In this week’s episode of Not So Private Equity, we welcome Cole Jackson, Vice President, Portfolio Acceleration at Montage Partners. Cole joins us to talk about Montag Partners’ “people first” approach and how they view this as a differentiator in the marketplace.
The Not So Private Equity Podcast is co-hosted by Ken Kanara and Steven Haug. Steven leads this week’s episode.
Steven Haug: 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, Cole Jackson, who is the VP of Portfolio Acceleration at Montage Partners. Montage is a “people first” private equity firm that serves the low mid-market sector and they’re based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Cole, welcome to Not So Private Equity.
Cole Jackson: Thanks for having me, Steven.
Steven Haug: Great. As we mentioned, you are in Arizona now with Montage Partners, but I would say of the paths to get into the private equity, yours is a bit unique. You didn’t come up through investment banking and move from the sales side to the buy side, right? Your early career was spent as an engineer. Could you tell us a little bit about your trajectory and how you ended up in private equity?
Cole Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. I think maybe a good place to start is what motivates and drives me. I think there are really three things, as I think back through my career, that connect the dots really. One is always being curious and having a desire to learn and figure out how things work. That’s really what led me into engineering first. Then, it’s wanting to work on and solve interesting problems, and then wanting to work with great people. I studied industrial engineering in undergrad, then found consulting through an internship at the end of undergrad and was really intrigued by the idea of getting to help many different companies solve a lot of different problems. At that point in time I had a choice on where to go for my first job. One was an international rotational program at a large oil field services company and their manufacturing division, and the other one was to go into consulting. I ended up choosing the rotational program in manufacturing because it gave me a chance to go live internationally within my first year of graduating from undergrad, and that was a really great experience. But I still kind of had that itch to go back and see more about what consulting could offer. After a few years I went back to graduate school. Grad school was really an eye opening opportunity for me because before that, I was never really exposed to the world of finance or, really broadly, business problem solving in general. I’d been pretty limited to manufacturing before that and then some M&A work, but in grad school, I discovered the world of finance. I ended up with the opportunity to go into banking, like you were talking about, or into consulting after graduate school, but I really liked the operations type of problem solving, so that led me to take the consulting path. After graduate school I spent about five years in consulting, doing a lot of different kinds of work, everything from operational cost cutting initiatives to organization, operating model design, working on executive leadership development, talent selection, things like that. I really enjoyed that.
Still, in the back of my mind, I was interested in getting into the world of finance, especially early stage finance or working with smaller companies and entrepreneurs. I tried to stay plugged into that ecosystem in a couple of different ways. One was just setting up coffee chats with people in the VC space that were local, where I was at the time, working with some local Angel networks and helping them with some due diligence, shadowing their calls, and things like that. Really, that led to kind of passively searching for jobs for maybe three or four years in the finance and venture capital, early stage financing space, and that culminated in the opportunity that came up to join Montage Partners. While I wasn’t actively searching for that the whole time, it was not completely random that I ended up in this space. When the opportunity with Montage came up, it was just too good to pass up. I’m really excited for it and it’s been a great experience so far.
Steven Haug: Glad to hear that. Tell us more about what made Montage special. As you mentioned, you were only passively looking for a new role, so what is it about a private equity firm in particular that pulled you away from consulting?
Cole Jackson: Sure. I think there are a couple things, some about the way that it fits my interest, and then some aspects of Montage that I think make it really special and great. One is in the role that I’m in, like you mentioned, I’m VP of Portfolio Acceleration. What that means is I’m working with our portfolio companies to add help value, improve their businesses, and ensure that we have successful exits. What that means is I get to partner with all of these different kinds of businesses and help them with a very diverse set of problems. For me, that’s perfect because I’m getting to do everything from succession planning, talent management, organization design, to third party contractor outsourcing, to operations, and problem solving. It is a very diverse problem set. That’s been really appealing to Montage Partners in particular though, I think is pretty unique from what I’ve seen, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
We were founded in 2004 and we focus on companies with an EBITDA between one point five and seven million dollars, so we are working with more of those smaller, often founder-led businesses where there’s a very entrepreneurial mindset, and we can really come in, help them, and have a big impact. Montage also has a broad industry sector focus. We work with business services, consumer products, healthcare, and industrial and technology companies, so I get to learn about a ton of different industries, work with a ton of different professionals in those industries, and that’s been really awesome for me.
Steven Haug: That is really interesting. Can you tell us more about the structure of Montage Partners as you told us about your position? Are you the only one working on those types of projects, or do you have a team around you?
Cole Jackson: Sure. I do not have a specific team that’s in Portfolio Acceleration or Portfolio Value Creation, but we do everything as a team at Montage Partners. We only have eight people in the firm and the Portfolio Management primarily falls upon our two partners, myself, and our CFO. The four of us are actively working with all of our portfolio companies at all times. While my position is the only one that’s specific to portfolio management and portfolio value creation, we kind of spread the load and do everything as a group. It’s been really successful so far.
Steven Haug: Part of the ethos of Montage is a people first approach to your investments and to operating these businesses. Tell us more about that.
Cole Jackson: Sure. Like I said, the space that we’re operating in, we’re working with smaller companies that are very entrepreneurial, often founder-led, and one of the things that we think differentiates. Just as a firm is our approach to people partnership. The most important thing that we consider whenever we’re making an investment is, “Are these the people that we want to be working with, or are we the people that they want to as well?” It has to be that fit from both sides where we believe that we’re going to have a successful relationship overtime, and that’s the most important thing. We look for companies that have a track record of success, so we’re not coming into distress situations or things like that. For us, having a team that we can trust and then build that mutual trust to add value overtime is really important in our investment process.
It plays out across the lifetime of our investments, too. One of the areas where I’m spending quite a bit of time, especially right now, is on people, whether it’s talent searches or helping to develop programs to build people and develop talent internally within our companies. It’s a big focus for us over the life of the investment. It doesn’t end after the deal is done.
Steven Haug: Is that approach unique to Montage, when we think about the broader private equity landscape?
Cole Jackson: I think, historically, in this sector of the market, it’s been a bit unique. I think anybody who’s looking at who’s working in private equity or looking to invest in companies is always trying to find the best people, but it’s something that I always heard more around the VC space and less in the private equity space, but I do think it’s catching on in the industry. I was reading a report just a few days ago from a third party service provider and the number one area where that PE firms were engaging them in 2022 was human capital related projects. To me that signals that there’s something to it and we’ve been on the right track, and other firms are catching on to the importance of investing in the right people and building the right teams around your portfolio companies so that you can continue to add value and build success.
Steven Haug: Is there any reason why you think the VC firms picked this up before private equity firms?
Cole Jackson: That’s an interesting question. I think it has to do with the amount of infrastructure that is typical of the businesses that VC’s are investing in, as well as the lack of a track record of success. In VC, you’re really investing in people and ideas, whereas in private equity you have the opportunity to look at historical financials and it is really easy to get focused on the numbers and how the models shake out, and forget about the people aspect of the businesses. I think that’s why it’s been important for us, because we try to look at each investment uniquely and holistically, and the people are a huge part of the equation.
Steven Haug: That’s a good point with the VC space. I guess there’s not much more to evaluate at that stage than the people inside the companies.
Cole Jackson: Right.
Steven Haug: It sounds like if the VC space took this people first approach and it was successful for them, and you mentioned that, of course Montage focuses on the people and the ability to build a partnership with them inside the businesses that they invest in. I think at Montage, focusing in on the low mid-market businesses, it’s a step up from the size of companies in the VC space. Do you see this focus on people as a trend that will continue to move upmarket.
Cole Jackson: I do. I think that there’s a space for it. There’s always going to be a space for coming into distressed firms, cutting costs, helping firms be more streamlined, and turning a profit that way, through investment. For real value creation, I think that the most important thing is getting the right people in leadership positions at a portfolio company, then giving them the support that they need to be successful. I don’t see that changing overtime and it’s very scalable. Companies at any level, if you get the right people in leadership, and then throughout the company, to steer the ship and take it the right direction, to me, that’s the real recipe for sustainable value creation and growth.
Steven Haug: Is Montage, generally, the first institutional capital inside of the companies you invest in?
Cole Jackson: Yes, generally we are. In a lot of cases were working with the founders of these companies.
Steven Haug: In private equity, of course, there is certainly a stigma I would say, whether it’s earned or not is something I’d be glad to chat about, but by suspicion, is that whenever you approach these folks who’ve started these businesses, grown them from scratch, and made them into something that’s worth acquiring, there might be a bit of skepticism about selling it private equity. Do you run into that at all?
Cole Jackson: Ye, certainly. I think that’s a part of the investment thesis for us that’s really important because we’re looking for deals where it’s a two-way partnership. Not only do we want to acquire the firm think it’s going to be a great investment, but the seller believes that we are going to be good stewards of their business and help grow it, sustainably, to the next level. We’ve been quite successful in situations where we’ve worked with founders who are maybe approaching retirement age or have something that they want to go do, so they would like to pull some liquidity out of their businesses. We’ll do founder recapitalizations and work with the founders through a transition period, help them find the successor leaders or leadership team to run their business, and help them through that transition out of the business to retirement. Then, our job is to help ensure that their legacy lives on and the business continues to be successful. Those are some of the most positive investments that we’ve made, and some of the most fun projects to work on from a portfolio management perspective because they’re so collaborative and you get to work with these really great entrepreneurs who have built businesses, then help carry on their vision for the company in the future.
Steven Haug: Do you run into any skepticism due to a lack, in some cases of industry expertise? As you mentioned, there’s about eight of you in the firm. If you encounter companies that you’d like to acquire in industries that you have experience in, how do you beat out other private equity firms that might have experience in that space whenever you’re looking to acquire the business?
Cole Jackson: Absolutely. There are a couple of things that differentiate us. One is that we’re building some chops in a few different sectors. That helps us get that credibility and industry experience. But really, I think it goes back to our overall approach. We understand that each business is unique and we don’t come in and position ourselves as the expert in any specific industry because even if we have a track record of success investing in one industry, we know that the people who are on the ground running those businesses are going to know their specific niche within an industry better than we ever will. Our job is really to provide them with the capital they need to grow, then to remove any barriers that are in their way. Those barriers could be having the right talent, or having the right infrastructure. Whether that’s know-how and discipline, or whether that is process and technology oriented, we’re here to help them be successful. I think that’s different from some portfolio management and investments thesis where private equity firms come in and try to position themselves as the expert and try to run the businesses for the management teams. Ours is the opposite. We’re here to partner with management teams who we trust to run businesses and be successful.
Steven Haug: What if we talk about the private equity landscape. There are lots of different ways that we can cut it up. You and I have talked about or used the term “low mid-market” several times already here. If we think about the investing sector, we can, if we want to, bucket it into three categories. We might have the VC space, low mid-market private equity, and then the larger private equity firms. I’m curious about what you think is the difference in mindset between the low mid-market private equity firms and the larger private equity firms, or perhaps the differences in what they’re good at or how they operate?
Cole Jackson: Sure. I think there are a different set of business problems that are probably more typical at the size of firms that we’re investing in than the size of firms that are considered up market from us. For us, a lot of the problems that we’re solving are around building infrastructure and building things up. In my experience, and I got to see this first hand through a lot of consulting engagements, was that in larger companies, a lot of what you’re trying to do is not necessarily build things up, but make things more efficient. In some ways you’re cutting things down. You can drive a lot of value that way because large companies have a tendency to become a little bit inflated, and it’s really easy to do from a management perspective and end up that way, but it probably presents a different set of problems that larger private equity funds are solving than what we typically see with our portfolio companies.
Steven Haug: That does make sense. I expect, with someone with your toolkit, that consulting background, engineering background, you can grab a hold of a business that’s been run by a very successful and smart entrepreneur, but they just haven’t seen as many types of businesses as you have during your years at Accenture let’s say. You can help them build out the right infrastructure or maybe dive in, help the CFO implement a better ERP system, or bring in some lean practices to make an operation more efficient. On the larger side, if you’re working with a Fortune 500 company, they already have best practices in place, and perhaps, probably too many practices, so the ways to squeeze value out of there might be to trim things down, as you mentioned.
Cole Jackson: Absolutely. I think another way that we add value with our portfolio companies is by providing a network, as well. One of the things that we’ve seen is with smaller companies and the entrepreneurs who build them, this may have been what they’ve done for their whole career. They haven’t seen a lot of other ways of working or seeing those, like you mentioned, best practices that may be very robust at a larger company. What we try to do is make connections amongst our portfolio companies as well as outside of our immediate network, with our LP’s, who a lot of them are very successful individuals as well. Making those connections and broadening the mindset of our management teams to help them understand what best practices might be, and what might work at their company, is another way that we’re adding value in the portfolio.
Steven Haug: Perfect. Thanks so much for chatting through your career and your experience at Montage. Is there anything else you’d like to chat about before wrap up the conversation?
Cole Jackson: I don’t think so.
Steven Haug: Cole, I always enjoy chatting with you and Montage is an excellent firm. I’m always excited to hear about what’s in store for y’all next. Thanks so much for joining us on Not So Private Equity.
Cole Jackson: Thank you very much for having me, Steven. I’m looking forward to staying in touch going forward.