The interview below is part of an ongoing effort by McGuireWoods to profile women leaders in private equity (PE). To read previous profiles, click here. To recommend a woman for a future interview, email Amber Walsh at [email protected].
Christie McFall is the business development director for Great Range Capital. Prior to joining the firm, she served as vice president and managing director of the animal care division at Informa, a global company specializing in business intelligence, healthcare publishing and trade shows. In this role, she leveraged data and analytics plus technology advancements to create a new business model and deliver the division’s first growth in three decades. She was also responsible for mergers and acquisitions (M&A), leading the search for businesses to add to the existing portfolio.
Previously, McFall was a member of VML’s leadership team, where she ushered multinational blue-chip brands such as Bayer, Southwest Airlines and Honeywell into new phases of omnichannel presence while contributing multimillion-dollar incremental revenue. While at Meredith Corp., she helped drive operations into a digital-first strategy to create a new revenue stream. Her work with clients like Unilever, GE and Microsoft was pivotal in establishing Meredith as a digital thought leader.
Q: What attracted you to PE?
Christie McFall: I have always been in business development and marketing. My background isn’t in finance, which is a different approach to PE than most people take when getting into the field. Just prior to my joining Great Range, I was working for a business intelligence group based out of London called Informa. It’s basically an M&A model business. They go out, find a sector they think is interesting, impactful and growing, and they form a business unit around it. They then do M&A activity in that vertical to grow a business to a certain size and then sell it, usually to a strategic buyer.
I was charged with and led the growth of their animal care business. It was a B2B business that catered to veterinary professionals. My job was to grow the national footprint by adding companies and services—to essentially take it from a $20 million business and get it to more than $35 million—and then sell it. I grew that business organically through M&A. I went out and found a data company to buy. We added a publishing arm and published three magazines and held three trade shows a year where veterinary professionals earned their continuing education. We had a robust sales department that sold advertising in the magazines and sponsorships for the trade shows.
Because of this success, my division was bought and sold three times in three years. The final home for that business was a strategic buyer on the East Coast who did not have additional plans for acquisition.
By that point, I had caught the bug of going out and finding businesses to acquire by evaluating them and then putting together the pieces of the puzzle. I started talking to folks in the PE world about a role that could fit my skill set. I haven’t followed the traditional path of starting in investment banking and coming up through a financial background. Coming from the business development and marketing side, I found I was interested in deal origination from the top of the funnel, going out and making connections, whether that’s as an intermediary or going direct to business owners.
At the time, Great Range was looking for someone who could manage its business development and marketing and who had M&A experience. We started our second fund about two years ago and had 18 acquisitions under our belt. The team was aggressively fundraising at the senior level, managing the portfolio and actively looking for additional investments. The team realized they needed someone who could have their eye on the ball at all times from a business development standpoint, and that’s what I’ve been able to do.
Q: Considering your atypical background, what has your experience been like at Great Range?
CM: It’s been a very good fit. I get to do the things I enjoy—meet people, explore different opportunities and then work to fit the puzzle pieces together.
I love telling our story. I’m proud of who I work for, which makes it easy to tell that story. It’s been a good and interesting career shift for me to be able to do all the things I like for a new industry, but it’s not too terribly different from working in an agency or working in animal care or working for a London-based M&A model company. It’s truly just going out and finding those opportunities and then seeing them through to the end. I like that chase.
Q: What is a goal that you have set for yourself in the coming year?
CM: I want to continue to gain knowledge about the industry as a whole. I try to talk to as many intermediaries as possible. I also try to speak with entrepreneurs and business owners, but they are often more difficult to find, so I’m generally hoping to meet with their trusted advisers.
A good adviser will bring many options to the table. It could be PE or a strategic buyer, or it could be that it’s not an opportune time to sell. But I would like to be in the consideration set to at least have a conversation and tell them what PE could look like for their business. Assuming I can have that conversation, after the initial review, relationship and connection, I would turn over the financials to my deal team who would then take a deeper dive into its assessment.
One of my more specific goals this year is to better understand that deeper dive as it will help me evaluate opportunities at a high level.
Q: What is a lesson that you have learned concerning what’s required for success in PE?
CM: Be tenacious. These are long-tailed deals. Most of them don’t reach the finish line. We look at 1,000 deals a year and buy one or two—maybe three. If you like instant gratification, PE probably isn’t a career path for you. There’s a lot of detail work in this business. If you like connecting those dots, if you’re good at remembering a lot of things and if you have patience, you’ll have more success.
In a year, I’ll see those 1,000 deals. I will remember a company from six months ago that we passed on for whatever reason. Then I’ll see another deal several months later that could be complementary. I’ll call the banker to find out if that first company ever transacted. If not, now I have an opportunity to package those businesses together and form a platform.
You can come across a business that’s interesting but not quite big enough and you pass. Two years later, that business could have grown 20 percent and somebody else bought it, and you’ll kick yourself because you missed out.
That’s why success in the industry requires so much follow-up, detail work and reminder setting. I must have hundreds of tasks set up for myself in our customer relationship management system for this year alone so that in three months, I can follow up with that company that might have been too small a year ago or where the owner wasn’t quite ready but might be ready now.
Not taking no for an answer is another critical aspect of this work. Thick skin and a determination to never give up are all a part of this long game.