My guest on this episode is Adriana Garcia Ceja who recently launched a traditional search fund backed by Footbridge Partners, Pacific Lake, and others with a primary focus on the healthcare industry. Adriana brings a ton of experience to her search, including corporate development at Home Depot and a head of special products role at Applied Concepts, a search fund backed company, during her gap year in her MBA at Harvard.
We talk extensively about lessons learned at Home Depot, including the many mentors she’s had along the way, how to be an entrepreneur in a big company, picking the right search fund model for you, getting hands on experience prior to searching, and how we can encourage more women to become searchers.
Live Oak Bank — Live Oak Bank is a seasoned SMB lender providing SBA and conventional financing for search funds, independent sponsors, private equity firms, and individuals looking to acquire lower middle-market companies. Live Oak has closed billions of dollars in SBA financing and is actively looking to help more small company investors across the country. If you are in the process of acquiring a company or thinking about starting a search, contact Lisa Forrest or Heather Endresen directly to start a conversation or go to www.liveoakbank.com/think.
Hood & Strong, LLP — Hood & Strong is a CPA firm with a long history of working with search funds and private equity firms on diligence, assurance, tax services, and more. Hood & Strong is highly skilled in working with search funds, providing quality of earnings and due diligence services during the search, along with assurance and tax services post-acquisition. They offer a unique way to approach acquisition diligence and manage costs effectively. To learn more about how Hood & Strong can help your search, acquisition, and beyond, please email one of their partners Jerry Zhou at [email protected].
Oberle Risk Strategies– Oberle is the leading specialty insurance brokerage catering to search funds and the broader ETA community, providing complimentary due diligence assessments of the target company’s commercial insurance and employee benefits programs. Over the past decade, August Felker and his team have engaged with hundreds of searchers to provide due diligence and ultimately place the most competitive insurance program at closing. Given August’s experience as a searcher himself, he and his team understand all that goes into buying a business and pride themselves on making the insurance portion of closing seamless and hassle-free.
(2:37) – What are your considerations when looking at different options in your Search?
(5:13) – What factors did you weigh when looking at investors?
(7:33) – What advice did you get from people to help you prepare mentally for Search?
(9:23) – What motivates you to be so interested in the healthcare industry?
(11:05) – What was your experience like working at the corporate level at Home Depot?
(18:14) – Being Entrepreneurial in a Big Company
(20:19) – Where are the similarities you see in service, retail, and healthcare?
(22:13) – What observations did you make in hiring, training, and management from Home Depot that could be applied in an acquired healthcare business?
(26:07) – Where do you draw the line in a Search when it comes to a culture that might be too far gone?
(30:40) – What was your experience like at Applied Concepts?
(35:15) – What challenges did you encounter as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
(37:44) – What will it take to balance the cohort of Searchers?
(42:37) – Who are some female role models that you admire?
(44:16) – What are you most excited about in your first year as a Searcher?
(45:37) – What College class would you teach if it could be on anything?
(46:27) – What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
(48:42) – What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Alex Bridgeman: One topic we’ve debated a lot or discussed is some of the differences between some of the self-funded, accelerator, traditional models. And there’s some pretty nuanced differences and considerations that you went through in thinking through what you were going to do but also kind of the way you looked at the landscape of search. I would love to hear kind of broad thoughts to start with. What were some of your considerations when looking at different options for your search?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. And I will say I think my experience is different than most or than average in that I think I had most exposure to all the models. And by that, I mean in business school, certainly, obviously debated the traditional versus the self-funded model. But I also veered off from business school during the pandemic to work at a search fund accelerator portfolio company and thoroughly went into and explored the accelerator model and actually almost signed on with SFA and pursued the accelerator model. And I’ll say when we oftentimes talk about the accelerator versus traditional versus self-funded, one of the things, Alex, is we tend to jump to conclusions. And I would say that my experience, and I think the situation, it’s certainly not that. It’s not fair to say there are these broad generalizations where, for example, self-funded searchers tend to buy smaller businesses, have better economics, and so, you must do self-funded if you want to pursue X. And you want to pursue Y, a bigger business, maybe go with traditional. I don’t think that’s the case. I think in the accelerator model as well, even across, I mean, I can think of three accelerators in the US right now, and their models are different. So SFA is single investor model, which has nuances. Broadtree and Next Gen, I don’t think that they’re a single investor model. I know Broadtree for sure isn’t. And so, I’d say diligencing the strategies and what each brings to the table is certainly something that helped me in really understanding what it was that I needed at that moment in time and also what I thought I would need in my search journey is important.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, those broad generalizations, this model versus that model and all those discussions definitely irk me for sure. Just from discussions I’ve had, the best model tends to be the one that gets you an operating seat, end of story. The one that gets you, your personality, characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances into a CEO chair is the best model for you. And that’s definitely been an ongoing discussion I’ve had with a few folks. But one I- like just diving into that concept a little bit more that you’ve kind of touched on is, what factors did you weigh f any model of looking at investors and seeing is this investor going to help me or be the best fit for me? What factors went into that decision?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: So again, thinking about it from my experience and my individual needs, I had a finance background prior to going to business school. I started out in investment banking and then worked in M&A. So, I thought about what aspects of search I would need help in. And I felt pretty confident in my deal, not necessarily sourcing because I didn’t source deals too much, but my deal process and deal evaluation and financial skills. I had some operational experience, but I knew operating and being a CEO, first time CEO of a business, is always going to be daunting. So, I thought along the journey, I would want folks that have sat both in the searcher seats as well as in the owner operator seats. But most importantly, I knew that my pattern recognition would not compare to folks that are doing this on a day-to-day basis. And so, what that meant is I was confident in that I could execute but not as confident, especially being a solo searcher, I should have started with that, that I would have the thought partnership that I needed to feel confidence in a successful search if I just went the self-funded route, say. And so very early on, evaluating across the different models, I knew self-funded was sort of not an option for me because, I don’t know, folks always say in the search community, one of the things, it’s obviously very open. It’s very collaborative. It’s super helpful. Everyone would talk to you. And I just felt bad myself, if I went the self-funded route and was just asking for folks’ time every day of the week, I don’t know, I wasn’t confident that I could pursue the thought partnership that I needed. So again, I was really trying to diligence the investors and the people that really valued- that added a lot of value across each point of my search, whether it was fundraising or connections or developing industry thesis or just anything. We’re talking about women in search – I really wanted to partner with people that had helped me and I knew could continue to help me just grow in this journey.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. And one thing we also talked about was some of the- there’s like the tech side of starting a search. But there’s also just the mental side of preparing for what a search looks like on a day-to-day basis and highs and lows and some other things. What sorts of advice did you get from folks who were helping you prepare mentally for a search?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, and I’ll say, I’m not someone that’s been super prone to risk in my career. I mean, if you look at my track record in life, I probably am more risk averse. And so doing something like search was, frankly, for myself quite surprising. And so, it took a lot, not handholding, but a lot of support and cheerleading from my investors, from my friends, from my professors also. So, the best advice that I always got was just get started, get going, and know that you need to have some grace with yourself and some patience. I think anyone listening to your podcast, anyone that we speak to that’s interested in this topic is probably someone that has the characteristics of being very intellectually curious, very driven, very motivated to learn or to execute. And I certainly was like that myself. And for folks that fit those characteristics, it can be daunting to launch something where literally every single day at every part of the journey, you are testing yourself, and there are challenges, there are moments of success. But I remember when I was fundraising, feeling, even then, it was something new for me, something that I’ve never done, and getting across those hurdles. But finding folks that really were good cheerleader leaders and finding the way to be graceful, that I wasn’t going to be perfect, and it was never going to be this perfect thing from the start, just having that mentality, I think, has really helped me in this journey.
Alex Bridgeman: And you mentioned healthcare being probably the primary industry that you’re looking after. Can you share a little bit about what that’s influenced by and what motivates you about healthcare in particular?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because I haven’t had direct professional experience in healthcare, but we were talking about my experience prior to business school, and I was in banking, and I worked at Home Depot as well in their corporate development group, and I see a lot of similarities with services style businesses. Having said that, the reason for switching into healthcare is certainly a personal motivation. My husband is a nurse, has worked in behavioral health and psychiatric and substance use treatments in his career. He himself is in recovery. And we’ve unfortunately had a lot of family members and friends that have suffered from various diseases. And so, for me, it was really I found myself at this juncture in business school where I kept- it almost seemed like every class, I kept getting this feedback of what’s your passion? What are you going to do? How are you going to make the world a better place? And I thought now that I’m in an entrepreneurial mindset and an entrepreneurial seat, I can actually make a difference in something that matters, something that is truly in high need, and something that I have, if not direct professional experience, definitely personal experience. So that was what really fueled the passion for healthcare. And I’m hoping to be able to be successful in finding a good asset in the space.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, and healthcare is just such a massive industry with a million different sub niches within healthcare, from literal hospitals to software, insurance, and everything in between. I remember you talking about your work at Home Depot, and I don’t know why, I didn’t realize that Home Depot had a corporate development program at all. Obviously, they’re a huge company, and so they probably should have one. But I didn’t think of it quite that way. I thought of it more as going to Home Depot to get the moving boxes and cardboard. But what was that experience like? What sorts of things and lessons did you pull out of that Home Depot experience?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, I loved Home Depot. I have nothing but great things to say about the business. And part of that it was, frankly, the people at Home Depot. And even though Home Depot doesn’t call their headquarters headquarters, we call it the Store Support Center, and it’s really a culture that is fueled from the top down. But actually, we studied this in business school, it’s like servant leadership, where the CEO and us that reported to the C suite, we really are there to support the store associates, the stores, and ultimately the customers. And I think for a fortune 30 retailer that does 100 million plus in revenue that has such a high brand name, I didn’t believe it until I was there, that you could have something so massive where the culture is so permeated throughout. And it was really emphasize on delivering the best products, the best services, really thinking about the customers both you, if you are a DIY customer, just walking down the aisle, or the professionals that make up the bulk of the revenues. And one of the things that I was really taken aback, I remember my first day there, I thought, here I am going into home improvement, I don’t really have too much experience in home improvement myself. Certainly, as a woman, I was not picking up drills. It was not something that interested me as a little girl. But something that I was amazed by was the diversity of the leadership team. And so, in my group, my group reported to the CFO at the time, Carol Tome. And there’s been few women in my career that have had just such an amazing- have been such amazing role models. And I mean, she’s a rock star. Now, she’s CEO of UPS, and just her track record and her story and just seeing how someone can go from starting out from humble beginnings and not really being born to a C suite role or C suite family and just getting up to the top and just seeing her do it in such an authentic way. And that just spoke to me to the ethos of the company. And so, again, it’s a great business, great retailer. But to me, it was really the culture of the company that astounded me and why I’m so loyal to them.
Alex Bridgeman: Can you share any notable experiences or stories you had with her where a lightbulb went off or there was some key lesson you took away from working with her or some interesting story?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. And again, as a woman that has pursued parts of my career in fields that have been very, very male dominated, I’ve always looked to successful women. And I’ve, frankly, always had really great examples like her. I remember, I think it was my first year, it was in my first years, we were having a meeting at headquarters that we had helped prepare. And she was starting out the meeting. It was in our big auditorium. And she was talking about our financial performance to date. It was a strategy meeting. And one of the things that she always said, even in a meeting like that, that was televised to everyone across corporate, 4000 employees, and would be recorded for the 4000 employees, I remember her talking about financial performance and saying, “Yeah, you know, in this case, cash is queen.” And I’ve heard that idiom so much in investment banking of cash is king, but I’ve never heard someone with such confidence and such grace and, frankly, just such personality say cash is queen just to everyone. And it was just she had so many little moments like that just in her personality and the way that she walked into a room. I mean, she’s a small woman. She’s petite. But when she walked into a room, she just commanded the room. And just I remember being in my mid 20s at that point, just amazed by this rockstar of a female businesswoman and what she could establish and what she built with her career. So, it was little things like that that really sparked in me this idea of wow, you can make a difference regardless of who you are, your background, where you come from, or what you look like in this case.
Alex Bridgeman: Those are great. I love that, that cash is queen. That’s fantastic. What kind of behaviors or habits that you observed with her have you taken into your own life and career?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, I’ll speak a lot about the authenticity I think that that she has. Again, being in very male dominated fields and now also in search where, unfortunately, there’s not too many women in search, and in reaching out to sellers, that tends to be a lot of men that you have to connect with, I would say she never lost her authenticity. Again, she was a petite woman, and she never tried to dress like the guys. I remember a lot of managing directors in banking tried to do that. She always dressed like herself. Her hair was always like herself, her makeup, her jewelry, but always coming to a meeting prepared and always being super sharp. That to me just showed you can still have remnants of yourself, obviously being professional, but finding ways to be your authentic self and bringing your whole self to a meeting to the table, but still commanding that respect and commanding that level of expertise that she had developed. And those were the little things I think that really carried on for me. And so, I myself like to wear jewelry and wear different sorts of clothing, and I don’t want to trade who I am for trying to become someone that I’m not. And I think that’s something that she taught me in all my experiences at Home Depot.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, there’s probably also a longevity piece to it, where if you manage to get comfortable just kind of being yourself at work or in your career, it’s probably easier to just keep doing that for longer versus having to pretend and put up a facade, and then eventually you just get worn out from pretending all the time, and that breaks down and could cause issues. I imagine there’s just a self-preservation aspect to that too.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s self-preservation, but I think it’s also building your legacy. So, you would not think of- again, it wasn’t just her at Home Depot. There was a lot of diversity amongst the C suites. And everyone I think was very authentic to their story, to their background. Even though it was a home improvement retailer, it wasn’t like we were all out there wearing jeans and walking down with drills. There were a lot of different varieties and flavors of people in the hallways. And I think that was something that was just so cool because it was a big company, but we’re all working towards this common goal, all bringing our own different experiences, backgrounds, and personalities to it. And I think that culture of really wanting to build something for yourself, but not pretending like you’re something you’re not was key to the success and something that I hope to carry on in my career as it continues on here.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, and a concept embedded in your experience at Home Depot is being entrepreneurial in a big company. Can you kind of dive into that a little bit more? What did that mean for you at Home Depot?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. So again, I was working in the corporate development group at Home Depot, corporate development strategy, and had the opportunity to work on an acquisition with our online and private brands business. And so, I was in a pretty unique role in that I had the opportunity to do intrapreneurship. So, through an acquisition, helped lead an integration of a business into a whole new unit. That always is going to be entrepreneurial in nature. You’re always trying to marry two businesses together and stand up a new business category. That’s always in and of itself going to be entrepreneurial. But for me, what was really key about Home Depot was beyond my role and my experience, everyone that I met there, whether it was my merchant or whether it was the floor designers, everyone had this entrepreneurial ethos. And I think it was because or my hypothesis is that the founders really started that from the start, from the time of the birth of Home Depot, and it carried through in the values. And I think that made our jobs, in corporate development and in integration, way easier because you weren’t waiting around for someone to give you work. You were being proactive yourself and everyone wanted to help each other, and everyone had this collaborative mindset. And I think for a company that’s that large, it was something very unique to see. Again, it was not surprising for my specific role because I knew when you’re starting something from scratch, it’s always going to be entrepreneurial. Of course, you always had some- there are challenges. So, there’s always legacies in systems that you’re trying to convince people to go away from. But in general, it was a very entrepreneurial culture. And I think that helped certainly myself, but it helped others see the necessity for change because as we know now, retail is a very dynamic industry.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, no kidding. You talked earlier and kind of alluded to service, retail and healthcare having a lot of similarities. Would you be able to dive into those a little bit deeper?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I just mentioned retail is at a spot where there is a lot of dynamic changes. Obviously, you’re seeing the rise of ecommerce, you have been seeing the rise of ecommerce, supply chain is huge, traditional retail is very different now than what it was even five years ago. And I’d say one of the key learnings for me and that I’ve seen retailers employ is that no longer can you be successful in retail just by selling something. You can’t just deliver a product and hope that people are going to come to your site and just buy it for whatever reason. I think you really have to find a value add. And part of that is thinking of yourself as a services business. It’s if you go into Home Depot, finding that store associate that’s really going to know the exact drill that you need. If you go into Sephora, in my case, finding the store associate that’s really going to know whatever makeup you want or whatever brand you need. And I think there’s a lot of similarities to that in healthcare in that you are trying to find the needs of the patients. You’re always doing this way of helping treat whatever ailments they think they have or you find out they have. And I think more importantly, the way that you treat your customers in retail doesn’t really come from the C suite or from headquarters; it really comes from the store associates. It’s the frontline employees that really make the difference as far as delivering best in class service. That certainly is the case in healthcare. I mean, you saw just in the pandemic, everyone was thinking our frontline nurses and obviously the doctors, and it’s such a services-based business that I think there are a lot more similarities than I think what we would traditionally think of.
Alex Bridgeman: And to kind of build on that strong customer first culture element, what sorts of observations did you see at Home Depot in how they hired and trained and recruited folks? What kind of lessons did you pull from studying Home Depot and working in Home Depot that you can use in looking at healthcare businesses? So if you look at a healthcare business, and you check out their team, and you’re able to ask questions to either the intermediary or the owner themselves, what sorts of questions and what answers are you trying to get out of that conversation based on your experience at Home Depot that could indicate whether this is a customer first culture or something else?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, so in my time at Home Depot, I was able to do quite a bit of store visits both with the C suites and merchants, and I think those were really some of the best learnings that I had on how to figure out if a culture is a good culture in a store is a culture where the store employees are treated not fairly, but frankly, as they deserve to be treated because they are, again in this case, the frontline to your customers. I remember you mentioned recruiting and retaining, we actually on average had lower turnover then some others in retail because we did a lot to compensate our store associates well. Now you see a lot of Starbucks, Walmarts, you see a lot of raises. Home Depot was analyzing that before Starbucks and Walmarts were even on the news about it. And so being able to make sure that store associates were paid fairly, above the minimum wage, is something that I certainly learned, and now, we’re looking at healthcare businesses, as you know, that’s one of the things when I hear an owner tell me, we actually pay our nurses or our staff slightly above minimum wage, that’s something that’s great because it means that you really are truly thinking about your people. And those people are the ones that are going to be delivering that service. From walking the stores, being able to go and do site visits in healthcare and seeing it’s little things like how is the bathroom maintained. That was something that I learned in store walks. Being able to see the C suites, the head of marketing congratulate a cashier and really give them what we called a Homer award, seeing if those sorts of cultures are found in healthcare or clinics, that’s something that’s important for me. It’s the little things, I think the little recognition that really make a huge impact for associates and for employees. And so that’s really where I’m homed in on. It’s in the details. It’s not anything that I could ask in the financial statements or anything like that.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, these are really interesting. Do you have any more examples? This could be like its own 10 minutes of the show. I’d love to hear as many little examples of positive or negative signals that you’ve seen in businesses.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, I mean, I think certainly my favorite are the bathroom visits. I think being able to walk and just see how your patients or customers are treated, being able to see if someone asks a question, for example, someone answers it. An analogy to that in retail is, we would walk along the stores and ask a store associate sometimes, like, “Hey, can you help me find this?” And if they walk you to the aisle, then that is something that the store associate is doing the right thing. So in healthcare, it’s if you see someone, a patient, ask for help to a nurse, it’s like, well, is the nurse helping them and maybe asking them a follow up question? What are the analogous things that I bring from my retail variants? And asking myself those questions and finding those little examples. Again, the ones that really stick out to me are the bathrooms, questions, the follow ups, etc.
Alex Bridgeman: I think building on that further, it’s not just a 01, there’s a spectrum from very customer focused cultures to the opposite. There’s kind of everything in between. So, if you’re looking at a company, and you’re trying to figure out if this would be a good fit for you, where along that spectrum are you okay with this company having some elements of that, maybe they’re not all the way there, but they have some, like, where do you draw that line where there’s like a path of no return, where this culture just isn’t- there’s enough things broken, you’re not going to pursue it further, where do you draw that line?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, so this relates to our search model conversation. And one of the things when I was thinking about what I wanted out of my search and the sorts of businesses that I was hoping to finally end up acquiring, one of the things that I really aligned on with my investors was we really, really want to buy a great business. And the idea is, it’s easier to buy a great business than to take something and change it and hope that you can change the culture, bring about new processes, new people, etc. Like that seems like a daunting task in and of itself. And so, when you talk about sort of like what is the minimum that we need to have to define a great business, I think in the instance of healthcare, in the instance of services-based business, the culture actually really matters a lot. If I see a business, and when I hear sellers, it is like, well, we’re just doing cost cutting, or if you go to a site visit, and things don’t really check off, it might be an interesting conversation just to learn more about the industry, but it’s not a business that we truly are interested in buying. And so, on the flip side of that, when we hear seller say that, hey, we’re being productive, we’re paying our people more. You go to the bathroom – again, I keep going back to the bathroom, but it’s so important – we go to the bathroom, and it’s clean, and it’s well maintained, and people just seem happy. Those are the types of businesses that really stand out. And I think that’s where you know you really have something. And I’ll say, it’s easier to start from something that maybe is smaller but really has that culture and try to scale it and build it up, even within healthcare, versus trying to take something that is larger, maybe doesn’t have the right culture and hoping to change the culture around.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that’s significantly more difficult. And even some cultures where it doesn’t seem all the way customer focused, or customer first, sometimes there’s not like a widespread issue, maybe there’s only like a handful of folks that don’t fit all of those values. And once you find other places for them or they move on to other companies, then things can start becoming a little bit easier. I know that’s been a storyline for a handful of searchers I’ve gotten to know where they walked into a culture that maybe they thought it was great, or they knew that there were some issues, but they felt that they could overcome them. And from time at Applied Concepts and Home Depot, do you feel like that’s a strength of yours, where you can either identify a good one or feel like even if there’s some imperfections, you feel pretty good about knowing how to improve these cultures and make them kind of what you want them to be?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, I mean, I think the beauty of search and business is that you can triangulate a lot of data points. And what I mean is, it’s not just trying to gauge the culture and you’re walking into something blind, but you do have some quantitative understanding of how the business is performing. Obviously, the financials, but I’m also referring and alluding to things like customer retention and churn and referral rates are very important. And so, you can triangulate and put some data to your gut feeling. But if you don’t have the data or if you think, well, maybe this is doing okay, this is great in customer service and in patient care and has really high referral rates, but maybe things don’t check off in one area, I think it’s ultimately a matter of assessing the level of risk required. And so, for example, you mentioned Applied Concepts, at Applied Concepts, it was customer first, but it was b2b, so it wasn’t directly with like a retail customer. But the idea was we were able to check how our services were performing based on our churn. And when we had- I mean, I was also working there during the pandemic, so there was a lot of change and volatility going on. But when there was some churn, you could really double down and ask questions and call up the customers and really try to fix and be up front about it before just guessing and making the problem become bigger than what it was.
Alex Bridgeman: Can you share a little bit, we haven’t talked about Applied Concepts at all. But I think that was a great way for you to learn how a search fund run company works. I’d love to hear more about that experience and kind of what you learned through it.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah. So, I took a deferral year during my MBA program with the pandemic and wanted to work at a search fund portfolio company. And so, I worked at Applied Concepts, which does car dealership training. And so, at the time, well, I guess, when the business was first acquired in late 2018, it was primarily a full in-person business based out of Orlando, Florida, b2b business. When I got there, it had been acquired for a little over a year. The pandemic had also happened. There was unfortunately some churn in customers just due to the pandemic, and there was a lot of changes going on. So obviously work from home, I got to see that shift in a small business and very different going with an IT department of two and old school PCs and trying to get everyone to work from home. That was something that was- there’s a lot of war stories just with that alone. But my main learning was seeing really what a “small business” was like under fire, under duress, and also, while trying to grow, like not just maintaining, not just getting back to where you were, but really thinking ahead of, hey, we know we need to make some changes. We know we need to make some investments in technology, for example. How can we be strategic and really think about, well, two years down the road, we’re hoping to 2x, 3x, 4x our revenue from where we were before the pandemic? So, what tech do we need? What strategies do we need? Should we pursue other products? So that was something that I had never really been exposed to, just the level of change in a business like that, again, one, trying to just make it through the pandemic, but also thinking ahead and planning for growth when there was already so many changes happening at that time.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, the life of a CEO is pretty chaotic in normal times, but I can’t imagine in that transition during COVID to remote, the added chaos of all that happening. From your time shadowing the CEO, what sorts of things did you learn or observe that have been pretty interesting to you?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: And I’d say, I mean, I loved that experience. It was my first time working in a small business setting. And I also really, really lucked out with an amazing CEO in that he was a new CEO, Jason Jones, but he really was open to being vulnerable and open and transparent with me. And so, in shadowing my CEO, I got full exposure to everything from hiring to firing, which is very, very common in small business I very quickly learned, to working in strategic projects, to operations, to marketing. So, I really got to see the full gambit of across the projects that I was working on and also literally just walking into meetings, sometimes hearing the board meetings that he was on, helping him prepare board decks. And so, I think that exposure, I mean, to your point, the life of a CEO, I mean, there is no day in the life because every day is different. You cannot say, from this day, you’re going to do X. I mean, sometimes you work weekends, sometimes you work nights, sometimes you’re going to dinners, sometimes you’re going to lunches, and sometimes you just have to work for four hours straight on a board deck because there’s an emergency. And so, there’s always these fires that are going around the CEO that I think oftentimes as employees, you don’t get to see, experience, or witness. And shadowing the CEO, especially of a small business going through so much change, I was really exposed to all that. And frankly, for me, it wasn’t just that I’d never had true small business experience, but at that point in my career, I’d worked in more traditional settings, had been in my 20s, and had never really thought of myself as having the confidence for myself of being able to see myself in a CEO role shortly after school. And that year away shadowing him really gave me the confidence that I needed to feel like yes, I can do this, and it’s not going to be perfect. It never is for anyone. But ultimately, you learn along the way, and you grow, and you have the right board members to guide you. And that really helps in situations like COVID or just in day-to-day life of a CEO.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly, especially in building confidence in search, which has been pretty male dominated for most of its history. I would love to learn more about what kinds of challenges or hurdles did you encounter kind of coming into the search world and seeing fewer women examples of search CEOs leading great companies. Like, what sorts of challenges did you encounter and how have you thought through those?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of female role models in search. I think if we think of search funds as a subset of private equity, something like 18% of private equity across the globe, 18% of that is women. But search, since 1984, it’s been around 5 or 6% of women. There are more women now than there have been in the past. So that’s something that’s great. And on the investor side, there’s a few investors that are really, I think, making strides in getting more female investors but also helping women that are thinking about search really feel like there’s a community for them. There’s a women’s search network, there’s women’s groups within Search Funder, etc. So, there are people making strides. But at the end of the day, it can be a very lonely experience for a searcher, but it can feel even more lonely for a female, and in my case, a Latina, a minority searcher as well. And I’ll say, one of the things that’s important I think for me was just feeling like I could do this and feeling like regardless of whether I had the perfect background or the perfect school experience, or educational experience, or family background or whatever, if I didn’t have that, it was okay. But I could figure it out because I could partner with people that would help me and would be my cheerleaders. And so that’s why my investors were so important for me, choosing the right investors were so important. And it was really because I didn’t want to feel isolated. I didn’t want to feel like if I had a question or if I had doubts of whether I could do that, just having that accountability and having folks that have seen others be successful in this search, it was really important for me. So even though there were unfortunately not as many role models as I’d hoped, I was hopeful that I could find not just females but anyone that was passionate about bringing more diversity in search. Finding more mentors and allies was super important to me.
Alex Bridgeman: And there’s, of course, been more women joining search over the last couple of years than historically. I’d be curious, what do you think is driving that? And what do you think it’s going to take to continue that trend upward to a more balanced kind of cohort of searchers?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, I think it definitely has helped that there are more of us. And so just having a group of people that you can rely on, that certainly helped, just the prominence of the search fund model certainly in business schools and with search fund clubs, with search fund conferences, just getting the word out there that this model exists, that this model is entrepreneurship with a different spin, maybe a more risk adjusted sort of entrepreneurship. I think building out that pipeline has helped. Things like the Women’s Search Network has certainly helped. One of the things that I think is also very important is traditionally when you look at the folks that are going into search and their career journey or their life journey, it tends to be people that are in their late 20s or early 30s, maybe have a few years of work experience, and they either go to their MBA, or they don’t go to their MBA or they are mid career, but it tends to be people that are thinking about maybe the next stage in their life. And so, for women, oftentimes that correlates with family planning, and it oftentimes correlates with can I do a search? Can I do entrepreneurship? And think about my partner, think about the fact that maybe I want to have children someday, if that’s the path that you pursue. And I think that there’s been now a few examples within search, both females that have family planned and had their children as CEOs and women that have had children during their search, first and second children. And I think that’s certainly helped alleviate some of the pressures. There’s some other hypotheses around why more women don’t pursue search – geographic constraints, etc. That certainly was not my case. And I don’t know if I believe that as much because just like a woman has geographic constraints, so does a man if you’re in any sort of partnership. So certainly, for my case, it was having the confidence that I could do this and could ultimately be successful, and that’s where my investors really, really helped in being mentors throughout this journey. And also thinking about well, regardless of when I choose to take the next step in my life, if I choose to have children, when I choose to have children, that I could find a supportive network, and that I know that folks would be receptive to that next step is something that helped as well for my journey.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. I mean, the whole search model should be kind of a perfect fit for anyone of any gender or race to get ready for being a CEO. Because it’s designed to help folks with a whole bunch of different backgrounds, whether it’s finance, traditional, or totally nontraditional. The whole basis of the model is that you can be an effective CEO regardless of age or experience. And I think that’s what’s been exciting for me, like to study so many different searchers, to see that the background has very, very little to no correlation with how the company actually performed afterward. Like, some first time CEOs just knock it out of the park and do phenomenally well, even though they were never a CEO before. So, it just feels like a model that should be a perfect fit for anyone who’s not from a traditional background.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, Alex. And that’s exactly why it’s so mind boggling to me why there’s not more not just women but more diversity in search in general. Because it’s something that when you go and think about it, you’re trying to get people, whether they’ve had leadership experience, direct professional leadership experience or not, and you’re trying to get them in the driver’s seat of a business, period. It’s not a specific type of business. It’s not a specific type of industry. There are some characteristics that overlap. But you’re trying to find one asset, one great business. So, to me, it’s mind boggling that we don’t have more diversity because just like there are so many different kinds of businesses and industries, there are so many different kinds and flavors of CEOs and so much diversity and experience. And I think that’s so important to meet the needs of the small business community. And again, that’s why I am so passionate about diversity and women in search because there are just thousands upon thousands of assets and small businesses that really need different people, people that think differently and have different points of views and have different experiences. And I think it’s just people that are hungry to learn more and hungry to do better for the business. And I think, again, that’s why it’s so important to shed light on this issue.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. It’s also personal for me. My mom is a business owner with a small family practice in a small town south of Portland. So, seeing my mom, like growing up with my mom being the business owner of the family was kind of fun in that regard. Of course, you mentioned the CFO of Home Depot who is now at UPS. Who are some other female role models that you admire a lot?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah. I mean, I really, really hate to get cliche here, but my mom is certainly my biggest role model. She was a single mother, and I’m a single daughter, and we immigrated here to the US when I was fairly young at five, just the two of us. And so, I think having that strong female role model really from birth was ultimately what made me into who I am. And I think that’s also why I can fare a little better in situations that are high stress, high uncertainty, because I was always placed in those situations. So, my mom is definitely my biggest role model. And professionally in business, I’ve always been fortunate to have really great female role models, like you mentioned, Carol Tome, even though she wasn’t my direct mentor, we reported to her, just seeing her, being in the same room as her. And then women that were more direct mentors and managers. I mean, I always strive to find good examples across each point in my career. And by the way, whether it was a woman or a man, just folks that I really related to and folks that I really admired, try to learn from them. And it tended to be women, oftentimes, but it also tended to be people that were really empathetic, like yourself, to the cause of diversity and understanding that we all don’t have the same background, but that’s okay, and you bring different things to the table. So that’s the way that I’ve sort of navigated my career as well.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. So, in your first year searching, what are you most excited about?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: I’m excited to continue to learn and get better every day. One of the things I think people often say, are you a journey or a destination person? And I think the majority of searchers have to be journey people, and I certainly am not an exception. I am a journey person. And what that means is each day you have a new challenge. Each day, you’re thinking about how you allocate your time, how you allocate your resources, in my case, because I’m traditionally funded, how you allocate time with your team, if you have interns or if you don’t have interns, how you present yourself, how you communicate with sellers. And each day I think you learn and you build upon what you learned that previous week or the previous month. And that’s what’s most exciting for me is knowing that each day I can get better. And ultimately, it can feel intimidating to be doing a search because it can feel like it’s such a binary process – you either buy a business or you don’t. But I think having a mindset where you understand even if you’re not at that one yet, having the faith that you will get there. And even if you don’t get there, it’s okay because it wasn’t just time lost, but you ultimately learn from the process and became a different person from the process. That’s what I’m most excited about, just continuing to learn.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s fantastic. I want to get to closing questions too here. What college class would you teach if it could be about any subject you wanted?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: The college class I would teach probably be about immigration, and not just in the US. But as an immigrant myself, I think there’s lots of patterns on immigration. And I was always interested in the way that sociology feeds into business and into macroeconomics, when I think that there’s a lot of demographic changes in the US and in the world that are very interesting to learn about. And immigration and demographics, I think, just for someone that thinks in a very macro level, would be a very interesting college class to teach and to learn what the next 10 years have in store for us.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. It’s a more convoluted process I think than it needs to be for a lot of countries, especially our own. What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, like everyone in the last few years, we’ve lived in a very politicized society, and we certainly see that now. And I think when I was younger, I always used to think, well, there is one way. And if you don’t think the way that I do, or if you don’t see my point of view, there is no other way and outright dismissing others. And I think the older that I’ve gotten, that belief is no longer there with me. And I try to be more understanding and empathetic and trying to understand the other person’s viewpoints. Because just because you don’t agree with my beliefs, or just because you voted one way or another way, or you said X thing on social media, that doesn’t really mean that I understand you and understand the full picture. So that’s something that as the more I age, the older I get, the more I learn that everything is nuanced.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, there’s tons of nuance. When you talk to anybody, there’s always something you don’t know that they know. They always have at least one piece of information that you don’t, even if it’s as simple as like their own life or personal experience or what happened on that day, there’s always something you don’t know that they do. And whether you’re like- whoever you’re talking to, there’s always a different pile of information that they’re using, that you aren’t using, or you’re using differently or whatever. That’s a deeper one that you could go on for a while.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, and I think just really quickly, I think, for search and small businesses, that’s so important to have that view because you’re reaching out to anyone that- I mean, in the US or in geography or whatever, you have to understand that everyone is different. And you have to be able to level set with just because someone doesn’t see things your view, it’s okay, and they have their own reasons and really understand where they’re coming from and not dismiss people. I think, unfortunately, even today in our society with everything going on, it’s very easy to fall back to that kind of thinking. And I don’t think it behooves us, certainly not this community, to just think one way or another.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I totally agree. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Aside from Home Depot? No, I’m kidding. The best business I’ve ever seen, actually, the best business I’ve ever seen is honestly schools and universities. If you have a well-established school, and I’m not talking about neo private pay schools, but if you have a well-established school like Harvard, you just have such brand recognition, such legacy that people will literally pay no matter what to go to that school, even if it’s during the pandemic, and you’re not being in person. But I actually think businesses with strong brand recognition, with strong legacy, with strong levels of service and a track record, like old school legacy universities, I think those are the best businesses. Because ultimately, they’re super emotionally driven as well and everyone’s always going to value education. And so, I think having that brand recognition with the legacy and the track record. The unit economics might not be as strong if you are investing a lot in gyms or whatever you’re trying to build, new buildings, but I think thinking long term if I could invest in long term universities, maybe not in the US because they’re developed, but in Mexico, for example, where I’m from, that would be an amazing business opportunity.
Alex Bridgeman: That’d be really neat. And also, that strong brand name also allows you to launch other businesses. If you think of MIT with MIT Tech Review, or Harvard Business Review, those are really both media examples because I’m a media geek, but those are phenomenally successful businesses. Like Harvard Business Review on its own, I can’t remember how many hundreds of millions in revenue it has, but it’s a massive business that is really successful and builds off of that brand value that Harvard established. So if you think of like, I don’t know what the best universities in Mexico would be, but you could buy like maybe one or two, and then figure out what is the content business you could make or some other product or service you could sell that kind of builds on that brand value, but also, of course, helps the student body and alumni as well. That could be an interesting strategy to add.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, and I think it goes back as well to that emotional component. A lot of businesses have brand value, when you can create- again, that goes into the service level and making sure that you have really great business. But if you have a strong brand value, and if you’re in a business where you can add ancillary services, like you said, in magazines or research and your unit economics makes sense, I think that’s where you have a solid business. But then when you overlay that with the emotional attachments that it is to be your alma mater, you’re really being of that school, really having a community built in, I think it’s super strong when you add that, overlay that emotional component.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, absolutely. I think my version of your school investment strategy would be buying airports. Like I would love to buy small private airports, add hangars and restaurants, kind of like what FLYING Magazine is doing with this fly in resort they are building in Chattanooga. That would be a fun strategy to do. Some airports are publicly traded too, I don’t think any US ones. But there’s some in I think South America that are publicly traded that are kind of interesting to look at. I think there’s one, I want to say Spain, or some other European countries, there are a few that are publicly traded. It’s kind of fascinating.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, and I mean, the unit economics can make sense, even, well, yeah, in the US across private airports. And with a little investment, you can go a long way. And then obviously, for both of these businesses, you have a big real estate component. So traditionally, universities or airports will be in big plots of land. And if you’re strategic about that and smart around your capital allocation decisions, that certainly can be very interesting.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. And there’s tons of expansion opportunities. So, with an airport, you can build a new terminal. Lots of new terminals are built just to expand capacity. But if you notice, new terminals have way more restaurants or amenities and other ways that the airport can make money off of restaurant revenue or just extra small landing fees or whatever. But that’s kind of similar to like football stadiums, like new NFL stadiums will have a ton more boxes and more restaurants, they can have more revenue from selling boxes and prime seats or better restaurant revenue. There’s a whole bunch of nuances to expansion of those infrastructure pieces that I find interesting. But I digress. We’ll learn about that later.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, and I mean, just to finish with that, I do know a few folks that do like franchise opportunities within airports specifically. And that, I mean, could be a bolt-on to your investment thesis in airports. But I think that’s very interesting because once you know one of the players, it’s very easy to get into other players. And everyone’s always going to need food in airports, it’s pretty low maintenance. You have to go in through security costs, etc. But you can actually build really good profitable businesses if you have one or two key franchisors and are able to license across different airports. I know that a few folks have done fairly well with that thesis. So maybe that could be a bolt-on to your strategy.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I would love to chat about them, so we’ll sidebar and bookmark that for later. But in the meantime, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing a little bit. This was super fun. I love getting into chat and it was good to get to chat with you again and have it a little bit more recorded. This was fantastic.
Adriana Garcia Ceja: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, Alex, I really enjoyed it. Thank you for having me on.