“There's an old saying in academia that experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is too expensive. So, what we do at the board level is try to save the CEOs some of that tuition.”
How did you get into financial services and insurance?
After business school, I started out at a budding software company in Boston that built financial management systems for banks and savings and loans. This was my first introduction into financial services. The company had a stronghold in the Northeast but wanted to branch out to the rest of the country. So, I opened up three regional sales offices in Atlanta, Austin and San Francisco.
Next, I joined McKinsey in Atlanta where I worked on banking and other industries. It was here where I had my first contact with Bank of America. I was soon tasked with a project in Australia involving one of their major banks. One project led to another and soon I joined the client and ran their retail bank. I eventually became the CEO of the New Zealand arm of the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group. A few years later I was recruited back to Australia to lead the merger of two banks and an insurance company, which became Suncorp. We engineered all the major processes from the ground up involved in this three-way merger.
These were all great career accomplishments but after living in Australia and New Zealand for 15 years, my wife and I decided it was time to move back to the U.S. That’s when I became the Dean of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. UNC was my undergraduate alma mater and it felt great to be back there. That’s also when I reconnected with Bank of America, who recruited me to join their board. Later I joined the board of State Farm.
What did you learn from your experience at that fast-growing software company that has helped you become a better leader and a better board member today?
I opened territories in the Southeast, the Southwest and the Far West. I hired and trained regional managers to run each one—that was my role. I also had to roll up my sleeves and make the sale to a bank in the region that was going to be a bell cow for other banks to follow.
It’s a bit cliché but it’s still true today that he who makes the most sales calls make the most sales. That should never be forgotten. I also learned sales people will focus on what actually sells versus what you might want them to sell. They have that drive to get and feel the success of a yes, so it’s important to keep that in mind.
If your product requires missionary selling, or having to convince the buyer of the benefits, then the caliber of your sales force better be equal to or even higher than the decision maker they’re selling to. We had to convince these banks our financial management system was better than the one they had used for years and felt comfortable using. Good salespeople don’t really need to be motivated—this is true for most managers. You just need to make sure you provide the tools they need to get the job done.
Something else I learned was in recruiting and hiring both salespeople and managers. Patience pays off here. You can’t compromise on quality just to fit your need in a certain timeframe. It’s best to be patient and wait for the right fit for your team. It’s easier said than done but it’s absolutely true. Also, when trying to scale, hire people that know how to do whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I actually learned that in the early days at a dinner with Fred Smith in 1977. He was talking about the founding of Federal Express and how he was the only one who didn’t know how to do what they were accomplishing. Everybody else he hired had previous roles at an airline, UPS or somewhere relevant. So that lesson really stuck with me.
All these lessons provided me a great foundation to help companies consider questions of growth and how to grow. There's an old saying in academia that experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is too expensive. So, what we do at the board level is try to save the CEOs some of that tuition.
Many of the companies in the Serent portfolio are led by first-time founders or CEOs who may have never had a board. How is having a board unique?
A lot of times they’ve never had a board so it’s a new experience. I’ve been on two-dozen boards and have noticed they’re like families—no two are alike. Every board is unique and brings something different to the table. It’s important they know that we help the CEOs get used to the board. That provides the right expectations about what it’s there for and how it does, and doesn’t, change the way they operate.
Are there certain areas that you see as opportunities to drive growth within the high-growth companies Serent partners with?
It’s really common to see the need to expand the sales and marketing team. Having a proven template for this is key. Adding salespeople and marketing people only works if they’re given the right structure to work within.
It’s also common to take a fresh look at product development and enhancements, and then prioritize around growth.
A third area is filling out the C-suite with executives who have the right experience doing what needs to be done and how to help them grow. We expose them to certain techniques and philosophies about doing their jobs so that they’re equipped to scale it up to the next level.
A fourth area to drive growth is a bolt-on acquisition. This is when you add a product that’s a natural extension of your product line, or where a product is being purchased by decision makers you’re already calling on. You can also combine forces with a competitor because you can make a lot more ground together rather than having to fight each other every day.
The last area is unique—it’s more organizational capability building. This is where we create a cadence and an accountability around setting targets. We periodically review our progress in relation to these goals throughout the year. It’s a lot like quarters that break up a football game. The coach gets time to see how his team is doing and make adjustments to win the game. Like that, we take time to evaluate our progress and create a plan to move forward in the right direction. Helping companies get a regular cadence to do this in a way that works is usually an important part of growth.
What advice would you give to first-time CEOs or founders that are considering partnering with Serent?
If they are deciding whether or not to partner with Serent, my advice would be to talk to some CEOs within the portfolio now. Tell them what their hopes and concerns are about joining, and ask them what it’s like. They’ll find those CEOs will be very candid and truthful.
If they’ve already joined Serent, then I would practice absolute candor with your Serent partner about how everything’s working. That means with the business, the relationship with the board and how the board meetings are going. The people at Serent take criticism exceptionally well. You can trust what you say to them, critical or otherwise, will be used in an appropriate way and they won’t take advantage of it.
“We take time to evaluate our progress and create a plan to move forward in the right direction. Helping companies get a regular cadence to do this in a way that works is usually an important part of growth.”
“We have seen success deploying this framework within our portfolio.”
Serent Capital invests in profitable, growing service companies. We typically invest in founder-led companies and often represent the first institutional capital in the company. We are highly selective, choosing to invest in only a handful of businesses each year. Our selectivity ensures that all our companies receive the attention and expertise that they need. Learn more about our portfolio companies.