Breaking into private equity with Ryan Roepke

Private Equity

Ryan Roepke left PwC (twice) to join the investing world. Read about it below!

Can you tell us about your background?

I did my undergrad at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. My undergrad major was accounting, which was really popular within the business school. Looking back, I wonder how I ended up studying accounting. When I was in high school, there's no way I would have told you that I was going to be a CPA. But Rockhurst had three or four really good accounting professors. I was interested in numbers, so I was probably going to do finance or accounting. And just because of the professors, I ended up choosing accounting. I did an internship with PwC, so going into senior year I already had a full time offer. But when I graduated, I knew that I wasn’t going to do accounting forever. So when I started full time at PwC, I also went back to do my MBA through Rockhurst. This was my angle to eventually get out of the accounting industry.

So you were working full-time, getting your MBA, and studying for the CPA?

Yeah, I was doing night classes and Saturday classes. I think I took one class during busy season, like a Tuesday night. PwC was flexible with it, which was great. But I wasn’t doing the majority of my MBA while I was cranking on the CPA. I tried to break it up as much as possible. But looking back it was kind of crazy. I guess when you’re 22 you don’t have anything else to do.

How was your experience at PwC?

It was great. Bottom line, PwC is one of the best places to get true technical skills and eventually develop soft skills. I spent 6 years at PwC, and made it to manager. One reason I stayed so long was the partners that I had as mentors. They had my back when I’d screw up and gave me the right opportunities, like early promotion. I started out on some financial services and energy clients. Then, I was assigned to a middle market private equity firm’s portfolio companies. As I worked my way up, I developed a pretty good relationship with the private equity firm. That was my introduction to private equity. It was an eye opening experience and I realized that I wanted to do something in that world.

Where did you go after PwC?

Actually, I was a boomerang. I tried to leave once and it was just the wrong place. I left for a role with a bank’s leveraged finance group. Two or three weeks into the job, the bank did this big reorg that caught my boss (and me) off guard. They shifted more responsibilities to New York and Minneapolis. So the job I thought I was going to be doing changed dramatically. I was pretty bummed because I had worked so hard to get a job outside of accounting and I kind of gave up on that idea for a while. I called the head partner at the PwC St. Louis office and told him that I wanted to come back, but that I wanted to explore opportunities outside of the financial statement audit practice. I ended up joining a new group that was focused on internal audit services. I took it because the role wasn’t doing the actual audit work, it was a client facing role doing business development and project management. I did that for a year and got the itch again to do something in the private equity/investing world. I felt like I needed to be in the investing world. Luckily, I networked my way into my current role.

Tell us about that.

I work for the private debt and equity group at Reinsurance Group of America, Incorporated (RGA), a global life and health reinsurance company. RGA is a Fortune 500 company with assets of more than $75 billion. As part of the investment division at the company, the private debt and equity group manages a portfolio of around $1.2 billion.

What’s your investment strategy?

The vast majority of private businesses are currently owned by the baby boomer generation. Over the next 10-15 years a lot of those businesses are going to transition ownership as the baby boomers look to retire. We are looking for business owners that want to take some chips off the table and bring in a partner to help grow the business. We like to see the seller put 20-30% of their after tax proceeds back into the business, so they’re still interested in the success of the business after the sale. We invest in businesses with EBITDA between $5 and $35 million, so the U.S. lower middle market. We are industry agnostic but we like to partner with other investors who have sector expertise. We usually invest a minority equity position and some sort of junior capital, whether it be preferred equity, mezzanine debt or unitranche debt.

How did you succeed in moving into the investing world?

The typical finance background is someone who has worked for an investment bank, so I definitely looked different than other candidates. I think people with those backgrounds have respect for accountants, but they also wonder if an accountant can be an investor. So you have to tell your story and convince them that an accounting background is actually a positive versus a negative. A lot of the stuff I did at PwC was very translatable – looking into competitors, industry and economic risks, financial statement fluctuations, etc. When I was going through all of the work I did, the light bulb started to go off for the investors that I was interviewing with that my technical skills can transition to the investing world.

How can others get the most out of public accounting experience?

No matter what you're doing when you're there, just be all in on it because things change every two or three months anyway. So if you don’t like what you're doing today, odds are you'll be working on something totally different three months from now. And if you're all in on it, eventually you're going to be working on something that you like. Whether it's an industry, a client, or a partner you get to work with, something is eventually going to click. Somewhere along the way, things will pop up and you’ll find what you want to be doing day in and day out. That's what helped me not get burnt out. I never worked on just one big public client the whole year. I would have probably quit a lot sooner if I had because I like the variety and change of pace of working with multiple clients.

How would you recommend pursuing things within your firm? If you’re good, your current team or partner won’t want you to go do something else. How do you navigate that?

It's tough. Staffing conflicts at accounting firms can come up all the time. I think there are a bunch of factors, but big one is your partners and how much they value you. And that is influenced by the work that you’ve done for them over the years and saying yes to the things that they ask of you. You may not like the job, but you’re going to learn from it and it builds a ton of goodwill. But they’re not going to be able to snap their fingers and make changes happen overnight. That’s where I saw most people get frustrated, unfortunately things take time. But I’m a big believer in building goodwill and looking at it as currency that can be spent later.

Any general advice for those looking to transition out of public accounting?

Try to identify the stuff you like in public accounting and find those factors in your next job. What I liked about PwC was the competitive nature, the promotion schedule, the fact that I was going to continue to learn and hone my technical and soft skills. All of that prepares you for a career outside of public accounting. So, find the good skills that public offers and then add your own interests on top of it. If you can do that at a company or an industry that you’re passionate about, you’ll probably be pretty satisfied in your job.
Also networking matters so much for job opportunities and helps you to get a better perspective on what's going on in the world. People are working and making money doing all kinds of things. It takes time to build relationships through networking though, it won’t happen overnight.

What are some things that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

I wish I would have known how much what city you live in can impact your career opportunities. In St. Louis or Kansas City, the options at PwC are basically audit, tax or risk assurance. But at PwC Chicago, there are 10 other things that you can do with the firm. I just didn’t know that when I was 21.
Another thing that I didn’t fully appreciate is how your early experience can dictate career paths. The path I took to get where I am is completely different from most people. I didn’t work at an investment bank. It’s worked out. Luckily, the PwC name coupled with my clients gave me the benefit of the doubt, but it was a totally different way of getting here.
Also, after a five or six year time frame, you will generally have the same technical abilities as your peers. What matters at the point is soft skills and common sense in the workplace. How you interact with clients and portfolio companies, how you work with a team, these things start mattering way more.

What are your long term career goals?

I see myself continuing to be an investor in the lower middle market. It's something I truly believe in on the macro thesis level. And, it's just interesting to me. I want to continue to have more personal exposure and get more skin in the game with my own capital.

How can people connect with you?

Feel free to connect on LinkedIn!

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