact us and we’d be happy to get started quickly.
Russ Roberts is not your typical economist. As the longtime host of the podcast EconTalk, the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a collection of economics-related books to his name, it would be easy to throw him into a traditional category. But, as the current President of Shalem University in Jerusalem recently told me: “My perspective on economics is constantly evolving as I learn more about what it is to be a human.”
Roberts also holds the title as a three-time teacher of the year and has taught at George Mason University, Washington University in St. Louis (where he was the founding director of what is now the Center for Experiential Learning), the University of Rochester, Stanford University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It is from this vantage point that I recently spoke with Roberts from his office in Israel about everything from his success as a podcast host and author, to his thoughts on the private equity industry, the construct of scarcity, and why expertise is necessary—but often challenging to vet.
Sean Mooney: How would you describe your brand of economics, and how has it evolved over the last decade?
Russ Roberts: I trained at the University of Chicago but became increasingly interested in the Austrian School—a heterodox school of economic thought. But I always found the most interesting questions were not about economics; rather they were more in the realm of philosophy, history, and social trends.
When I launched my podcast (EconTalk) I interviewed traditional economists on standard issues of economics– the trade deficit with China, bitcoin versus traditional currency, and the causes of the financial crisis. But over the years (and I started doing EconTalk in 2006), I got interested in other questions: Why are so many people in despair? What does it mean to be American? Why is there no longer a consensus about our national narrative as Americans? Why are tribalism and populism on the rise?
Economics is not the central tool kit for figuring out those questions. Many economists are often blind to non-economic factors: they look only at things that can be measured. But it can’t end there. The questions I ask are also questions of identity, role of community, and how to live with differences of opinion: the things that I believe are increasingly important.
SM: Why do you think that EconTalk has been so successful for so long? What’s your secret?
RR: Success is definitely hard to measure with something like a podcast. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I get nice emails from listeners who are grateful. So, that certainly feels like success. On a personal level, as a 15-year long host, I have become a better listener and less of an “interrupter.” This is a wonderful life skill. And that means I give my guests, even those I disagree with, more of a chance to make their case and for me to engage with their viewpoint respectfully and civilly. I’m interested in conversations, not debate. This is a very powerful difference: conversation is about a shared exploration by two people, not just who’s right. When I created more room for my guests by doing more listening, I think EconTalk became a much better program. Lastly, I have learned to say “I don’t know.” It allows someone the opportunity to educate me—to let them be the expert.
SM: From your perspective, what is the biggest misconception about capitalism?
RR: Along the lines of what I alluded to above, the misconception people often have that wealth is a zero-sum gain—wealth must be taken from someone else. With just a little thought, you can realize that wealth is not a zero-sum game. Look at the standard of living today versus one hundred years ago: did we take the wealth from, Mars? Almost everyone got wealthier over time. Through technology, innovation, and processes, the standard of living has gotten better without making everyone worse off. Not at someone else’s expense.
Of course, there are always exceptions and bad players. The free market allows us to de-personalize the goods or services we are buying, and ultimately rewards the best X who is doing Y. We don’t have to like Jeff Bezos’ personal decisions, but we can still appreciate what he’s built and how it enhances our lives. One of the great gifts of a market economy is that you don’t have to peer into someone’s soul.
SM: We are living in a time of scarcity—in terms of the supply chain, the workforce, etc. How did we get here? When do you think this will shift and why?
RR: The concept of scarcity is an enormous challenge to economics and my way of thinking. I wrote ThePrice of Everything and It’s a Wonderful Loaf about the role that prices play in terms of order. Here is the quick take: Usually shortages are a sign of price controls, and usually when people say “we don’t have enough workers” it means that the price they have to pay is too high to get the workers. Historically, there have only been shortages when raising prices is forbidden. This happened with gas controls in the 1950s.
The puzzle with today’s shortages is why don’t suppliers just raise prices? My presumption is that they are afraid of being judged as gougers either by their customers or by the government. Eventually, prices will increase, instead of the other option: not having products. It’s already starting to happen. This will help eliminate the pressure on the supply chain.
SM: You are continually in conversation with experts in their field (for EconTalk): why do you think expertise is important?
RR: For the average citizen, expertise is in disarray right now. There is a lot of confusion about how to know whether someone is truly an expert—is it because they write books, host a podcast, make a lot of money, are on TV? It’s challenging to figure out the real versus the pseudo-expert, but we don’t want to fall prey to this postmodern phenomenon where people think everyone is a liar.
For a business, the challenge has always been the tension between making a decision that is defensible versus making a decision that is correct. If you’re an executive at a growing company, and you hire a first-rate consulting firm to help solve your problem, you can always make the defensible argument. But, if it turns out they can’t answer the question or find a solution, then what do you do? That being said, I think the challenge for business leaders is to feel confident taking a chance with a smaller, specialized, partner (without the big brand name) that is likely better equipped to tackle your problem.
SM: What is your definition of innovation? Where do we need more of it?
RR: Getting more from less, and achieving more with the same amount of resources. More simply put: we can make a process incrementally better, but what is even more desirable is making it better with the assistance of technology. A common example is the slide rule. Of course, we could make it incrementally better; but a calculator does a much better job with a fraction of the cost and much more accurately.
As a side note: I don’t think most people understand the pressure businesses are under to innovate, and why most founders don’t sleep well at night: they never know where competition is coming from. This is the essence of capitalism and what ultimately fuels growth and advancement.
In terms of the second part of the question, I think we need more innovation in the rules of the game: governance, how democracy works, etc. Antitrust law created for brick and mortar businesses is not helpful for thinking about big tech. In other words, we need innovative thinking about life as it exists in the digital realm, and how to evolve old systems in order to account for all of the changing dynamics.
SM: What is one piece of advice or knowledge you would share with those in leadership positions?
RR: Privilege your principles. If you want to make ethical decisions as a leader, and you’re worried about the existence of your business, it’s very tempting to do things that are not consistent with your principles. It’s always better to take an ego hit than violate your principles.
SM: Can you tell us anything about your next book?
RR: It’s called Wild Problems: A Guide To Making Decisions That Define Us. Generally speaking, I focus on the decisions we can’t necessarily measure or do a proper “cost-benefit analysis” about. Essentially, the book is an exploration of our sense of self, and how dignity and pride often outweigh the day-to-day effects of decisions we make. Today, we have so many choices and this leads to a lot of anxiety and stress. We want an app or data to help us make the best decisions, but that’s not the way everything works. If it was, life would be much more predictable, perhaps…but certainly less fun or interesting.
Pam Hendrickson is Vice Chair at the Riverside Company and a trailblazer in the world of finance and private equity. Growing up in Manhattan she was surrounded by the world of business. However, as a kid, opportunities in business also felt far away, as finance at the time was a landscape that was largely dominated by men. If you know Pam, she’s not someone who shies away from pursuing her dreams. She learned through determination, collaboration, and optimism that anything was possible. Pam studied hard, worked evened harder, and, after graduating from Duke, followed by a degree from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, entered the world of finance in New York City. She joined JP Morgan Chase, ultimately rising to Managing Director during a highly accomplished career spanning over two decades with the firm.
As her career progressed, Pam was ready for the next challenge and wanted to more directly help companies build and grow. In 2006, she joined The Riverside Company as their COO. Once again, Pam thrived in one of the most intellectually stimulating and most challenging industries to succeed. Today, Pam serves as The Riverside Company’s Vice Chairman, where she supervises some fund strategies and monitors and manages policy, political, and legislative risk for Riverside and its portfolio companies. All along the way, Pam has paved a path for subsequent generations of diverse professionals in finance and private equity, enabling opportunities for others to succeed and thrive as she has.
She was kind enough to carve out some time for us recently, and the interview was revealing in so many ways: from her inside-look into Washington (and perhaps why politicians aren’t all bad) to her approach to diversity. In an industry that’s squarely focused on monetary returns, her insights are priceless. Our collective hats should tip to this powerhouse who uses her voice for those who are often kept out of the conversation.
Sean Mooney: As the current Vice Chair of AIC, what are a few of the core initiatives you are taking on in terms of lobbying efforts for the PE industry?
Pam Hendrickson: My focus is on helping make sure that members of Congress and the Administration understand private equity’s positive role in local communities across the country. Our industry employs over 11 million Americans, supports thousands of small businesses, and delivers strong pension returns for retirees. Fortunately, more people on the Hill now appreciate private equity and the tremendous value we add to the American economy.
I’m also working to explain the real-world consequences of some recent proposals in Congress that would change the tax treatment of carried interest capital gains. I’m especially interested in explaining how these proposals would harm the entrepreneurial ecosystem for women investors and entrepreneurs. The Ways and Means legislation would penalize investment firms by creating a potential tax penalty for adding new partners to existing investments. This would disproportionately expose women to nearly impossible barriers as they work to climb the corporate ladder at a time when firms are trying to advance diversity within their own leadership ranks.
Washington is trying to move very quickly: it’s like being in a baseball game but not knowing what inning you’re in. Oftentimes the intention of these proposals isn’t nefarious or ill-intended; rather, haste makes waste and politicians are drinking massive amounts of information from a firehose. One minute they are talking to someone like me, with a private equity agenda. The next minute, it’s someone from higher education, renewable energy, or critical infrastructure. Our job [as industry insiders and lobbyists] is to inform them about the realities and potential negative consequences in a non-incendiary way so they will actually listen; subsequently, we hope they make decisions based on the data-rich information we have provided.
SM: How would you define the Riverside culture, and how does this impact your investment strategy?
PH: At Riverside, our mantra is very simple, rooted in the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. This way of approaching investments, problem-solving, conversation, basically everything, puts the onus back on the fund managers to ensure we are making decisions that we would also make for ourselves.
Here’s an example of how this cultural value is operationalized vis-a-vis our portfolio companies: Some years ago, we made an investment in an educational company founded by a former teacher who saw a gap in the curriculum for kids, especially those on the autism spectrum. She created an entirely new language based on symbols not on letters—and this system has gained traction and been widely adopted in special education circles.
After the acquisition, her daughter took over the CEO position; she had never been a CEO, but she was familiar with the company, having helped get it through its initial growth phase. Instead of treating her like someone who needed “schooling” from us, we approached it from more of a consultative standpoint. This is how I prefer to be treated when tackling something new. No one likes to be patronized. Instead, our role was being more of a sounding board— she was especially happy to have her private equity partners during the early days of the pandemic because they could provide both advice and capital. Today, that company continues to thrive, and she has exceeded our expectations.
SM: Why does diversity at the highest levels of a company matter?
PH: My personal view is that diversity has more to do with various ways of thinking, experiences, and skills, rather than what someone looks like. How someone thinks about solving a problem has less to do with their gender or race, and more to do with their cultural attitudes and the background they bring to the table: education, where they grew up, how they managed challenges. A second-generation immigrant from Cuba who grew up in a single-parent household is going to have a different perspective than someone like me who grew up on Park Avenue in New York. This is a wonderful and necessary form of diversity—particularly if we have a shared interest in reaching a goal or outcome. What we miss with homogenous “group think” is likely why we’ve had recessions, wars, and insert any form of negative societal output. It’s just better business to have high-powered seats filled with versatile approaches to problem-solving.
How does this play out in the boardroom? We recently had an investment committee looking at a deal that sat squarely in the female products market segment. More than half of the people sitting at the table had never heard of this product and they didn’t understand what it did or why anyone would want it. So, they deferred to those of us in the room who understood the potential value of this product based on our experience—not simply on the numbers being presented on the slide deck.
SM: How has private equity changed over the last twenty years? If you were to sum it up in less than 10 words, what would you say?
PH: Funds used to make money on the buy. Not now.
The expanded version is: there used to be a time when multiples were low, and you could buy low and sell higher to generate great returns. Now companies are expensive to buy, so they have to grow quickly, and you can’t save your way to prosperity. This notion that PE “flips and strips” is just so far from the truth. Our whole objective is to get growth because we can’t increase value without top-line revenue going up and to the right.
SM: What is your hope for the future of PE? Where would you like to see it change, move, and transform?
PH: In general, one astonishing thing about PE is how little it has moved to technology. People in this industry still rely on Excel for tracking, measuring, and reporting. At Riverside, we have moved to upgraded technology because we are a volume shop, and we can’t afford to throw people at everything. But funds need to embrace technology. You’d think there would be more technology solutions that integrate, but they don’t.
For example: while there are some good systems for CRM, these don’t connect to a portfolio company’s reporting system that also needs to connect to how you report to LPs. It’s all fragmented and disjointed. All sorts of systems do financial reporting, but then the systems that show how you create value within the portfolio companies are entirely missing. As an industry, we need to move from manual processes to streamlined technology solutions. There’s an idea for an aspiring entrepreneur!
On a brighter note: I am delighted by the increased number of diverse owners of private equity funds. These investors will ensure access to capital to a broader and more diverse base of founders, thus attracting new, innovative companies into the mix.
SM: What keeps you going during the difficult moments when negativity abounds, circumstances look bleak, the world seems to be imploding. What’s your “secret?”
PH: I’m pretty lucky because I have a “high happiness” set point. When bad stuff happens, I just move on. I realize this isn’t the case for many, so I am very grateful to have been built like this—it likely is part of the reason I’ve been able to take so many risks and last in the investment world as long as I have. I remember in 7th grade the headmistress at my school saying something like: “You just happily bounce along. You need to have more angst about things, Pamela.” I remember thinking that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I bounced off, and, from what I can tell, I was right to ignore her advice.
Within the first few minutes of my conversation with Matthew Garff, two things became crystal clear: He fundamentally believes in what’s possible and he approaches potential problems with radical honesty. This is a personal as well as professional attitude and has served him well throughout the course of his three decades career.
While the last two years have often felt like a mission impossible, Garff and the team at Sun Capital Partners (perhaps the name of the firm says it all?) remained a bright light for their portfolio companies, traversing uncharted territory and ultimately coming out ahead—mostly due to their investment strategy of focusing energy and resources on industries they know well, and a commitment to the people side of their founder and/or family-owned businesses. In his words: “Human capital is the most valuable asset in most companies, and people enable what’s possible. They are what ultimately make it successful.”
From working with founder-owned companies and prioritizing the Chief HR role to assessing acquisition targets through operational due diligence, in this interview, Garff reveals insights into how he thinks about the future of private equity and why that narrative needs a reboot. I couldn’t have said it better myself! Spoiler alert: although he spent several years of his career acquiring golf courses, his son is the real expert on the sport now.
Sean Mooney: Why is the due diligence process so vital to the acquisition or add-on process when assessing a company’s potential?
Matthew Garff: When we acquire a business, the company often needs help understanding what’s possible—far beyond what has already been accomplished. Generally speaking, with founder or family-owned businesses, they have had their heads down for a long time, grinding it out; so, when they engage with us our first objective is to try to uncover (or help management reach) the “possible.” The due diligence process allows us to understand where the business could be performing three to five years from now.
A good example is our portfolio company National Tree. It was a second-generation, family-owned business and a market leader in selling seasonal home decor through online marketplaces like Amazon and Wayfair. They had over a decade of experience working with these online marketplaces built a market leadership position in their niche products, which we learned through diligence would continue to grow. We also recognized their capabilities in sourcing and dropshipping products. With these core strengths, we saw an opportunity to leverage these skills and expand into tertiary markets, which National Tree is now doing.
As a result of our findings, and our roadmap for achieving what’s possible, in the last two years the company has experienced tremendous progress—they have added executive team members, instituted new operational systems and disciplines, and opened the door to add-on opportunities that will expand product categories and accelerate growth.
A nod to BluWave here: you helped us with FP&A resources that worked with us for several months after closing. This was an integral part of what we are now seeing in terms of National Tree’s expansion and continued market leadership.
SM: How is the process different when working with a founder- or family-owned business?
MG: I’d say the major difference is ensuring that there is a smooth transition from a cultural perspective. Typically, these founders and family owners are very attached to the business and even though they want to evolve and grow—which is why they partner with Sun Capital—they are seeing a lot of change happen to what they built, and that can be difficult. We collaborate with them on the “Shared Vision Plan” to ensure we are aligned in every way on the strategic direction and that they are on board with the changes.
SM: What are some of the obstacles the industry is facing?
MG: The industry is really healthy and the capital and know-how from PE is very constructive. However, too often I hear the pervading narrative that “PE is a destructive force in business through leveraging businesses.” The biggest obstacle we currently face is a negative perception of the industry, touted by those who have a public voice but choose to focus on the failed companies which were owned by private equity. The truth is, many private equity investments provide wealth creation for families, fuel innovation, and enable the economic growth engine.
I always say that these detractors offer a view of PE that’s akin to someone from another country visiting Los Angeles for the first time on the one day of the year when it actually rains. Then, they go back to their friends and say: “Ha! I knew it. Los Angeles isn’t sunny, it rains every day!”
SM: What are some of the factors driving the momentum in the industry?
MG: In general, buyers are now more specialized by industry, and this makes them more informed. At our firm, we adopted the “focused industry” approach many years ago, and as a result, we are more refined in our thinking and decisions. This is good for sellers because they can find an investor-partner who understands the nuances of their particular business and industry.
I’ll use National Tree again, to give a clear-cut example of how this specialized approach benefits both parties. Currently, I spend most of my time in consumer and digital commerce. When National Tree had a rough patch with Wayfair, I picked up the phone and called my relationship at Wayfair. Within days, the problem was solved. In short: specialization supports the momentum we are now seeing industry-wide.
SM: How do you think about human capital when it comes to acquiring and managing portfolio companies?
MG: I believe human capital is one of the most valuable assets of any successful company. End of story. Several years ago, we wanted to increase the attention our portfolio companies were giving to human capital. As a solution, we put in place a strategy to have our portfolio companies hire a Chief HR Officer—a role that drives strategic thinking, fundamental change through processes, and design efficiencies. This person’s role is to think strategically about the business, then marry that strategic thinking with decision-making around human capital. He or she understands long-term objectives and implements a hiring strategy to meet these objectives. It was a game-changer for our companies and enabled us to swiftly drive change and make money for the shareholders.
If we are considering a company for acquisition, one of the key components of “HR diligence” is seeing if they have this role filled. If they do, it signals they are proactive versus reactive. Unfortunately, most companies are extremely reactive, but we’ve come to understand that having a Chief HR Officer is a core part of the business strategy. It’s not always easy to fill this role, because HR is too often put in a reactive role. But the HR function needs to be elevated to someone who can ask questions like: “Is there a hiring strategy and plan for who we hire six months to a year from now.”
SM: Many companies are going through hiring and recruiting challenges. How is Sun Capital helping support your portcos to this end, and what are some of the suggested solutions?
MG: We have long understood that strong cultures lead to strong performance. As a regular practice, we conduct surveys at our companies and measure the results. This is the only way to improve on it. When we are looking at companies to buy, or even when we visit our portfolio companies, culture is a key focus because it can make the difference in terms of hiring and retaining top talent; and having the most capable, skilled employees leads to better performance.
As an example, I was visiting a prospective company a few weeks ago, and as we walked the warehouse the employees were eagerly coming up to our tour guide, a company executive. They were saying hello, high-fiving, and seeking his attention. It became immediately clear that the company had a strong culture, and when we did some more digging we found that turnover was low and profitability high. This strong, healthy culture we witnessed first-hand also translated to strong performance.
While recruiting is certainly more of a heavy lift right now, I always remind our portfolio company leaders that employees need to understand the vision, and they need to know everyone—including managers and executives—are rowing in the same direction. When an employee feels like “our mission statement is ‘X’ but no one seems to follow it” this undermines culture, and can have negative consequences (not to mention high costs).
As a slight aside, the founders and Co-CEOs of Sun Capital have developed our company culture around the concept of radical honesty. In short, having honest conversations and being encouraged to voice our opinions is a core part of our DNA. This means everyone, from every level of our organization, is given the opportunity to be heard.
SM: Are there any industries that are being overlooked by PE firms right now? If so, why do you think that is?
MG: Successful investors often exhibit the quality of being open-minded and avoiding the temptation of the crowd, because the crowd is not always correct. For example, at present “brick and mortar” businesses are viewed as unfavorable, and in some cases, this is deserved. But many retailers that have strong underlying businesses will stand the test of time.
We recently acquired a mattress retailer called Mancini’s Sleepworld. For the last few years, the conventional thinking has been that online mattress retailers like Casper would push traditional retailers out of business. As it turns out, the opposite has been true; Casper now has physical stores, because customers actually want to “try before they buy.” By the way, Mancini’s is doing great and we expect this trend to continue.
Sun Capital has been a successful early adopter in other industries that may seem out of favor. Fortunately, this has allowed us to exit at higher multiples than we entered in areas like HVAC, produce, and contract manufacturing. While we do spend ample time deliberating the merits of a business based on industry trends, we try to stay open-minded based on a variety of other factors and be aware of what we see happening at a personal, local, and community level.
SM: Given all your past investment focus on golf courses do you have a favorite?
MG: If I’m being radically honest (I knew that would come back to bite me), I’m not a good golfer, and I really don’t get on the course much anymore. However, my 16-year-old son is an avid golfer, so when he asks me to join I generally take him up on the offer—it’s often the only time I get to spend with him. We recently spent a day at Rancho Park in Westwood (Los Angeles, CA), and apparently, it has the most traffic of any golf course in America. I was obviously thrilled with so many onlookers, given my current trend of 120+ strokes.
Mergers and acquisitions are intended to create an organization that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. But this process all too frequently gets bogged down by lack of planning, procedural and cultural misalignments, and poor follow-through. As a result, the newly formed whole is often worse off than the individual businesses were before they merged.
Private equity (PE) firms are experts at acquiring and integrating businesses. They leave little to chance when it comes to the success of add-on acquisitions by their portfolio companies. Instead of hoping that all the pieces will simply fall into place once a merger gets underway, top PE firms use specialized PE-grade merger integration advisors from BluWave’s Intelligent Network to help guide and keep portfolio company acquisitions on track. These merger integration experts know what steps need to be taken and when they need to be taken in order for an acquisition to live up to its full potential.
For the deployment of third-party professionals to be effective, there are several best practices investors and companies should observe. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Planning leads to alignment
There’s nothing more essential to a successful merger integration process than planning for aligned success – on business objectives, culture, and a wide range of other issues. But it’s impossible to bring different systems and workforces into alignment without a full accounting of what each company’s strengths and weaknesses are, how tasks and roles will be designated, how success will be measured, and so on. Making these determinations takes planning.
According to a survey conducted by KPMG, 78 percent of companies that have gone through mergers say they intend to prioritize better integration planning for their next merger, and even higher proportions said they’ll focus on improving internal communication (84 percent) and cultural integration (81 percent). Almost two-thirds said they would try to improve performance management.
These are all core elements of a successful transition, and each one is very difficult to execute without a comprehensive planning phase. The leadership teams in most companies are not natural experts at planning for merger integrations – it’s not central to their roles, nor should it be. As such, they’re usually not very good at it and also don’t have the luxury of time to learn how to be an expert. Third-party merger integration advisors have chosen to be experts in this field and help their customers get this critical phase right the first time.
Ensure that roles are well-defined
By bringing in dedicated third-party integration support resources, company leaders and employees will have specialized partners who can help them think through the nuances of how roles and responsibilities should be described, defined, and delegated within the newly whole company.
According to the 2020 PwC M&A Integration Survey, just 22 percent of change management programs include employee onboarding. While half of the companies included a specific focus on culture in their merger integration process, this proportion drops to 37 percent for organization, 36 percent for communications, and 34 percent for leadership. These numbers demonstrate that companies which have gone through the merger integration process aren’t nearly as concerned as they should be with managing their personnel. This is reflected in the fact that the proportion of companies reporting “significant success” in securing post-merger employee retention collapsed from 56 percent in 2010 to just 10 percent in 2019.
Companies should work with third-party HR and transition specialists who can help them identify the areas where employees will be most productive, which will improve morale and make the transition more effective.
Focus on capturing synergies
One of the biggest obstacles companies face during merger integrations is being able to allocate the appropriate time, focus, and attention to tangibly achieve targeted synergies. PwC reports that, while 70 percent of companies had synergy plans in place when the deal was signed, only 13 percent said they had “very favorable” results capturing revenue synergies while 10 percent could say the same about cost synergies. When companies captured synergies, shareholders saw gains in excess of 10 percent.
According to McKinsey, the most successful acquirers proactively focus on synergies, moving deliberately to capture more than 50% of targeted gains during the first 12 months. By bringing in third-party merger integration experts, companies benefit from dedicated and professional project management focus and attention that make sure both the acquirer and acquiree are working with purpose and urgency to achieve promised results.
A merger or acquisition can be one of the most strategically impactful or value-destroying initiatives a company can undertake. The private equity industry and other world-class acquirers understand this. Merger integration specialists are one of the lowest costs workflows in a merger or acquisition process, but at the same time offer one of the highest returns on investment by meaningfully improving the chances that the combined companies will capitalize on their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses, and create far more value than they could have on their own.
We have a deep bench of PE-grade merger integration experts in our network, contact us to quickly get connected to the exact-fit provider you need.