August Equity & Carter Schwartz – Recruiting for deal success

Recently, August Equity Partner Garret Turley and Carter Schwartz Managing Director Adam Carter discussed the importance of engaging a focused and specialised recruitment experience when it comes to private equity-based appointments.

A lot of private equity portfolio companies will have growth-led initiatives on their agenda. What Covid has done, is emphasise just how important it is to have a well-networked recruiter such as Carter Schwartz able to understand the marketplace to find and present the very best people – fit for future-proofing a business by implementing a critical hiring process.

Adam Carter advised on the successful appointment of Suzanne Lawrence as the new CEO for August Equity backed Orbis Group.

Following words by Real Deals Editor: Talya Misiri

Garret, can you describe the portfolio company and what you were hoping to achieve in working with Carter Schwartz?

Garret: We invested in Orbis Education and Care four years ago. The business looks after some of the most vulnerable children in the country who are at the high end of the Autism spectrum, as well as some adults with the condition. Overall, there are around 160 people under the business’ care.

At the time we invested, it was at less than £2m Ebitda. Now it is above £9m Ebitda, has a number of new greenfield homes opening and has grown from less than 200 to close to 1000 employees.

As we reached the end of our investment period, we had to ensure that the management team was able to spend another term with the business and the next investor. In Orbis’ case, the chief executive informed us last Autumn that he wasn’t keen to stay on with the business as CEO. Therefore, we started discussing with him plans to bring someone else in to take his role. The next individual would have to lead the business through August Equity’s exit and show a commitment to ownership for the next 4-6 six years with the next owner. This formed the basis of our requirement when we approached Adam and Carter Schwartz.

Adam, how different was this task for you in comparison to a more straightforward recruitment process?

Adam: I don’t think it was different, as we execute such processes regularly; but it was certainly more complex. The big challenge was the marketplace. Children’s services is a less commercial niche and Garret’s ambitions for Orbis meant sourcing from direct competitors was a non-starter due to lack of scale and commerciality. So, we presented Garret with a more courageous proposal that focused on sourcing from the wider extremities of the healthcare market. Given the nuances in children’s services, the biggest challenge then was getting the right fit.

What did the recruitment process involve?

Adam: Having agreed to source from the wider market, we knew we’d have to go heavy on research, so we assembled a larger than normal project team. A leader capable of creating a business of £25m by 2025 became the focus. The key to getting the process right was establishing key non-negotiables upfront and mapping the market in line with the commercial objectives. We knew the candidate had to have real bandwidth, not just to deliver the August exit, but also able to convince the next investor that they were the person to back to deliver their exit after a 4-5 year hold. So, it wasn’t just about a secondary buyout, it was about a tertiary buyout.

Garret: We set our target of finding someone who could take the business from £12m Ebitda to beyond £25m Ebitda by 2025. But we also needed someone with massive empathy for social care, who understands the vulnerability of the people we’re looking after and an ability to work with the former CEO and executive team. When you put those requirements together, your options can be limited!

In terms of the process, at August we had our ideas and we worked with the retiring CEO and chairman to gain an understanding of what they would like; we put these together and created a list of what that person would look like.

Adam: Ahead of the process officially kicking off, we introduced a benchmark candidate to Garret. This is something we like to do in most processes; finding a datum point is useful as it allows you to get a sense of something tangible. Ironically this turned out to be the successful candidate! Having established such a high bar, our next biggest challenge was wrapping a process around her that not only validated her but provided August with a real shortlist of viable comparators.

Garret, how did you structure the interview process to ensure you found the right candidate?

Garret: Once Adam had presented a list of candidates, August, and the management team worked to get the longlist down to a shortlist. A colleague and I interviewed everyone on the shortlist and we took that down to two candidates. They then had to come back to present to us. We set them a topic which was ‘Orbis 25: building a high-quality £25m Ebitda social care business by 2025’, which the Orbis chair, myself, and another partner assessed. Then, the candidates spent time with Continuum, our management DD provider, and a couple of days later both candidates spent some time with the business and management team. At this point, we were confident about who we were going to choose and management just confirmed that.

Finally, we brought the successful candidate, Suzanne, back to speak to the rest of the partners to discuss ambitions for the business, followed by extensive referencing. The process was very comprehensive, but all was completed in a fairly tight timetable of around 3 weeks!

What challenges did you face during this process?

Adam: One of the biggest challenges was reaching out to people during Covid. CEOs are usually pretty static and so easily reached via a discreet approach at head office. But, throughout Covid, HQs had closed and management was dispersed, which made reaching out trickier.

But it wasn’t just about the physical challenge, it’s the emotional piece too. A job move was the last thing on most candidates’ minds. So, in the early days of lockdown, the biggest task was getting people to engage in conversation. We really had to double-down our efforts to create a cohort of viable candidates.

Then there were the virtual calls on Zoom rather than face-to-face meetings. Whilst we’re a pretty adaptable bunch, sitting in front of a screen and trying to get under the skin of candidates is no mean feat! This took a greater degree of scrutiny from our side.

How important is it for PE firms to work closely with a recruiter during critical hiring processes? 

Garret: Hiring senior executives is very often the critical job that we have as PE investors. If you don’t define who you’re looking for alongside a recruiter and really have a detailed conversation about it, you’re not going to find the right candidates. If you don’t get it right at the very start and don’t have a recruiter who understands you, the process won’t go as smoothly.

It’s very easy to hire people like you because you like people who are like you. And recruiters can be helpful to ensure that you don’t just do this. You have to trust that your recruitment partner will understand what you’re like, who you would work well with, and be able to truly deliver what you’re looking to achieve. It’s crucial to outline what you want but also what you don’t want with the recruiter.

Adam: Indeed, working closely with a recruiter is vitally important. Of course, funds can source directly themselves but in a notoriously incestuous industry, candidates can become sensitive about direct approaches. In any case, it doesn’t make any sense to close in on a great platform, get the best CDD and legal advice, then assemble a candidate longlist from 30 minutes on LinkedIn and then wonder why it all goes horribly wrong!  We don’t just exist to provide great candidates, we provide critical advice on the talent landscape, management availability, and market intel.

So, what we do is absolutely critical. There are a number of situations whereby a transaction won’t take place without the right management team. There have been many instances where investment committees won’t sign off on a deal unless we can find backable management. Therefore, we ensure that we can find the right talent to help private equity firms to create value for their own investors and deliver a proper exit.