In this week’s episode of Not So Private Equity, we welcome Andrew Towne, Partner at Olympus Pines. Andrew joins us to discuss his career in consulting and private equity, in addition to his impressive athletic accomplishments.
The Not So Private Equity Podcast is co-hosted by Ken Kanara and Steven Haug. Steven leads this week’s episode.
Steven Haug: Hey y’all, this is Steven Haug, cohost of Not So Private Equity. We have a great discussion ahead of us today. Before we dive in, I want to thank our sponsor ECA Partners. ECA is an executive search and on-demand consulting firm specializing in low and mid-market private equity. To learn more about ECA’s services you can reach them through their website, eca-partners.com, or message me directly and I’ll point you in the right direction.
I’m very excited to introduce our guest, Andrew Towne. Andrew is a partner at Olympus Pines, a former BCG consultant, and an accomplished athlete. Andrew, welcome to Not So Private Equity.
Andrew Towne: Steven, thanks for having me.
Steven Haug: There are lots of things that we want to talk about with you today. We want to understand where Olympus Pines fits into the broader private equity landscape and we would love to hear about your BCG days, but do you mind if we start by hearing about your athletic achievements first?
Andrew Towne: Sure. I grew up in rural North Dakota and as a teen, I was actually as unathletic as you can get. So much so that my friends used to tease me for being quite overweight. In college I wanted to reinvent myself as an athlete, and the only sport that took people with no experience, was rowing. Over the course of four years I made a personal goal to always do better in every successive endurance test. In my senior year I was lucky enough to not only make the varsity boat, but also to join seven other very talented individuals and together we won the Division I National Championship my senior year in college. That kicked off, for me, a love of pushing my mental and physical. Since I’m afraid of heights, it turned into pushing and challenging my fear of heights through mountaineering. For 12 years I’ve spent just about every vacation day that I had attempting to climb larger and larger mountains until 2017, when I finished my goal of climbing the tallest mountain on every continent, and that was with a 2017 ascent of Mount Everest.
Steven Haug: So you tackled every, they’re all 8,000 meter peaks, right? You climbed all those?
Andrew Towne: Actually, the tallest on every continent with the exception of Everest, are not over 8,000 meters. Kilimanjaro, for example, is 19,000 feet tall. In Antarctica, Mount Vinson Massif was only 16,000 feet tall, but there is another challenge. Some of the best mountaineers in the world climb the tallest 8,000 meter peaks in the world, and those are all concentrated in the Himalayas, so that’s even one step further.
Steven Haug: Was Everest the last one that you climbed or did you hit that earlier in your adventure?
Andrew Towne: It was. Mount Everest was the last one. It took me two tries. I was tragically at Mount Everest base camp when an earthquake hit the country of Nepal and unleashed a big Avalanche on me, my teammates, and the rest of Everest base camp. Netflix recently released a documentary called Aftershock, I believe, about the event. My teammates and I were lucky to survive and to be able to help both, the other casualties at base camp, and also some of the other communities in the Khumbu Valley recover, and make the most of the tragedy which was the earthquake.
Steven Haug: Oh wow. That’s an incredible story there, Andrew, and fitting all this in with the rest of your achievements, you’ve certainly had an accomplished career, both as an athlete and as a professional. Is there anything more you can tell us about your Everest trip, because I know in our conversation that it was quite an eventful story, in addition to being quite traumatic.
Andrew Towne: Yes, I think Mount Everest, indeed, all of the major peaks that I’ve climbed, and certainly the earthquake and avalanche, have taught me two things. First, our time here on Earth is extremely precious. For me, that translates to trying to seize the day and make sure that if tomorrow was my last day, that I would be proud of who I was in my community and with my family, today. Second, it taught me the importance of resilience, which matters in every aspect of life. I believe that it’s not a question of if we will stumble or fail, but when. The determining factor in all of our lives and happiness is what we do when we stumble, how we pick ourselves back up.
Steven Haug: Thanks for that Andrew. Do you find any correlation between the way you push yourself in your athletic endeavors with your professional career? What I’m thinking about is, are you able to feel the same fulfillment, push yourself, and achieve things in your professional career the way you feel you do in your extracurricular activities?
Andrew Towne: Yes. My college rowing experience taught me that for me, there was no better feeling than pushing myself through the pain of the race and finishing proud of how hard I had pushed. That translates into almost every element of my life. What I enjoy most is choosing a goal, pursuing that goal, and then being able to look back on the way that I worked toward the goal and be proud. In sports, it’s easy. You have a goal time or how much you want to lift or whatever, and you either train to get there or you don’t. In professional context, it’s do we want to release a product by a certain date? Do we want to finish an analysis by a certain date? Do we want to close the transaction by a certain date? Or do we want to hit performance goals by the end of the year. I love the combination of leadership, teamwork, and prioritization that allows teams to achieve goals that are bigger than they thought they could pull off.
Steven Haug: Tell us a bit about how you’ve balanced all this, if you don’t mind, because thinking about your career as an athlete and those achievements, usually if we saw a resume like that of an athlete, we would assume that they spent all their time training as their full time job. But you also had a career in consulting, which is famous for requiring 80 hour weeks. How are you able to balance all of this?
Andrew Towne: Sure. I believe that in life we can’t have everything, but if we focus and prioritize we can have a couple of things. What matters to me is being able to train for and go on expeditions in the mountains and in ocean rowing while also having a career that excites me. In Graduate School that meant I wasn’t going to a lot of happy hours, but I was studying hard and then hitting the gym hard after school. At BCG, it meant I was working hard, but I would also share with my colleagues if I had a mountaineering expedition like Mount Everest, I would put it on the calendar a year in advance, and I would structure my casework such that I could take an extended leave. I actually found BCG to be very supportive of both taking the leave to go on the expeditions, and also fitting in the time necessary to train. It did mean that sometimes I would have to skip some of the social events in order to have the two things that were more important to me.
Steven Haug: Do you have any big trips coming up that you could share with us?
Andrew Towne: My wife and I are hoping to do another expedition in the Andes, if not this year, then certainly in 2024, but we haven’t picked the mountain yet.
Steven Haug: That’s exciting. I look forward to hearing about that accomplishment as well as you get closer to that and complete that trip. Let’s chat more about your BCG days. Can you tell us about that career? I want to understand the projects that you were engaged on and then the decision to leave. Of course, you left after quite a bit of success.
Andrew Towne: Certainly. Very briefly, how I got into consulting was, I actually relate it to my career before Graduate School, and that was working for the CIA. I was a sophomore in college on 9/11, and so many classmates and I shifted our focus in the direction of national security as a reaction to the hate we saw in the world on 9/11. It was while I was serving with the CIA in northern Iraq, in the city of Mosul, and I realized that at the time, 2010-2011, insurgents were not as strongly motivated by ideology, as they were by lack of economic opportunity. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me because it made me realize that one the best things that you can do to promote stability in a city, region, or country is actually to create economic opportunities and have a vibrant economy. I joined BCG because I was excited to get experience and exposure to some of the largest, most dynamic companies in the world, and their senior-most decision making, while also scratching a personal itch of being able to travel a lot, which I’ve always loved.
BCG was a really terrific place for me in the sense that I was able to work in Europe and Kazakhstan, across North America, for many different industries and clients. Ultimately, why I shifted into Olympus Pines had to do with my love of doing, of actually building, leading, and getting things done myself, as opposed to helping clients get things done. The role of a consultant is, in some ways, a bit like a coach. You can bring great ideas, and you can help people lead complex transformations, but at the end of the day it is the business leader who owns the risk and also owns the success of having pulled it off. I was interested in private equity and Olympus Pines because it afforded me a direct opportunity to lead that change, as opposed to a slightly less direct opportunity to leave the change.
Steven Haug: Tell us more about Olympus Pines. Where does it fit into the broader landscape of private equity?
Andrew Towne: Sure. Olympus Pines is a small firm. We invest in retail businesses on behalf of our limited partners. At the moment our strategy is focused on the car wash space. We’re owners and operators of the Tommy’s Express Car Wash brand. They’re headquartered out of Holland, Michigan. We do a combination of acquisition and Greenfield development and we’re proud of creating the best jobs in the retail industry in all of our geographies.
Steven Haug: Is there anything specific about the car wash space that gets you all excited about investing in it?
Andrew Towne: Absolutely. The carwash space today is undergoing a nationwide transformation. I think of it almost as an infrastructure upgrade where you’ve got lots of older assets in place and some of the newer carwash models, especially Tommy’s Express, it’s a lot of investment in a community. It’s a beautiful, efficient, sustainable, i.e., ecofriendly wash that provides great value to our guests. For example, through the membership where they can actually wash their car as many times that they want in a month for a modest fee, as well as for the communities because 80% of the water that we use is reclaimed. We filter it all onsite and we’re very environmentally friendly.
Steven Haug: What role do you play inside of the firm?
Andrew Towne: Sure. As a partner, I work with our business partners in all aspects of investment and operations. That’s everything from choosing and valuing the investments to making sure that we deliver on the projection that we built from the financial model in terms of timing to close timing to bring results, etc.
Steven Haug: When you were evaluating opportunities leaving your consulting career, what was it about Olympus Pines that allowed them to win you over as opposed to a larger private equity firm or any of the other opportunities you were considering?
Andrew Towne: Two things. First, for me, culture was the most important thing I was looking for. I know that I like to work hard. I know that I like to work in teams, so the people with whom I’m working hard matters a lot to me. My business partners at Olympus Pines, Trevor Sperry and Mike Cianelli are two of the most humble and incredible people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. That to me makes a huge difference because I look forward to every time we have a meeting together, or every time we work together. We have very similar values, we have similar goals, and that makes every day of work that much more fun. Second, I like the idea of building something a little bit earlier stage, and I didn’t realize that until I talked to a lot of different companies across the full spectrum of mature to earlier stage. There’s something electric about being closer to the beginning of a firm’s history that there’s more room to set the standards and processes that you use for the future and to really set the trajectory, in terms of everything from early hiring to teams to culture to processes, and I like that. I’ve always been a guy who likes to be an inch deep and a mile wide, and so being able to touch all aspects of our growth is very fun for me.
Steven Haug: Talking about your decision to join that firm, something that’s come up a couple times in our chat here is the people, the culture, and creating great jobs for your employees. Is this emphasis on people something unique to Olympus Pines, or is it something that you see more broadly in private equity? The reason I ask is that private equity has a stigma for caring most of the bottom line and chasing that, regardless of the people.
Andrew Towne: Yeah. That was not my experience when I was talking to a lot of different private equity firms. Perhaps it’s because, it might have been my own bias, that I was specifically looking for places that cared about both their people and the employees of their portfolio companies, or it might actually be representative of a larger fact, which is, I believe the data suggests that the most successful companies, private equity-owned or not, are those that have strong talent retention and attraction processes in place. In other words, I actually think that generally speaking, companies win by being good for their stakeholders, which is their employees and their communities.
Private Equity specific, the private equity firms that I was attracted to beyond Olympus Pines were those that had the tightest collaborations between their investing and portfolio operations teams, and those that had the strongest partnerships between their portfolio operations and their portfolio companies themselves. I think that by having transparent communication, strong alignment in goals, and a willingness to have each other’s backs in pursuit of a goal, nine times out of ten, it’s going to get you where you want to go.
Steven Haug: You were very diligent about deciding which project to join. Is there any advice you could give to folks either coming out of consulting, looking to move into private equity, or folks in general interested in potentially joining a private equity firm or portfolio company that you could share?
Andrew Towne: Absolutely. The first piece of advice is know thyself and to thine own self be true because I think a lot of people are trying to do something very challenging, but maybe not actually trying to do something that, deep in their heart of hearts, they actually want to do for themselves. So this is advice that I would give to an 18-year-old, 22-year-old, or a 30-year-old. At all points in our lives, we have to know what’s right for us. Sometimes what’s right for us is playing the trombone and not actually being in finance. Sometimes it’s finding something that enables us to be the husband, father, sister, or brother that we want to be. Sometimes it’s leading very fast paced transformations, either as an advisor, or as a private equity owner or leader. That’s the first piece of advice, is really just to take the time to reflect and know who you are and what will make you happy.
The second piece of advice to people considering private equity would be, I believe it’s okay to ask any question. It’s important to be concise, have a purpose, and demonstrate the extent to which you’ve done your homework. What I mean by that is, whenever I was having a coffee chat, or an interview, I would try to make sure that I knew what was easily knowable so that the questions that I was asking people were as unique to who they were and what they worked on as possible. I think people appreciate that because they know that it’s the opposite of wasting their time. You’re asking them things that only they can answer as opposed to, “What’s the name of your firm again?” Nobody wants to take a call of like, “What the heck do you do?” Why the heck am I talking to you if you don’t know what the heck I do?
Steven Haug: Usually when I see the resume or LinkedIn of a partner at a private equity firm, they’ve spent time in investment banking rather than consulting. Are there any gaps in your toolkit since you didn’t spend your career in investment banking? Do you find that you bring anything extra to the table because you have that consulting background rather than an invest banking background?
Andrew Towne: Great question. So you’re right, I was never full time investment banking, but I did three internships during and after my MBA in private equity, distress investing and investment banking. While I was never a full-time finance professional, there was a lot of focus on finance during grad school and immediately afterward. For me, I think where the skill set aligned well was that at BCG, my passion was complex and result-oriented transformations. These were often companies, either private equity backed or with very focused mandates for change, and where our clients needed us to help them to get somewhere very specific in terms of the bottom line within a very short time frame. That’s not easy and it requires strong cultural alignment, very clear goals broken down to all levels of the organization, and then very clear accountability milestones with very quick adaptation when you’re not hitting the milestones on time. That skill set from consulting I thought was very consistent with a lot of the rules I was looking at in private equity portfolio operations because at the end of the day, if you’re a private equity company, you need to very quickly diagnose exactly what’s going on that you didn’t learn in due diligence, and then you gotta go, because your investors are tapping their feet. I may not have the sexiest financial model in the history of man, but man, can I structure transformation.
Steven Haug: Thinking about that, where do you spend or how do you spend most of your day at Olympus Pines?
Andrew Towne: It’s everywhere and I love it. We’re still pretty small, which allows me to touch everything from the investment decision to the chain of strategy, to the growth strategy, to the actual leadership of results. Along with that comes deciding what we want to delegate, how we want to delegate it, and how often we need to check in and intervene to make sure that the boat continues to row together at the right speed.
Steven Haug: Did you find when interviewing with the private firms that anyone was hesitant about bringing you onboard because you had spent most of your career in an advisory role, at least, with the reputation of consultants, hadn’t had to execute and stay around for the results?
Andrew Towne: Good question. Nobody gave me with that specific feedback, or nobody expressed a reluctance about that. However, that might because the work that I did at BCG often was 100% achieving set deliverables on a particular time frame. In that sense, even though I as a consultant was not personally accountable to the bottom line on December 31st, our team would be deemed to have failed if we didn’t all get there together. Does that make sense? As a consultant, I was never the business leader but we worked very, very closely to make sure that the teams we supported got where they were trying to go on time. I think that the private equity firms that I got to know probably could see how close that was to actually having owned the PNL myself.
Steven Haug: Yeah, that’s a great point. Do you think that type of project where probably part of the fee, or some other metrics are at risk, is that a more common model these days than that it might have been ten years or so ago?
Andrew Towne: I can’t speak to how common it is because at BCG I didn’t have visibility to other geographies and other offices in the way that they were structuring things. But I can say that I personally thought that it was the best way to structure things because it forced both parties to be extremely clear about exactly what they were trying to do. The more tightly you’re aligned at the start of an intense work period, the more likely it is that you’re going to get where you all wanted to.
Steven Haug: Good point. Andrew, I appreciate you chatting with us about your athletic accomplishments, your consulting days, and Olympus Pines. Is there anything else you’d like to leave our audience with before we wrap up?
Andrew Towne: Steven, I think my advice to everybody would be, like I said a moment ago, to thine own self be true. Take the time to have experiences that help you understand what excites you and what type of life you want to live and go after it, because the only person that can define success for you is yourself. No matter which industry you’re considering, the people who are currently in that industry will probably tell you that it’s the best industry. You have to figure out what industry and what job function is the best one for you, and yours is the only right answer.
Steven Haug: That’s a good point and helpful insight, Andrew. I always enjoy our conversations. Thanks so much for joining us on Not So Private Equity.
Andrew Towne: Steven, thank you very much.