Growing up in a small town in rural Northwest Canada with a single parent who was a schoolteacher, I learned at an early age that relationships and community mattered a lot for getting things done and having a safe and productive life. In a harsh climate where snow blankets the ground often from October through April, you learn early in life that you must build strong community ties to work as a team for a productive, healthy and safe life.
I have always been a very driven and motivated person, having paid for college by working on the oil drilling rigs in Canada and speed skating on the Canadian National training team while attending college. While the same tireless approach to entrepreneurship and my desire to take on challenging opportunities has yielded some early career success, I’m also no stranger to entrepreneurial mistakes that I have learned from since launching my first business in the late 1990s.
I was recently speaking at the Milken Global Conference around “Building a Meaningful Life” where arguably one of the most successful entrepreneurs, Masayoshi (Masa) Son, founder and CEO of SoftBank, said “if you have not made mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough”. Mr. Son recently raised his first fund, the largest ever, at approximately $100 billion, has a net worth estimated to be over $20 billion and was named by Forbes as one of the most powerful people in the World. While failures certainly aren’t fun, I think anyone who has tried to tackle meaningful challenges has had them and they would agree that we learn far more from our failures and challenges, than we do our successes. My goal is to constantly learn from challenges to build the best business possible and a big part of that is culture. A part of what I believe is a leading culture is to be open and transparent. As part of this, I have built a senior team who I trust and who are aligned with me where I am highly open and transparent. This includes our Chairman, Brian Finn, who was the former Co-Head of Credit Suisse First Boston and the former Head of their Alternative Asset Management Business where he oversaw $100 billion of assets, and our Vice Chairman, Bob Long, who was the head of Bank of America’s private equity alternative investment division where he oversaw nearly $10 billion of investments. Brian and Bob assist me with identifying challenges and finding ways to mitigate or avoid them, while working to build a strong team and a highly differentiated business.
What I have learned the most in my career and what I have put to work over the last 10 years is the notion that “culture is the most important aspect of long-term business success”. I haven’t learned this solely from work experience – it is also the product of the innovative learning environments I have sought as a priority for my own development. For nearly a decade, I have been a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) whose mantra is “lifelong learning”. I also completed a three-year executive program at Harvard Business School, where I lived on campus with and learned alongside 150 CEOs from around the world for three weeks per year. It is here where, in connection with my own hands on experiences, thought leading professors including David Yoffie (board of Intel and many other leading innovative companies) and Robert Kaplan (former senior Goldman Sachs executive), helped further convince me of the importance of culture in business – and it has been a guiding principal in the formation of the Star Mountain team and firm.
People often ask me how I have attracted such a highly talented team and advisory network. It certainly wouldn’t be possible without a focus on building a compelling and distinctive business model in the industry. However, I believe the largest driver of results is the culture we have built and continue to invest substantial time and resources in that sets us apart. Culture to me means we put people first, a viral concept, which when done authentically helps to further attract valuable investment partners, top human talent and allows you to become a “partner of choice” for quality businesses (i.e., better customer acquisition and satisfaction).
Examples of how we build culture and put team first include:
- Alignment of interests where (a) 100% of our employees share in the profit of our business and (b) all senior team members invest substantial personal capital and have an ownership stake in the businesses.
- We invest in high quality technology hardware, software and tech support to help make our team as efficient as possible allowing them to spend time on high value tasks that they enjoy.
- We have a three-person human resources advisory board of industry leaders including the former Head of Human Resources at Fortress.
- We create an energetic and engaging work environment filled with an abundance of natural light, standing desks for all employees and healthy food serviced daily for our team. While some of these may seem simple, you would be surprised how many companies neglect them and these things can have significant positive effects on productivity, efficiency, employee satisfaction and when taken together, profitability as well.
Star Mountain runs a culture-driven organization and we believe that leading businesses should have a clear sense of community and social responsibility which aligns customers, employees, shareholders and communities to maximize long-term value for all. Star Mountain focuses on people first and seeks to create positive social impact, including:
- Star Mountain’s proprietary Collaborative Ecosystem which helps educate business owners on best practices encompassing, aspects such as: 1) Building a diverse senior management team including women and minorities. 2) Providing internships to local students, veterans, athletes and other talented individuals. 3) Giving back to their local community.
- Focus on only investing in private small & medium-sized businesses, which typically are growing and creating jobs.
- Providing capital where it is needed to foster growth and innovation in the United States.
We have also launched our Charitable Foundation to help make a difference in the community and for our team to feel proud and engaged by things such as Job Creation, Education and Health & Wellness. The Star Mountain Charitable Foundation helps Star Mountain Capital provide purposeful careers adding value through strong investment returns to its investors (e.g., pensions, foundations and endowments) while also advancing education, health & wellness, cancer research and other worthy causes.
In the early days consistently focusing on culture while not sacrificing the attention on more measurable metrics can be hard, can feel like a distraction, especially when time is very precious. The challenges with putting people first means that you must put substantial time, energy and financial resources behind attracting, retaining, aligning, and motivating top quality people. This must often be done at the expense of accomplishing other important corporate objectives. While culture needs to be set from the start and sustained, it can be destroyed overnight and requires a dedicated tone from the top, particularly among top executives.
To transform your business, you need to (I) come up with a plan, (II) be honest with yourself and your current culture, including having some third-party testing assistance and (III) recognize that you might have to make tough decisions around team who do not fit your culture and invest substantial resources into developing a high-quality culture and team. Like technology, culture is an investment which requires costs upfront but I believe, and Star Mountain is experiencing, the substantial benefits from building a leading people-first culture. The reason why it is such a competitive advantage and differentiator is that each corporate culture is unique and it does not materialize overnight – it can take years to develop a strong and sustainable corporate culture.