My guest on this episode is Tom Birchard. Tom has spent a great portion of his career managing service and operations teams for Ingersoll Rand and Trane, and as of March 2022, has taken a president role with a family office to acquire home services businesses. The family office is Whitney Wilder and it’s technically a multifamily office based in St. Petersburg, Florida, that operates like a private equity firm, but without a fund, giving them lots of flexibility, investments, and timelines. The office was formed after some successful real estate investments and their next move is acquiring home services businesses with Tom leading that new effort.
Tom and I discuss managing projects and teams, getting to know a new team and designing successful transitions, how to handle having an iPad thrown at you, and involving family more in your career, among other team management topics. Enjoy.
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.
(5:26) – Ryan’s background and career in the Navy before RDC
(9:28) – What were some key sales skills you learned working for a startup?
(10:58) – How did you go about the process of developing your Cap Table?
(12:50) – How did you decide your industry focus?
(18:13) – Once you had a targeted industry focus, how did you reach out to different companies?
(20:13) – How fast was it from Fundraise to close?
(20:26) – What does RDC do?
(21:57) – How did you build relationships with the most influential people on your team?
(27:27) – Were there any challenges with the fact that you were taking over a 3rd generation family business?
(30:18) – What have you found is most helpful in communicating that painful growth is best for the employees in the long term?
(33:24) – How did your time in the military affect how you look at job progression and giving people more responsibility?
(38:32) – What were some blind spots you developed while in the military?
(43:44) – How have you leaned on your board?
(45:43) – How did you develop your board?
(48:13) – What advice would you offer to searchers looking to create a board?
(52:35) – What college course would you teach if it could be on anything?
(54:56) – What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
(57:01) – What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Alex Bridgeman: Thanks, Tom, for coming on the podcast. It’s been fun just chatting with you back and forth over the last few weeks or so and also hearing about your connection with Peter Lowman and a few others. It’s been fun to kind of bring your group full circle. I would love to hear a little bit about your background and the companies that you’ve worked with and the ones you’re working on today. And you also have a big move coming up, too, which feeds into all of this. I’d love to hear all about it.
Tom Birchard: Thanks for having me on, Alex. I really appreciate it. So I was born and raised in Minnesota, got an engineering degree for my undergraduate and probably the bad type of engineer that knew right out of the gates I didn’t really want to do engineering. I just knew that I was good at math and science and good at school and it would get me a good job coming out of college. So, after graduating college, I went to work for Thermo King, which was a division of Ingersoll Rand and Trane. And 16 years later, I’ve been with the same fortune 500 company for nearly 16 years. My career spanned – I recently did a tweet on this – and so I’ve been in 5 different states, 3 different business units, 9 different roles, and 13 different managers. So, variety of experiences ranging from engineering and market and product management. And then sort of the second half of my time with Ingersoll Rand and Trane, I moved into their field organization, managing field sales and service teams. I went back and got my MBA shortly after starting work for Ingersoll Rand and Trane. And I’m currently transitioning into a new role and a new, more entrepreneurial opportunity where I’m partnering up with a family office that’s going to be rolling up home services businesses, and I’ll be their president of home services. You alluded to my upcoming move. So next week, we close on the purchase of our house in Tampa. Two weeks later, we close on the sale of our house here in Columbus, Ohio, and my wife and I, who have been married for four years, we’ll be moving down to Tampa with our 13-month-old son, our four dogs, and daughter who’s on the way and due in August. So lots of change and excitement in the Birchard household.
Alex Bridgeman: For those who don’t know, including myself, what does Ingersoll Rand and Trane do with their business?
Tom Birchard: So, a little bit confusing. So, when I went to work, Thermo King was a business unit of Ingersoll Rand. I went to work for them in 2006. In 2008, Ingersoll Rand acquired Trane. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, Trane spun off Ingersoll Rand. And so, it’s little bit confusing, but Ingersoll Rand as a whole was a very industrial company. So, they owned brands like Club Car golf carts. They have industrial air compressors, air tools like New Maddox. If you’re a race car fan, like the Thunder Gun is an Ingersoll Rand air tool. So, a lot of different variety. And then on the Trane side, that’s more climate control. And so, that’s both residential as well as commercial HVAC equipment and service. And just a quick story. We contracted with a former crew pit guy for one of the major racing drivers that became like an employee of ours. And we would go to trade shows and people would try and race him in terms of changing a tire, and nobody ever could beat him based on just how quick and efficient he was at it. But that was a lot of fun to see and great market marketing to get people to your booth at a trade show. Very loud too.
Alex Bridgeman: Very loud indeed. So then that HVAC experience with Trane, is that what led to the family office opportunity then?
Tom Birchard: Yeah, and I can go into it in more detail if you’d like, but I got interested in the whole search fund, small business acquisition world a few years ago and started to take some steps to understand that space better, put myself in networks and communities that would potentially open up an opportunity like that. And during that process, I connected with a family office, and the combination of my HVAC experience as well as just experience leading large kind of dispersed teams made that a good fit.
Alex Bridgeman: And can you talk a little bit about some of those teams that you manage both in terms of size, what did those teams that you were managing, what were they aiming to accomplish? What kinds of different roles have you been in through your career?
Tom Birchard: I’ll start with the very first management job I had was when I moved to San Antonio, Texas, managed a compressed air service team. And so, it was ten service technicians across South Texas, a service coordinator and dispatcher. And that was the extent of the first team that I had. So that team was focused on taking care of customers and maintaining compressed air equipment, servicing it, repairs. Our customers would be large manufacturing plants, processing facilities, a lot of mission critical type of applications where if they didn’t have compressed air, they weren’t able to do whatever process they were trying to do to produce whatever product they had. To kind of skip a couple steps, so my most recent job with Trane here in Ohio was what was called a regional service leader role. And so, in that role, I managed about a 260-person team spread across 3 states, 12 different offices. In that situation, we were a commercial HVAC service team. And so, we had anything from technicians to service coordinators to estimators, project administrators to do invoice and collections, a team of service managers that actually managed those folks in the local offices, and much like on the compressed air side, that team’s mission was to get out to customers fast, to take care of them, to keep their equipment up and running, and to do whatever it’d take to make our customers happy.
Alex Bridgeman: What were some common lessons or themes or ideas or concepts that were helpful in managing across your teams? Because it sounds like you’ve managed a bunch of different sizes of teams, but also kind of roles within those teams. What are some commonalities across those experiences that you think are helpful for managers managing all kinds of different teams?
Tom Birchard: The first thing that comes to mind is, it sounds really cliche, but it’s all about taking care of your people. It’s an overused term of being a servant leader, but that’s something I firmly believe in. Me as a manager, I don’t know what’s best for our business and for our customers, the people that are out there interacting with them each and every day are what knows best. And so, my first and foremost responsibility is to get to know and to build rapport with those people on my team, to see them working in whatever environment that is, whether they’re a coordinator answering phone calls and dispatching technicians to customers, or whether it’s a service technician out there in the heat on a roof trying to repair a piece of equipment. The most important thing, regardless of the size of team you’re managing, is getting to know your team and figuring out what their pain points are, and then taking the role of removing those obstacles and trying to make their life better.
Alex Bridgeman: How would you bucket the different management roles within different sizes? So, I imagine the role of being a manager of 10 people is very different from 200 or 500. How might you break those down? Like between 5 and 30, it’s one role, between 30 and 100, it is this role. How did you categorize those different roles?
Tom Birchard: That’s a great question. So, I would say at anything up to call it 10 people or so, you can have your finger on the pulse of most things that are happening in your business, not everything you can’t be everywhere all the time and see everything, but you can have a pretty good sense of what’s going on with that team. And you can kind of be a decision point for everything going on in that business at that size. I would say when you take a step up to maybe a team of 30 to 50, suddenly you probably need a couple other managers on your team, and you need to have a little bit of structure in order to manage that. And so, like in my most recent role where I was a regional service leader, I had what I called lead area service managers that maybe would be over 3 different offices and have 5 or 6 direct reports on their team managing the teams underneath them. And that’s a role where I call it you need to learn to lead leaders, and it becomes more imperative that you have the right people underneath you making decisions and sort of representing you well in terms of how they act with their teams and the types of decisions that they’re making. And then if you go to 250 people, it’s similar to that like 30 to 50 size but just on a much bigger scale. And then the structure of the team, the roles and responsibilities definition, the metrics and KPIs, like you certainly can’t be everywhere to everyone. And so those interactions become that much more important and targeted, but you really need to have the right team underneath you with the right structure in order to lead a business of that size and complexity.
Alex Bridgeman: And is it different across managing teams that are focused on sales versus marketing operations? Or is the role pretty similar? You’re still just managing people. Are there any nuances between managing teams with different missions?
Tom Birchard: I think it all starts with incentives. And so, there certainly is. With a sales team, if you have the right- we call them account managers, our goal would be to progress everybody eventually to 100% commission type of role. And so, when you’re managing somebody in sales, that’s 100% commission, you don’t have to look too far to know what a big part of their motivation is. And so, in that situation, you probably don’t need to micromanage as much. Even if you try to, it gets difficult because they created quite a bit of space and autonomy by the nature of the fact that you’re not paying them a salary. The only way they get paid is if they’re producing. So that’s certainly a different style of management than managing like an hourly or salaried employee that’s maybe got a little more narrowly defined role. But I’d say managing each role is different, and then managing every single person is different. There’s a framework called situational leadership that I’ve found to be quite helpful. And basically, you put every person with every task they do on a spectrum from are they just getting up to speed on it? Are they fairly proficient but still need some coaching, all the way to like they’re an expert or a master and you can truly delegate. And so, as a manager, you’re constantly assessing the folks on your team and where their competency is on any given task and therefore how much coaching and direction you need to provide in order to help them be effective. And what was interesting for me is when you go through this program, you have to self-assess through a test of what your go-to style is. And so, one of them is called supporting, and for I think it was 19 out of 20 questions, I would select the answer that was supporting, even if that wasn’t the right approach to take in that particular situation. And so, it was a good lesson for me to sort of cater my style to the situation. And I always viewed micromanagement as a bad thing, but there are times and situations and people where micromanagement is exactly what’s needed in order to kind of keep that person moving along and progressing to that next level.
Alex Bridgeman: How do you think about improving as a manager and getting feedback from folks who are working with you or under you?
Tom Birchard: A few things come to mind. One is, and this is something I’m planning to take with me to the family office, but many people talk about customer satisfaction scores or the net promoter score for customers. But I think there’s something to be said for doing that for your team as well. And so, we would do what was called an employee engagement survey, and at a very macro level, you would get like an overall score of how engaged your team is, but there were different subcategories within that. And one of them was manager effectiveness. And so, it would be questions like my manager cares about me as a person. My manager gives me constructive feedback. My manager has given me opportunities to develop or progress my career. And so, it’s anonymous, so you don’t know who provided each answer, but you get a score for yourself and that can be highly effective as a manager to help point you in the directions you need to focus and improve upon. And then I’m also a big believer in just creating an open and honest two-way dialogue. Like technically, I’m managing you, but you’re managing me as well, and let’s keep this collaborative, and if there’s something I can be doing more or less of to make you successful, I want to know that. And the best performers that I’ve hired have had that and have actually called me to the carpet a few times on things that I could be doing better for them. And I think it’s important to have an environment where that feedback is welcome.
Alex Bridgeman: Is there any piece of feedback that you remember most or was most painful or most helpful or just any sort of memory come to mind when you think of someone giving you feedback on management?
Tom Birchard: Yeah, I actually do. So, I hired a gentleman who in my most recent role with Trane, and if he’s listening to this podcast, he’ll laugh, but he was my lead area service manager for what we called our North Central Ohio area, so Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo offices. There was a point in the middle of COVID where I was trying to drive some sort of initiative, and I can’t remember what it was, but I was disappointed in the responsiveness of him and his team in terms of turning some sort of request around. And he pushed back on me, rightly so, and said, “Hey Tom, we’re just literally trying to keep our head above water and take care of customers. And I need you to tell me what are the things that you absolutely need versus what can wait. And this felt to me like something that can wait and probably doesn’t need to be top priority. And therefore, we’re going to go do what we need to do to take care of our customers as we’re short staffed, we’ve got supply chain issues, we’ve got a whole host of things we’re dealing with at this moment.” And so, I would say most members of my team wouldn’t have had the courage to speak up and say something. They may not turned around the request or made excuses, but I really appreciated somebody speaking up and sort of giving me the reality of the situation from the ground level whereas I was somewhat buffered from that in my role.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. That can be scary giving feedback to a manager. How do you encourage folks on your team to give that feedback, even if it is scary, or maybe if someone gives you that feedback, you do something to encourage that behavior in the future? What sorts of things do you do to encourage folks giving you feedback, even if it’s hard for them?
Tom Birchard: So, first and foremost is- one of my pet peeves is when somebody is out there spending time with you and you have a suggestion, and they maybe scribble it down in a notebook and say, “I’ll get back to you.” A week passes, a month passes, and there’s never any circle back or follow up. And so, I’ve got a personal organizational system where I hold myself highly accountable to I call it a say-do ratio. Like if I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And so, you build trust and rapport by actually following up with people. And the answer may not be what they like. It may be, hey, I looked into this, this is why we can’t do it, I didn’t realize that when I was out there with you. But if you do that, it doesn’t necessarily give them the courage to give you the harsh feedback, but it sort of keeps the momentum alive in terms of giving you feedback and knowing that it doesn’t go in one ear, out the other, and it actually gets acted upon. In terms of building the trust and rapport to get the more critical feedback, it really is about relationships and it’s about spending time with people. Skipping ahead to my new role, we’re likely to close on a couple of acquisitions, one of an HVHC company and one of a plumbing company, within the next 30 days. And I was on the phone this morning with the owner of the plumbing business, or sorry, the HVAC business, and he asked me, “Tom, what do you envision your first couple of weeks being like? What changes are you going to make? Like, what’s the shakeup going to look like when we come on board?” And my answer to him was nothing, like I said who are the top 10 people you need me to spend time with and get to know on a personal level, but much like I said earlier, go out and kind of meet them where they’re at. But I don’t think there’s any substitute for the person to person like human-to-human connection and building that relationship and trust at that level that then they feel like you’re a real human being. You’re not just a name on a sheet of paper or a business title and that therefore they build that trust in you that they can give feedback.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. A huge matter of running small companies and especially acquiring them is just managing a lot of these transitions where things can fall to the side or get lost or not go well. What have you learned about managing difficult transitions throughout your career that have been helpful in perhaps some of this early work with the family office?
Tom Birchard: So, one of the best frameworks I’ve ever came across was a book called The First 90 Days. And you’re nodding your head, so maybe you’ve heard of it before, but it’s geared towards- I believe the book was originally written for new managers, but it’s really helpful in a variety of situations, honestly, whether you’re a manager or not. And one of the frameworks that it provides is to assess the situation. And so, there’s, if I remember right, four or five situations, I think it’s called the Stars Model, but it’s startup, turnaround, forget what the A is, maybe accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. And so, the idea is that you determine what the situation is, and it’s a different playbook that you go and you execute against in a turnaround versus a sustaining success. And what did I say earlier? My 5 different states and multiple roles and business units, I’ve probably walked into most of those and found it very valuable to try and assess the situation. And then, if you’re in a turnaround, there’s some sense of urgency to go make some change early on and to get some quick wins. If it’s a sustaining success, then it’s really more of a do no harm type of approach and observe and learn. And I think it was Stephen Covey that said seek first to understand then to be understood. But the important thing is to assess the situation up front and then decide the tactical approach you’re going to take versus just a one size fits all.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that book was recommended to me by the team at Pacific Lake in preparing for the housing wire job. And one thing that was consistent across all the different stars situations was the importance of getting to know the team and getting to know the culture, how things are done, what alliances are important for you to form. And so, if you think of the situations you’ve been in where you need to get to know this new team, what are some ways that you’ve found are really effective in connecting with the people who are important for you to get to know? And what sorts of things do you ask them? How do you build those relationships? Just what are some pointers that you’ve created through your career so far?
Tom Birchard: So, I’m going to actually tell you a story. So, in my last day with Trane, which was just two and a half weeks ago, I got a call from a technician that I had managed when I was out in Salt Lake City, Utah, for Trane. And so, I hadn’t spoken to him or worked directly with him for two years. And he started the conversation by saying, “Tom, you’re one of the few people that’s ever proven me wrong.” And I said, “Okay, Rick, can you explain how did I prove you wrong?” And he said, “When you came into your role as a service leader in Utah and Idaho,” he said, “I didn’t believe anybody that hadn’t come up through the technical route as a technician could ever do that role well and be successful.” He said, “After seeing you do it,” he said, “I no longer think that anybody who grew up as a technician should ever do that role again.” And so, I asked him a few follow-up questions to try and understand what prompted those thoughts. It was probably my third week on the job. We had a very difficult customer situation. There was some litigation going on, and we were in a mess of a situation to try and clean it up. And we had committed to go out there to resolve this situation over a weekend. And I went out there on a Saturday with maybe eight or nine different technicians and had no idea what I was doing technically, but part of what we had to do was pressure wash some coils and coils that were out of what are called VAV units, and I brought in lunch and got to know the guys during that, but I actually rolled up my sleeves and tried to be helpful in whatever minimal way I could be. But that like single event and memory still, years later, like stuck in his mind as something that was meaningful for him and something that had built rapport upfront. And I think once you have that connection, then if you start to implement some new processes and some accountability and metrics and stuff, you just have a much better chance of being able to get traction with those versus if you start with those things before establishing that personal connection and going out and meeting them within their environment, not just settling for a team meeting or having them come into your office or whatever. So that’s one story that comes to mind that I think hits on that point.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. There’s a ton of value in creating that early credibility where they trust you before you make large changes. Because if you make those large changes beforehand and they don’t go well, then you’ve lost a lot of momentum with that team. So, after you’ve built that initial rapport with your team, the initial trust in the first handful of months, how do you start working on those early wins that continue that progress of building trust further and further with your team?
Tom Birchard: Good question. So, I’m going to actually use an example here from my very first management job that I mentioned earlier when I was in San Antonio, Texas, leading a compressed air service team. And so going back to The First 90 Days, that was definitely a turnaround situation. And so, when I got there, I did the same thing in terms of getting to know the team, going out and spending time with the technicians, but I also identified a few pinch points very early on. And so, one of them was they had one dispatcher dispatching, I think 10, but then we shortly added more, but like more than 10 technicians. And that was just too much for any one individual to do. That same person was doing the scheduling, doing the invoicing, and just was overworked. And so, I quickly identified that we needed to put a business case together to hire a second service coordinator. And so that was something that they had been asking for a while, but it took somebody to actually come in and make that business decision. On the flip side, there were a couple of toxic members of that team and under-performers. And I think within my first six months with that company, I had to terminate three different people, which is probably the most in my career over that tight of a period of time. And at the time, it was a very difficult thing to do. These weren’t totally dead weight employees. They had technical skills. They’d been with the company for a little while, but they just were bad culture fits. One of them through an iPad at me during my third day because he was not frustrated at me, frustrated with the iPad, but not the most professional behavior. But holding people accountable that weren’t carrying their weight, both from a job standpoint but also a culture standpoint built a lot of credibility with that team. And I’ll always say that it is probably the first and only time it’ll ever happen in my career, but that first full year of leading that team, our employee engagement results for the service department came back at a perfect hundred percent, which was a testament to some extent of the work I did, but also the fact that the bar was set pretty low in terms of what they’d been going through previously. But I’d say, yeah, identifying those early areas, like the adding another service coordinator and then holding people that aren’t pulling their weight accountable.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. And for folks that aren’t pulling weight, I imagine there are scenarios where that advice of fire quickly is very useful. But there’s probably also scenarios where the person isn’t trained as well and there’s some other pieces that management could do to help that person. How do you determine which situation that is?
Tom Birchard: It’s a great question, Alex. And this is one where I was lucky enough to kind of see a more sophisticated way of approaching corrective action or performance management. And so typically at Trane and Ingersoll Rand, we would start with something called an expectations letter. And so, there was no penalty to getting an expectations letter, but it was an opportunity for you as the manager to reiterate the expectations in that role and to highlight some of the areas that weren’t being acted upon accordingly, and it’s a two-way dialogue. And so, if there’s questions or clarification, it allows you to get that alignment. And I would say half the time, you go through the expectations letter process, you see improvement and you quickly realize that it was more of a lack of alignment and understanding of what the true expectations of the role were versus them being a bad employee or not being in the right role. The next phase in the process would be what would be called a performance improvement project or a PIP. And that was a more aggressive type of document that would be laid out if you were pretty convinced that somebody wasn’t pulling their weight in the job. And I would say there were examples of people recovering from a PIP, but the probabilities were a bit lower when you hit that stage in the process. And then only after going through an expectations letter and a PIP and maybe even other like verbal and written warnings would you ultimately come to the decision to let somebody go. The exception would be if there were an ethical violation and something that happened that just violated our code of conduct or ethics, in which case the decision could be made very quickly to part ways. And I had a couple of those examples as well.
Alex Bridgeman: So, you’ve obviously had a lot of roles managing large teams, well, some small teams, but many several hundred people teams. How did you go from working in that to being interested in SMB where an entire company might be 50 people versus a team of 200 within a much larger company? Why’d you find this area of the world interesting?
Tom Birchard: So late 2017, I was living in Texas, and I was scheduled to get married to my wife the following January. And I had open heart surgery based on a birth defect that I had and a pretty traumatic situation, but something that we were having a record year at work with Ingersoll Rand. And I pushed myself to come back within two weeks rather than the two months that they estimated it would take. My wife wasn’t too happy when I was sitting in the ICU fielding work text messages and trying to help my team out as well as tell them how I was doing, but pushed hard to get back, had the wedding three months later, had a record finish for the year at work, and we were on our wedding and honeymoon skiing in Colorado. And I had several missed calls from my manager who knew I was on my honeymoon and was fairly hands-off to begin with and normally wouldn’t call. And I returned his call and found out that there had been a major restructuring that had happened at the company. And I was fine, I landed on my feet and was going to have a perfectly good role coming out of it. But somebody was on the way to the office that I’ve led for five years and built relationships with and a culture and success and was going to let a couple of individuals go. And at that point, I spent much of the rest of my honeymoon on work conference calls and paperwork associated with the reorg, had to fly directly to some meetings that stemmed from that. But at that point, I made the commitment to myself that I was going to control my own destiny in a way that I just would never be able to do working for a large corporation where you’re always, no matter how well you’re performing or your team’s performing, you’re one step away from whatever the next big shake up is. And it sent me down the pretty deep rabbit hole of, to name a few things, reading the Harvard Business Review, buying a small business book, listening to your Think Like an Owner podcast, so thank you for that, listening to and reading some things by Brent Beshore, Walker Deibel’s Buy Then Build book, signing up for searchfunder.com, eventually joining Twitter and getting active in the SMB community. And it just opened my eyes to this whole new world of opportunities that are out there beyond the path that I had led up to that point. And so, during that time, I considered a variety of different models related to traditional search fund, self-funded search and ultimately stumbled upon this opportunity partnering with a family office that I would consider a bit of a meet in the middle solution. It’s more entrepreneurial than what I’ve done, but I still have a little bit of a safety net and support structure versus going out and taking an SBA loan and personally guaranteeing everything in order to go buy my own small business. And so, it felt like a good fit both for some of my personal values, as well as the ability to go lead at a little bit larger scale, which I think my background lends itself well to.
Alex Bridgeman: One other thing I would love to hear a little bit about is, as I imagine, interrupting your honeymoon would affect your wife quite a bit; I’m sure she’d be really upset. There is a searcher I met here in Omaha who talked about when they were searching for companies, they would bring their wife with them to wherever they were going. And their wife had to check off on whatever city they were going to be in. And they turned away great companies that were in situations or cities that his wife didn’t want to live in. I’d be curious, how did you think about your different options and how did you bring your wife into these decisions? Because she’s along for the ride, too, for whatever you decide to do. How did you both talk about the different options on the table for what you would do next?
Tom Birchard: That’s a great question, Alex. And so, one thing I didn’t mention is during the last couple of years, I went through a bit of a soul-searching exercise of trying to put down on paper my own personal purpose and values and what’s important to me. Is it money? Is it success? Is it fame? Is it something else? And I really came down to like I feel like I get my passion and purpose, first and foremost, from being there for my family, but also by leading teams and being a good manager for people. And there’s a lot of different contexts that you can do that with. But I had some concerns that if I went out and bought my own company that I may not like the person that I would become and how fixated and obsessive I could get over it and therefore not being there for my family. And so, that was something that I did and discussed with my wife. And then I would jump ahead to this particular opportunity with the Whitney Wilder family office, after I had verbally agreed to go into partner with this group, they flew from Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Petersburg, Florida, to Columbus to go out to dinner with my wife and I, and really got to know us and started to form that relationship. We then, back in November of last year, went down there for a very premature, like I don’t even think I’d call it house hunting trip, neighborhood hunting trip to get familiar with the Tampa area. And during that time, we spent considerable time with those folks, and for as busy as they are, they dropped everything and spent like quality time with us. They showed us the city and really helped to build her comfort as well as mine that this was a group that we would want to partner with for the long-term. And that even though we’re all going to work hard together and go through some bumps and bruises along the way, that it’s the right partnership. And so in that regards, having her bought in and believing what I was going to do was super critical.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. That spouse element is so under-discussed in small business. There’s a lot of great entrepreneurs that have great spouses, and without them, they wouldn’t have the business they do. How does that experience, and I imagine that’s probably not the first experience you’ve had where someone has involved your spouse or your wife and brought or made something a family decision, but how does that impact the way you approach sellers that you’re approaching now? How do you work with them and their families to make sure that they’re all on board for if you’re going to acquire them or work with them in some way?
Tom Birchard: So, yeah, it’s absolutely part of the process, and what we’ve seen, so our model is- our preferred situation is to actually partner with an owner and to allow them to roll some equity and still stay involved in the business versus somebody that’s looking to retire and get out completely. And so, in that process, we’re typically seeing that these owners have done a phenomenal job of growing this successful, profitable business, but in doing so, they’ve spread themselves so thin that they’re wearing so many different hats and having to work so hard just to keep things moving along that it’s impacting their ability to maintain a balanced life. And they want to be able to continue to grow the company and take it to the next level, but they’ve come to the self-realization that they need a strategic partner in order to be able to help them do that. And so, it’s definitely a family discussion if they have a family. Just last week, I was down in Tampa and one of the companies that we’re looking to acquire, we went out to dinner with the owner, a couple of key employees, as well as his wife. And it was clear through that conversation that he’s still committed to the business, but she has things that she wants to do as it relates to travel and other things. If they’re totally consumed by every single element of that business every single day, it limits their ability to lead a balanced life. And so we think we can come in and help provide some of that balance.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. We could talk for much longer, but I need to get through closing questions so we can let you go on time. What college class would you teach if it could be about any subject you wanted?
Tom Birchard: So, this may seem like a bit of a boring answer, but I think it would be just about basic management and leadership. And Michael Girdley recently did a post where he shared several reference materials, and one of them was a book called The Effective Manager. And I picked up that book and read it, and then it dawned upon me that so much is written about leadership philosophy, but very little is written about like the blocking and tackling elements of what management means. Like how often do you meet with your team? What does a one-on-one meeting look like? Just very what seemed like basic elements but aren’t necessarily common sense. And so, I would lead a class or I would teach a class on the basics of management and leadership kind of 101 and I think that would be valuable for a lot of people.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that’d be a great one. What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
Tom Birchard: So, I’m going to cheat on this one and I’m going to give you two of them. And so, one of them is that I used to religiously do New Year’s resolutions. Probably for 12 years in a row, I did New Year’s resolutions and what I always try and hold myself super accountable to hitting whatever goals I set for myself. When I went through the exercise a couple years ago of aligning on my own purpose and values, I started to determine that the New Year’s resolutions would cause me to be too fixated and too focused on the future and that if I just had a set of values and purpose that I could stay consistent with, that the decisions and situations that I’d be confronted with, that I could put them through that filter and make the right decision without having to have some big audacious annual goal. The other one would be around social media and just putting myself out there. I was the person for the longest time that had a Facebook account, but unless my wife was posting something or tagging me in pictures, I was very to myself and impersonal and never really saw the value in putting myself out there, whether through a blog or social media or anything like that. And I think through putting together my own blog as well as becoming a little more active on SMB Twitter, I’ve seen the value of doing that, the ability to share with other like-minded people to contribute to that community, as well as some of the benefits that come from being able to put content out there so that people can see how you think and process information and make decisions. And so, that’s been another belief that I’ve changed my mind on.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, those are both great. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Tom Birchard: So, I don’t have the traditional background of many of the folks that you’ve had on this podcast. And so, my answer’s probably going to be a little different. But the first business that I went to work for within Ingersoll Rand was called Thermo King, which is transport refrigeration. So, refrigeration units that go on trucks and trailers to keep product cold during transportation. And so, it was an extremely profitable business, and a few of the reasons were, number one, there were only two competitors in the market. Carrier and Thermo King owned 99% of the North America market share. There’s a parts and repair and maintenance side of that business that is highly profitable. And I know that from working in the aftermarket division of our company, but you might then ask yourself why, like why is something like transport refrigeration so profitable? There’re only two competitors. The nature of that business, we had a dealer network with more than 200 dealers throughout North America. And so even if you could create a better mouse trap, if you don’t have that network of dealers to be able to repair a unit and work on it, whether you’re in Omaha, Nebraska, where you are, or Columbus, Ohio, or Timbuktu in between, it’s a true barrier to entry that makes it such that it’s hard for another company to come into and take market share, even if they were to have a comparable product. So that was probably the best business that I’ve seen within the large business that I’ve worked for for the last 15.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. That’s an awesome one, too. Thank you so much, Tom, for coming on the podcast, it’s been really fun to chat with you and I’m glad we’ve gotten a chance to record one of these, and I’m looking forward to more conversations with you soon.
Tom Birchard: And I want to genuinely thank you, Alex. You played a big part in showing me the opportunities that exist outside of big corporate life. And so, you’re a big part of me going the direction I’m going now. And I’m very appreciative for that.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s super exciting and very kind of you. Thank you.
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