Going back to your transition out of consulting, you left A.T. Kearney at Principal level after eight years at the firm to join Johnson & Johnson as a Director of Contract Manufacturing. Why did you decide to leave consulting when you did? Did you ever consider the Partner path?
My primary reason for a change was realizing I didn’t want to be a Partner. As I got closer to the Principal level in consulting, the emphasis was primarily on selling work, and that wasn’t my favorite thing in the world to do. I knew that career wise I couldn’t ultimately be happy with that role.
How did you decide on the opportunity at Johnson & Johnson? What factors did you consider in choosing that particular opportunity?
I was fortunate enough to have had a few clients approach me with job opportunities, and J&J was my final client. The big difference with the Johnson & Johnson role was that it was a line management role with a large budget and professional team – I felt it was important that I avoid “staff” roles post consulting so I could work on broader leadership skills.
You hit the ground running post-A.T. Kearney at Johnson & Johnson: you were promoted to Vice President, North American Strategic Sourcing after a year at the company, and then again one year later to Vice President of Global Supply Chain Integration & Strategy. What advice do you have for consultants seeking a similar impact in their first post consulting role?
I was a bit fortunate with everything – right place, right time. J&J was shifting its strategy, and my role in running contract manufacturing led to a broader procurement role, which expanded my supply chain scope. Then we decided to go after the largest acquisition in company history, and I was asked to lead the operations due diligence and integration. I was fortunate to have three very meaningful line roles that challenged me in different ways during my four short years at the company.
If you’re aiming at operational responsibility, the goal is to get yourself out of a staff role and into a line role where you have portions of a P&L and can develop your management skills, take risks, and drive results. In big corporate, there is a lot of bureaucracy, and there are a lot of long meetings (which I do not miss!). The consultants who have the best transitions figure out how to cut through the bureaucracy, and can quickly navigate to the right job that will give them their ideal or targeted experience.
You then joined Golden Gate Capital as an executive in the company’s operating group. Had it always been your plan to go into private equity post consulting? How did that opportunity transpire?
I barely knew what private equity was before. Even at Johnson & Johnson, my knowledge of PE firms was limited to when those firms bought certain suppliers (and that often meant trouble). My move to Golden Gate Capital came through the referral of a former J&J executive who had gone to be CEO in a different private equity environment. I didn’t even know that world existed back in 2007!
My entry into Golden Gate Capital began with leading an operating company within the management team as its Chief Operations Officer. GGC didn’t then, nor does it now, have a formal operating group structure with dedicated professionals. That is a point worth clarifying to readers, because I think it is commonly misunderstood – there are two different paths for operations in private equity: operating groups at the private equity firm level, and being an executive member (CEO, COO, etc.) of the portfolio company team. In operating groups at the private equity firm level, it’s like consulting on steroids, and you parachute in and out of different companies. In my role, I am fully embedded in the portfolio companies, and I get my paycheck directly from the portfolio companies themselves – there is some “nice-to-have” additional from my affiliation with GGC after that. When asked what I do today, the first thing I tell people is that I am the Chief Operations Officer of a window company.
I love what I am doing now, and for me, I feel like a role in the other type of private equity operating group would feel too similar to consulting at this point. I’ve gotten my hands dirty once, and I don’t think I can go back. No one path is better than the other, but if you’re targeting PE operating opportunities, you have to figure out what you are going for, because – as I mentioned – not all firms provide both options. Just as all consulting firms are not equal, it’s the same with private equity firms. If you want to do great true strategy work, McKinsey might be best known for that, whereas firms like A.T. Kearney or Booz are better known for their operations work.
What were your biggest surprises from your transition to private equity?
The joke in consulting is that as a recruit, you’re wined and dined and shown only the good things – but once you join your firm, you move from the good side to the “dark side” of consulting, if you will, complete with the long hours and pressure of the “up or out” model. You are welcomed to the “real world” where people are no longer fighting for your good graces. I would say that same phenomenon is even worse in private equity, and usually they don’t even bother to wine and dine you that much at the start. No matter how rosy a situation is painted for consultants re: private equity, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re generally in very stressful situations – more stressful than what you dealt with in consulting. You have a very short amount of time to produce meaningful results, and you are only measured on those results. In consulting, if you fail, the firm as a whole will likely still survive. Even if a project goes disastrously wrong with a client, the firm as a whole will go on its way with other client engagements (unless you have something along the lines of a large lawsuit, and that’s extremely rare). A private equity firm is a combination of the assets on which you are working, and if you fail, there’s a chance the firm as a whole could fail as well.
The amount of pressure in private equity came as a surprise to me. Part of that also has to do with the time horizon of your projects, which is shorter in consulting. In consulting, if you’re staffed on something that isn’t going all that well, you know you’ll likely be out in a few months. In private equity, once you’re there, you’re there. In my first COO job under Golden Gate Capital, there was no next client for me – the only way for me to get that next chance was to do really well with the first one.
This brings me to a second realization, and one I think is important to point out to private equity hopefuls. Private equity is not all high-growth situations, IPOs, and opening up new markets. I had to pay it forward in my first role to really get a chance at the kind of opportunity that embodied those more sought after elements. My timing was not great when I entered my first portfolio company as its Chief Operations Officer. It was 2007, at the brink of the financial meltdown, and 95% of our business was international. We had huge regulatory issues on top of that, and the private equity industry in general was bursting at the seams. I had two choices: to go back to the familiarity of a situation like I had at Johnson & Johnson, or to resolve to give it my best, which was a huge risk on my part. I knew my equity wouldn’t be worth anything, and that it would likely always be under water. Luckily I did the right thing and stayed on, but it took four full years as COO of that company helping to turn it around before I was given that second opportunity.
Should consultants go into private equity for the money?
I have observed that the economics can be very hot and cold. It’s generally equity-based compensation, so if you end up in the right situation, the returns can be impressive. If you end up in the wrong situation, your equity can be worth nothing. At times, it can be a challenging position, and it can make sense for people in roles like mine to take on additional professional opportunities to up their income. Generally you can make more day-to-day cash doing something else if that is your primary focus.
In your role today, what do you lean on specifically from your time in consulting (if anything)? Having worked in both corporate and private equity post consulting, what key characteristics do you think are necessary to succeed in each environment on top of the typical consultant mindset and skillset?
Project management, the ability to assemble a team quickly, and board level communication are skills I learned in consulting that have all come in handy. For additional characteristics or skills, succinct communication at all levels is absolutely critical – being able to relay key information to your board, as well as motivate the lower parts of the organization. A lot of ex consultants have issues relating to those lower levels. In looking back at my time in private equity, corporate, and consulting, an important difference in each has been the general collection of people with whom I’m working, and being able to adjust accordingly. In consulting, you’re surrounded by exceptionally bright people who have been the best in everything their whole lives. They all have their quirks (we used to joke about the “airport test,” i.e. who you could be stuck in an airport with), but overall you’re used to working with a team of incredibly accomplished individuals. Moving into corporate, you encounter more of a mix of people with different motivations and speeds on your team, and you have to figure out a way to relate to and motivate each individual.
Being CEO or COO of a private equity-owned portfolio company comes with its own challenges in terms of talent. Unless you’re hiring for the executive suite, you’re not always able to wave the brand flag and use it as leverage the way you can at a Johnson & Johnson. There is also always the “unknown” of whether the private equity company will even be there in a few years, which can make it harder to attract talent in certain areas.
It’s funny, because you don’t necessarily realize how reliant you become on the individuals that make up your teams. In both environments (corporate and private equity) you need to be able to get the results regardless of the caliber of people you are managing, and you need to be able to adjust your leadership style accordingly. I’ve had a pretty good ride, which I think is in large part because I can do this to a certain extent – not saying I’m perfect at it! But I am working to improve. I’ve watched a lot of former consultants come into each environment and fail, and many times it’s because they cannot make that adjustment to speak to the whole of the people with whom they are working.
I’ve always had a couple of ex-consultants on my team, and another winning characteristic or skill in the transition has been an EBITDA / ROI mindset – the ability to go as deep into the execution side of things as they would on the strategy and analysis side. You need to trust but verify. A knock against consulting is that we don’t do the implementation: we’ll analyze the data, identify the ability for savings, and formulate the strategy to lead you there – but it’s very rare that we get you those savings ourselves. In corporate or private equity, it’s rare that you have a former consultant that cannot do the strategy and analysis piece, but there is the additional responsibility to see those strategies through and to ensure the intended results materialize. If you cannot follow through, it can be a limiting factor. As someone with a P&L, the numbers are my responsibility, and if you’re on my team you need to ensure those results are going to show up in my bottom line. For success in transition, the question to ask yourself is: will you have the patience and discipline to proactively follow through on your strategy – to set up the tracking mechanisms, schedule weekly calls, work with the different teams, and drive your own results – or will you need to be asked or reminded to do those things?
Overall, I will say that I think the transition to “big corporate” is easier for a consultant than into private equity.
You bridged private equity and consulting with a stint in corporate – is that something you would suggest? How did your time at Johnson & Johnson help you in your role today (if at all), versus going straight into private equity from consulting?
Yes, I think going from consulting straight into PE might be a little challenging – especially if it’s into an OpEx type role where you are advising portfolio companies. Ultimately, it would be tough to gain credibility with operating companies if you yourself haven’t had a “real job” – while it’s a stereotype, you’ll be limited by that perception. Perception is reality, unfortunately. I think getting corporate leadership experience is the best route into PE, especially if you want to take the path I have.
For me, I couldn’t have gone from consulting straight into the role I have in private equity today – I would have failed pretty badly. My previous experience at Johnson & Johnson is hugely impactful to the success I have had in my current role, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I had at the company. I learned how to manage a team, and how to manage an organization, which is drastically different than in consulting when your teams are naturally smaller and you’re in an advisory capacity. Coming out of consulting, I found myself in a role with responsibility for a $1bn supply chain, 70 professionals, and subsequently the largest acquisition challenge in the company’s history – kudos to whoever put me in charge of that! (laughs). I am forever grateful. Coming from an advisory background, I suddenly had 70 people going home at night under my watch, looking to me for guidance, and all the while, I might add, likely wondering why the hell I was in charge in the first place. I had to learn the business, and on top of that I had to make up for my lack of credibility from less time in the company / industry through engaging and counseling my team – and that’s hard when there is only one of you. Luckily I had some existing relationships with some key senior leaders, and knew a bit of the culture from my time advising J&J which allowed me some immediate room to maneuver – but it certainly took an adjustment to learn the company and my team to drive results.
In private equity – in contrast – you’re tested on day 1, and if you don’t succeed and show immediate results, you’re out. You just don’t have that time to adjust. While I thought there was a lot of pressure at Johnson & Johnson, if I failed, I would have had to fail pretty horrendously to get fired from my job if I’m being honest. Your leash in private equity is much shorter – I thought I had a short leash at Johnson & Johnson, but in retrospect it was really medium to long.
Many consultants dream of an executive role in the operations group of a private equity company. How do they make themselves more attractive for these types of roles?
Reputation is your number 1 lever for any job and PE is no different – as I mentioned before, I was referred to Golden Gate Capital by a former J&J executive who became CEO in another PE environment. Do a great job with what you have, and stay networked. PE opportunities are right place, right time. Your initial entry will probably be because you have a specific industry or functional skill that the firm needs right then. In my case, they wanted someone with consumer products and health care operations expertise, and it helped that I had a consulting background because the private equity firm was filled with that type.
You’ve been COO and CEO of management teams for three different portfolio companies in your time at Golden Gate Capital. Knowing each case has its differences, are there any key overarching techniques or methods you use to promote on-the-ground success?
I have worked in three very different industries: health & wellness, industrial minerals, and building products. But I am not there to write reports or provide advice – I am there to run the day-to-day company as COO or CEO. That said, it is like getting a new client in a different industry – just on steroids (like I mentioned previously). You need to be a good listener, ask a lot of questions, avoid being too judgmental, manage with data, set clear goals / priorities, and be very results-oriented. It is always a challenge to build credibility, but ultimately that is when you know it’s all working.
Another positive thing I learned in consulting is shortening your learning curve – that has helped me with these transitions.
Having been in consulting, corporate and private equity, do you envision yourself in private equity for the long haul?
I cannot see myself ever going into consulting again – with no disrespect to those who take that route. When my days of full time work are over, I might do some side projects, but they would likely be for mid-sized private equity-backed companies – not the formal management consulting work I came from. That world isn’t attractive to me anymore for a variety of reasons, and the same goes for big Corporate America (Fortune 100). It is too bureaucratic. After seven years of working in PE environments, I don’t think I could go back the other way. I don’t feel there will be any shortage of PE opportunities for the rest of my career, and fortunately I feel very well matched with Golden Gate Capital.
Anything else to add?
One point I think is important: don’t worry about compensation. The money will come. Far too often I see people get hung up on cash compensation early in their careers – they won’t tolerate anything less than what they are making in consulting or their first few roles, or they’ll only take a 5% reduction, and they reject any opportunity beneath that threshold. That kind of thinking is crazy to me. Your decisions, and the moves you make early on, should be 100% focused on how they build your career and maximize both your experience and exposure.
It’s the decisions that come from giving short term gains the priority (versus focusing on the longer term) that will prevent you from opportunities you want when you get to the later stages of your career like where I am today. For example, there are many people who want the type of role I have now, but unfortunately many of them are not prepared or eligible for the role because of decisions they made 5-10 years beforehand. They justified not moving for all sorts of reasons – they wouldn’t have a fancy staff, or they stayed in consulting because it was comfortable for them. And those decisions may have been right for them at the time, but they didn’t focus on building the career, and the story, that’s necessary for the job. You’re not just going to wake up one day and be COO or CEO of a private equity-backed $500mn+ company.