Amid a slow and challenging year for dealmaking, the winners of our 7th Annual M&A Mid-Market Awards outpaced the competition to grow, innovate and lead the middle market.

GTCR LLC is a shining example. The Chicago private equity firm harvested the fruits of a seed strategy it has been nurturing for 30 years. Known as the Leaders Strategy, the firm's approach involves partnering with seasoned executives to form platform companies in the financial services and technology, health care, and information services and technology sectors and building the portfolio companies through multiple acquisitions into industry leaders.

In 2013, the program yielded two new platform companies, two successful exits and the raising of the biggest fund in the firm's history.

Picking the Winners

The M&A Mid-Market Awards honor the leading dealmakers and deals that set the standard for transactions in the middle market in the previous year. To determine the winners, Mergers & Acquisitions considers a variety of factors. We look for companies and individuals who overcame the challenges the year brought, embodied the trends of the period and took their businesses to the next level.

Market leadership and performance are important, but league tables aren't everything. Growth counts for a lot, especially when it outpaces peers and the overall industry. Innovation also counts. We value companies that changed the M&A landscape, ventured into new territories and transformed their businesses. Thought leadership in the industry is also relevant.

A great example of what we look for can be found in the $700 million acquisition by Hormel Foods Corp. (NYSE: HRL) of the popular Skippy peanut butter brand from Unilever plc (NYSE: UL), which won our award for 2013 Deal of the Year. The transaction allowed Hormel to continue growing in important new markets, specifically health-conscious consumers and international customers, especially in China. These areas of expansion aren't significant just to Hormel but to the whole middle market.

Another model winner is GTCR LLC, which won our 2013 Private Equity Firm of the Year award. The 30-year old Chicago firm has been refining the Leaders Strategy, which involves teaming up with an experienced management leader to develop through acquisitions an industry-leading company in a sub-sector of the financial services and technology, health care and information services and technology industries. The approach paid off well in 2013, with the firm's successful sales to strategic buyers, the creation of new companies and with the raising of a new fund, the firm's biggest ever.

Process Points

To be eligible for the awards, deals must: be valued at or below roughly $ 1 billion; involve a U.S.-based company as either buyer or seller; and have been completed by Dec. 31, 2013.

We encourage nominations, but they are not required. Ultimately, the winners are chosen by our editorial team.

We made two important changes in the nomination process this year. The first was that we pushed back the deadline to Jan. 31, a couple of weeks later than in previous years. This was in response to feedback from many companies, who said they needed the full month of January to analyze their deals and data from the previous year. The change also resulted in moving the announcement of the winners from the March issue of the magazine to the April issue.

Another improvement to the process is that we launched an online system for submitting nominations. Whereas the old system offered little guidance on what information to include in the submission, the e-forms allow us to ask specific questions that will help us compare apples to apples. As folks filled out the e-forms, some had questions, and we were able to make modifications based on this input. Our goal is to make the process as transparent as possible, and we continue to seek your feedback as we improve the system. We're always looking for input, so if you have any suggestions or questions, please email  marykathleen.flynn@sourcemedia.com.

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