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She’s led 3 private equity backed companies. Here’s what she says you need to know about working at one

CEO Kylie Wright-Ford says PE-funded businesses are a different breed, but they’re a great opportunity for “tenacious” and “financially disciplined” leaders.

She’s led 3 private equity backed companies. Here’s what she says you need to know about working at one
[Photo: Emily O’Brien]
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Kylie Wright-Ford has an interesting specialty: leading companies backed by private equity (PE) investors. She currently serves as CEO of the RepTrak Company, a reputation intelligence company whose majority shareholder is growth-equity firm Catalyst Investors. Previously she served as chief operating and strategy officer of peer-to-peer community World 50, which also had private equity backers. In all, Wright-Ford has been an executive at three PE-backed companies and served on the boards of three others. She spoke with Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta about the special skills needed to collaborate with private equity investors, and why, in her mind, running a PE-backed firm is “the best job in the world.” Edited excerpts follow:

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Fast Company: How did you become CEO of RepTrak?

Kylie Wright-Ford: There is a reason that “work” is in the word “network.” A network needs ongoing maintenance and a lot of focus and attention. And I got my job through my networks. I was previously at another company of similar size where I was the chief operating officer. We had undergone a change in capital structure and the bankers who did that transaction recommended me for this role. It was not on my radar. They had seen that it was a perfect match of skills, needs, and opportunity.

RepTrak has four founders, and you stepped into a company with four people who feel very strongly about its success. What has it been like?

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First of all, I have some career rules. I always look for a market-leading company, and this was one of those. The second thing is I always look for is a role where my specific skill set compliments whoever’s [already] there. I am not someone who moves within an industry from role to role.

What the founders brings to the table is deep experience, an incredible entrepreneurial spirit, and they have put their blood, sweat, and tears behind this. I think of it like I’m ten-pin bowling, and the ten pins are all set up. I have to throw the ball as the CEO, but they act as guardrails, and they stop me from going anywhere that I shouldn’t be going. They give me the technical wizardry that I need to be successful and credible in front of customers. I have felt nothing but support from them.

Does the number of founders add an exponential degree of difficulty?

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The number of cofounders will always have a consequence when it comes to making decisions. In this instance, though, actually their unique experiences are quite different. One is an academic who understands our customers very deeply. Another understands our algorithm very deeply. Another is incredible on the business development side, and one is good on the strategy and the zooming out. The remarkable thing about it, when you think about it, though, is they have worked together for 20 years, and they are still the best of friends.

RepTrak has a private equity owner. Had you worked in an environment before where there were private equity interests and how is that different from other CEO engagements?

This is my fourth. So yes, I have a lot of experience working in and around the private equity community. It is very different. The business model is very specific and well-known. You have a specific timeframe, and there are a number of clear factors that determine your likelihood of success or failure. Going into any private equity backed situation, you need to know what stage they are at in terms of any transformation that needs to be done, what kind of model do they have in terms of their desire to be very actively involved in decision-making, and what are the goals?

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You never stop learning when you’re a private equity backed CEO. And because there are so many flavors, you need a really good peer support network. It’s not like a corporate job where there are a lot of resources at your fingertips. You have to be very tenacious and financially disciplined.

Private equity ownership can be a scary thing for some employees. They hear “private equity” and they think, “these owners are are going to come in harvest us for cash and fire a bunch of people.” What are the keys for CEOs who are trying to manage employees who may have preconceived notions about what it’s like to work for a private equity owned organization?

First of all, I want to say, I think that reputation is entirely unfair. I want to stand up for my private equity sponsor community for a moment. We all know of the turnaround stories and companies that have not been well-run. And sometimes companies are taken private and new ownership does the hard things that need to be done. My general advice is, run the company as you would run it irrespective of who your sponsors are. Make decisions in the interest of the long term, and things will be fine. My advice to other CEOs going into private equity is that it’s your job to buffer the employees from what the capital structure is.

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What’s changed in private equity during the years you’ve worked in leadership at private equity backed companies?

The amount of money flowing in is enormous. That has forced the private equity funds to all specialize in smaller slivers of the market. It is very hard until you’re actually in the conversation to understand what those slivers are and how you might fit into them. Someone will tell you they’re a buyout growth equity firm. There’s bullet points underneath that: Are they in an industry vertical? Are they majority or minority?

I’ll be tactful about it, but the amount of money and people going into private equity is one thing. The ability to get talent is another. There’s only so many really good CEOs that could run their businesses. If you go back in time when there was less money and less people in it, people understood that the CEOs were the rare talent and they needed to treat them well and get to know them over time. The dynamic between the scarcity of talent and the abundance of capital has become a little disconnected.

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The third thing I’d say is that the private equity world has just moved faster. I mean timeframes are compressing.

Why do you keep running PE-backed companies?

You create value every day. The metrics are super clear. You can also attract incredible talent because you’ve got the rallying cry of, “here’s what we’re going to achieve together over three years.” It’s the best job in the world.