After a business-focused undergrad program, you spent 10 years in corporate at a “Big Three” automotive company. How did that pre-MBA experience affect your post-MBA career?
After 10 years of being on the fast track in an academy company, I realized it would take longer than I liked to get the big P&L responsibility, and on top of that, I could see some of the writing on the wall for the automotive industry’s upcoming challenges. I left corporate with some of my colleagues to start a consulting firm focused on private equity, with a business model of applying our tools from automotive (time to market, lean manufacturing, and the basic things to transform a business) to other industries that had big margins but were lacking the same operating expertise. I did that for three years, and ended up subcontracting with AlixPartners, which at the time was starting a management consulting arm in the restructuring business focused on serving PE firms.
I do want to take a minute to point out that there is a very clear, fundamental difference between private equity consulting (what I did) and strategy consulting. My time at Alix was spent almost entirely in PE and restructuring, which are similar in that they both have the sense of urgency, and focus on immediacy and the most important problem. I did one singular gig in strategy and hated it, and knew it was something I was not interested in going forward.
After five years at AlixPartners, you left to join a leading private equity firm. What factors did you consider in choosing that particular opportunity?
I had contacts at the private equity firm I eventually joined, and was attracted to it because it had a lot of depth in operations capability. For my transition out of consulting, I considered smaller shops as well, but decided against the opportunity to play a more central role at those firms in exchange for a steeper learning curve and exposure to the very senior, experienced, and talented people I knew at the firm I eventually joined.
For consultants looking to transition, I’ve seen a lot of people want to jump to the more senior roles in corporate without putting in the time to prepare for them. It’s better to switch out of consulting early enough so that your expectations aren’t too high, because going into a VP-level role straight from consulting can be too much of a jump at that transition point.
For folks looking to make that move, what are your thoughts on targeting smaller shops to get the mix of investment and operations experience? As a true operator, do you have any advice on the pitfalls?
Two things here. The first is that going to a smaller shop as an operator is still a great thing – I love the flexibility gained from the exposure you get in those firms. The second, and more general point, is that for consultants who take the route of going straight into private equity, there is the challenge (not so much a “pitfall”) of being deal savvy. Private equity is very different from management consulting in that it is absolutely results oriented – you need to have the finance chops with the P&L and balance sheet to convert to an underwritten investment thesis and carefully measure it every day. You need to connect the theories to the business realities and financial statements, and that is where some consultants might get into trouble.
For those who don’t have the deal mindset you just described, but still have the goal of a private equity career, what do you suggest they do to make themselves more attractive for a PE opportunity?
See if you can get yourself into the private equity space. You can get credit in a PE situation even if you’re doing strategy – I’ve taught a lot of McKinsey guys on my team who didn’t come ready with everything. The next step would be to jump to an academy company to get a deep spike, or into restructuring which is another good way to demonstrate results. Again, it’s about showing you can be results-oriented. When you’re interviewing with a private equity firm, you have to be able to say, “This is what the P&L looked like before I was there, and this is what it was after.” You need to be able to speak their language.
Should people pursue private equity because of the money?
Not exclusively – money can come from a lot of places. In private equity, if you love the idea of being an owner, the money will come, but if you can’t wake up every morning and feel like it’s your money on the line, then it won’t. I’ve seen a lot of people go into private equity who don’t make any money. You have to start with the right DNA and set of skills to make it successful.
What advice do you have for consultants who are just beginning in private equity?
My fundamental belief is that you need time on the client site to gain credibility. Consultants, more than the deal guys, are trained to recognize gaps in management competencies, and are therefore better able to flag those issues as of value. It’s an important skill to bring to the table, but in order to do so, you need to have built in the credibility from your engagement on the client site to make and recommend those changes.
I would also say that you need to be very aware, at all times, of your ability to draw a clear connection between your efforts and the bottom line impact. If you spend 15 minutes doing something that doesn’t make that connection, the private equity folks won’t appreciate it.
Having held senior-level roles at both AlixPartners and your subsequent PE firm, how do you compare the two? How was the transition for you?
Compared with consulting, the focus on the deal economics in private equity is paramount – any action or time spent must have linkage to the economics / portfolio. A second difference is in how you must communicate your message, because there is a broader audience than just the executive team like in consulting. You need to be able to communicate with the board as well as company management, and to be able to interface and manage across both levels.
A similarity between AlixPartners and private equity is in the transition – the key is to figure out how the game is played in both scenarios. Find the questions you need to ask in order to get the answers you need, and find the people you can trust to be your mentors and show you the nuances. For my transition, I personally had an easy time switching over – I was also overseeing field operations people, which is easier than immediately interfacing with the deal team. In that type of role, no one expects you to know the deal / ops team dynamics, and in that sense it is an easier role for folks coming straight from consulting. It’s a great way to ease the transition and have time to gain the deal experience.
You’ve lived the dream of many consultants, going from the operational side of private equity to a business unit President role in a PE portfolio company. How did you pull it off? How did you decide to take on that particular role, and what’s it like being on the other side of the table?
I was the Operations Partner for my current company, so it was very much my deal – I did the due diligence, worked on the transformation, and traveled to and from the site each week. I’ve been traveling close to 100% of the time for most of my career, and even with that experience, this was a lot of travel for me. With the ground time and $100mn worth of cost reduction, I had developed a good relationship with the CEO, and was helping to assess candidates for the President role of the business unit. He kept asking me why I didn’t take it myself, and through the process, I realized I ultimately wanted to go back into corporate. In private equity, you always know that when the right deal comes along you can transform and go back into industry.
You’ve worked with medical devices and services throughout your career in consulting, PE, and now as a business unit President at a leading medical products company. Has that industry always been an interest of yours, or is it something that developed over time?
The appeal of the medical devices industry was that it was high margin to start, and there were a lot of levers that hadn’t been pulled that I knew how to pull from my days in the automotive industry. Innovation is key in this industry, and that’s where my focus has shifted – from cost reduction to revenue growth. There are a lot of industries that have had that shift, and I find the companies that have a short development cycle and a lot of R&D spend to be the most exciting.
For consultants, do you think being industry agnostic is OK, or should they apply some rationale?
Early on it helps to bring a depth of industry knowledge from consulting, and over time you earn the right to apply pattern recognition / experience to different industries and drivers. Beyond that, it is vital to get out and placed to gain credibility, because the management team will always want someone with a great track record whom they feel they can trust. You either have to have major wins in a deep spike of function (where you can get away with being an industry generalist), or have a deep spike in industry, in order to be successful.
For me, my deep spike was in lean manufacturing from automotive. In my current industry, where there is a focus on innovation, you don’t get the right to work on that stuff until you have your foot in the door and the wins to prove your worth.
You’ve gone full circle in your career, from corporate, to consulting, to PE, and now back to corporate as a Business Unit President. What are your plans in terms of personal development and growth in the future? Do you see yourself in corporate for the long term?
I think self-awareness is key to be able to identify your opportunities. I also believe in continuous improvement, and that you never reach a level at which you cannot better yourself. In addition to the leadership of my current company, I find coaches in external groups, and actively network and join associations to expand my circle.
As for where I’ll end up in the future, I will likely finish out my career in or around private equity. I love the pace of the industry compared to most corporations.
Finally, anything else you can share about how you have approached the defining transition points in your career? Who is on your personal Board of Directors (the coaches, mentors, etc. that you mentioned previously)?
I have mentors from every step of my career whom I consult on a regular basis, and the issues themselves really define the group I go to in particular. I still have close friends from my first 10 years in corporate, as well as from AlixPartners, and my recent private equity firm. The concept of the network is absolutely critical in looking at those next steps in your career – you never want to burn a bridge, because the world is getting smaller and smaller. I always make time for developing people, and getting developed, because I believe those are some of the most important aspects of the job.