Heather Smith Thorne, managing director, Swander Pace Capital, is one of 36 dealmakers named in Mergers & Acquisitions’ 2019 Most Influential Women in Mid-Market M&A. Click here for the full list. This year, we asked the dealmakers to tell their stories in their own voices through Q&As.
How did you get into dealmaking?
My career in dealmaking began as an investment banking analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, immediately following college. Our team worked with a number of private equity clients, and the private equity side of dealmaking proved appealing. I entered private equity after business school, without any prior associate experience. I cold-called every name in Chicago’s private equity circles to learn more about the industry and internship opportunities – anything to get my foot in the door.
How has a mentor helped your career?
My first boss in investment banking, Lara McGinty Hall, was a fantastic mentor who taught me the importance of working hard, creating excellent work product, and confidently owning those attributes as a female in a male-dominated industry. One of the only women in investment banking at STRH, Lara pushed me to my performance limits daily and endlessly supported my personal growth and confidence. I credit her for giving me confidence in my unlimited professional growth.
What is your current role?
As one of six partners and managing directors at Swander Pace, every situation requires leadership of people and strategy. I serve as chairman of five companies, board director for three companies and deal team lead on new opportunities. I am responsibile for maximizing SPC investor value, company shareholder value and employee wellbeing at each company. My leadership approach involves time, collaboration, relationship-building and an open mind to ensure well-supported decision-making that drives results.
Describe your influence on the middle market.
Sharing learnings and resources is key – the better our industry and peers do, the better we all do. I constantly interact with non-SPC businesses and employees in middle market consumer products, providing resources and recommendations and discussing business issues – good and bad. I recently connected with a company that had experienced a manufacturing plant fire; I listened and shared learnings from rebuilding decisions and execution that SPC led, as few can relate similar experiences.
Describe a recent deal.
In December 2017, we acquired JR Watkins (“JRW”), a brand/division of Watkins representing about half of its parent company’s sales. The unorthodox idea involved a complicated carve-out of the IP and “book of business,” establishing a new corporate entity, and hiring a new management team. The deal’s unusual structure and executional nature created immediate value for investors, and it represents the kind of creative, angle-driven deal that is key to getting transactions done in today’s competitive market.
Describe a challenge you overcame.
One of my first private equity deals experienced difficult headwinds after acquisition, drawing increased scrutiny from lenders. For months, my focus was on covenants, principal and interest payments, building and rebuilding cash flow statements, retaining managers, and worrying about future deals. The situation proved to be an invaluable learning experience – preparing me for dealing with downturns, improving business performances and free cash flow profiles, and negotiating with lenders – while demonstrating my fortitude and resilience.
What is your advice for women?
It’s a combination of “stick with it” and “be yourself.” Getting established is incredibly difficult. The first decade is time-intensive, travel-intensive and unpredictable. It’s also rewarding. This career pays off for women who are curious, intellectually driven and desiring to make a difference. Further, being yourself is the best way to build relationships and make investments that reflect unique skills and insights, as different personalities and backgrounds are essential to building rapport with potential partners.
When you’re not making deals, what is your favorite thing to do?
Aside from spending time with my husband, son and dog, I love reading. I read everything from non-fiction to business “thrillers” to fiction. I also consume a massive amount of current event reporting and thought-pieces, especially around consumer trends. The more perspective, ideas and information that I have, the more creative I feel I can be, both in deal-making and in my personal life.
What other career path might you have chosen?
I would have led a consumer products company, most likely in the beauty or health + wellness sector. I am truly so passionate about creating consumer products that improve people’s lives, and if I wasn’t investing in those companies, I’d be helping them create products to introduce to the marketplace.