- Auditing versus day-to-day accounting operations
- Networking into job opportunities
- Investing in boring businesses
- Experience you don't realize you're getting
Jeff Crowe started his career at KPMG and recently transitioned into a private equity role. Read on!
I went to the University of Missouri and was originally thinking about getting an engineering degree. But I started asking myself, what do I want to do in life? Where do I see myself going? I'm still trying to figure out why I landed on this answer - but I told myself that one day I wanted to be the CEO or CFO of a company here in Kansas City. It doesn't have to be a huge company, but I want to be the guy at the top. That kind of paved my path into accounting. An accounting degree was, in my mind, one of the more prestigious business degrees. I think it gives students the best business foundation.
All of the big 4 firms did a great job of recruiting while I was in the accounting program. I started my career with KPMG and spent a couple years there on the audit side. I chose audit over tax because, in my mind, audit would allow me to understand how businesses work and how they operate. I was able to get a little experience with Fortune 500 clients and see what they do well, what they struggle with, and the challenges they face.
All things considered, I enjoyed my time there. But ultimately I decided that it wasn't where I wanted to spend my career. So I started to network and throw out some lines to see what options were available. I lucked into an accounting manager position at a smaller company that provides janitorial services to offices and schools.
It was a shock when I got there. KPMG has robust controls, good processes, everything like that. I changed gears to this small business and the first week they told me that May’s bank statement needed to be reconciled. This was in September! This is one of the most basic processes and they were three or four months behind. So I got thrown into the fire pretty quickly trying to understand the accounting day-to-day operations. And then to create processes to prevent some of those issues.
There are a lot of differences. When you're an auditor, you're given a package that's already been put together. You didn't have to do any of the work to put it together and make it look nice. You're checking boxes and making sure that everything ties out as it's supposed to. When you're actually running the day-to-day or doing the day-to-day accounting work, you need to understand every little nuance of that process.
The bank reconciliation, while it sounds trivial, I didn't really know what I was doing the first time. So I had to figure that out and really think through the process. It's a lot more problem solving, a lot more critical thinking. Almost trial and error. I didn't have anybody above me to tell me how to do it. I just had to dive in and figure things out. I had to create my own processes. And a lot of that came from some of the experience I had with KPMG, some of the things that I saw working well. Also, I still had relationships at KPMG that I leveraged. But the day-to-day was really about trying to make things better.
Sure, after a few years in my previous role I got a call about a unique opportunity to partner up with a guy who has a lot of private equity experience. I’m the Managing Director at Blackbird Capital. We think there’s a real inefficiency in access to capital for really small businesses. Our target business does $2-10 million in revenue and is looking to transition ownership to the general manager or key employees. The ideal scenario is an owner is coming up on retirement, but there’s a GM or chief operator who’s been running the business for 4-5 years. The operator would love to buy the business, but he or she doesn't have the money to buy it. That’s where we come in. We work with the operator to get bank financing. A lot of the time, banks require equity contributions, think of it like a down payment on a house, only for your business. So we step in as a minority investor and the operator buys a majority stake. We work with the operator on strategy, finance and accounting, things like that.
Overall, we try to provide opportunities for operators to own a business. We’re only a few months in, so it’s kinda back to the drawing board again in terms of day-to-day processes.
I’d like to think I’m a jack of all trades. I’m relying on my partner for his experience and wisdom. But he’s intentionally throwing me into the fire. I’m trying to get to know SBA lenders and business brokers to get plugged into that community. We also just sent out 2,000 letters to companies in the area so we could tell them about our services.
We’re also trying to figure out the best investment model for our business. What’s the best way to structure a deal, what deals require different structures, etc. There’s also administrative stuff that you would never think of. I had to set up email addresses for our company. We’re furnishing our office right now. Things that someone has to do, and we’re a three person shop so it might as well be me. I’m just jumping on the opportunity and getting my hands in a bunch of different things.
Our typical check size for us is anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000. We like to structure the capital as preferred stock that includes a current pay piece, a balloon payment that’s tied to the senior note, and an equity component. We also ask for a board seat.
Geographically, right now we are focused on Kansas City and the surrounding areas. We're not really attached to one industry. We don't want to get into software or tech or startups. We like established boring businesses, stuff that has been working well for a while.
Yes, we recently closed two investments. One is a FedEx route company. FedEx actually doesn't do the last mile delivery, they contract it out. The company that we're partnering up with owns 25-30 routes in the Kansas City area.
The second is a company named Pound 250. They are a telephone advertising platform where your company can pay to reserve the rights to certain keywords in your market. So, rather than having your customers call your company’s ten-digit phone number, they dial #250 and then speak your keyword which directs their call to your company’s sales department. It’s a really cool business model (one that I had never heard of before), and we’re excited to see where it goes from here! Check them out online at pound250.com!
Networking. One of my mentors sat me down as I was graduating college and said, “I want you to take me out for coffee once a quarter”. It was uncomfortable at first. Here I am, meeting with this super successful guy, and I don’t know what I want to do next week let alone for the rest of my life. But it was good, he pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and start establishing relationships. My network just started growing and I became more comfortable making initial contact. Through that process I found that everyone is extremely receptive. Everyone wants to be helpful and they look at it as a positive connection if they spend 95% of the time talking. So I just ask a few questions here and there, then they’re off to the races. I just sit back, which is great because I’m there to learn and see what I can absorb. Those conversations eventually led to both of my recent roles.
That’s a hard question to answer, because it really depends on the individual. You really have to figure out what works best for you and what you enjoy the most. If you're looking to leave, I would encourage you to figure out what you want to do before leaving rather than just leaving because you're upset.
This might sound weird, but when you’re in public you’re getting a lot of experience that you might not realize you’re getting. For example, I didn’t understand my ability to think through and understand processes until I left KPMG. But doing walkthroughs and testing procedures really enables you to think through things on a different level.
At the end of the day, I want to provide value for somebody. That is one thing that I struggled with when I was at KPMG - I didn't feel like we were creating anything or providing value. I almost saw us as the police force of the business world, where we were just verifying that businesses were doing what they said they should be doing. So I want to create value. I think we have a unique opportunity to do that here at Blackbird Capital. We can empower people who might not have an opportunity to run a business, we can give them that chance to transform their life for the better. So that is exciting to me.
Delivering a good work product is also important to me. That entails a number of different things, but I want to make sure that the work product or anything that I do is polished and well thought through.
And then of course family is really important. Being able to provide for my family and help them enjoy life as much as possible is probably the biggest driver in my life.
My long-term career goal is to be the CEO or CFO of some small company here in the area. I want to provide value to people in this community. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be a minority investor in a number of different companies. So maybe Blackbird will allow me to have my hands in a lot of different companies and provide value in different and unique ways. But I really want to take that next step, take control, and be the guy calling the shots.