What’s a non-profit executive like you doing in a private equity firm like this? For Julia Karol and the Watermill Group, the answer is running the joint.
“I never anticipated being in this industry,” admits Karol, who says she planned on staying in the non-profit sector, where she worked at Jumpstart, an early-education nonprofit.
That was eight years ago, before she joined the family business—a close-knit, Lexington, Massachusetts-based private equity firm. Today, she serves as the Watermill Group’s president and chief operating officer, managing the firm’s day-to-day operations.
Her unique background, however, has given her an “outside perspective when working with portfolio companies versus someone with a traditional PE background.” Despite her unorthodox entry into the business, she maintains that having an alternative outlook is just as important as having private equity expertise.
Karol received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Tufts University, her Master of Arts degree in Education Policy from Stanford University and later completed a managerial program at Harvard Business School. Karol has also trained as a yoga instructor and sits on the board at Firefly Yoga International. In her spare time, she uses those skills to help rehabilitate people suffering from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As for the Watermill Group, Karol likes to think of the private equity firm as the “little engine that could.” The firm was founded nearly 40 years ago by her father and grandfather, and employs about 17 professionals, including its two office dogs – Dash and Becket – that serve as company mascots. Today Watermill houses five portfolio companies spanning the middle-market industrial and manufacturing sectors.
2017 was a big year for the firm, with the acquisition of Cooper & Turner, a UK-based manufacturer of industrial fasteners and bolts, as its highlight. While this wasn’t its first UK deal, for a boutique PE firm like Watermill, Karol says any cross-border deal becomes a company-wide transaction.
How does she feel about being a prominent woman in a male-dominated industry? “I would love to see more of us in the industry,” Karol professes, adding that “there are just so few of us.” One way this can be rectified, she says, is by hiring more female interns from the get-go. Sometimes “you have to look around and make sure you have a diverse and balanced group of people working with you,” says Karol. She calls this type of awareness “essential” for growth.
Karol credits a support network of professional women for helping her make the transition and ultimately succeed in M&A, and this is something she hopes to give back to other young women interested in a private equity career.
“One of the benefits that I’ve had is a great group of peers and several women in the Boston area that get together to help each other,” she acknowledges. “I benefited greatly from that and only hope to pay it forward.”