How did women executives fare in the past year of a global pandemic and what will “normal” look like when people return to work? These were the topics of a recent Women in Private Equity webinar that was sponsored by ACG Detroit.
This time last year “the world stopped” but it soon recovered to become a banner year, recalled Heather Madland, partner at Huron Capital, a Detroit-based private equity firm. Huron went from 20 active deals to zero overnight when businesses entered lockdown last March. “We did everything we could to manage the uncertainty. We were heads down during that time but the world turned around by late spring,” she said, adding that her firm closed 17 deals in August and September.
“As a team, we never worked so hard as we had in 2020 and into 2021,” Madland said.
With a robust last quarter of 2020 and start to 2021, it’s easy to forget how fraught the early days of the pandemic were, according to panelists.
Financing evaporated overnight, recalled Michelle Dear, associate with Wind Point Partners, a private equity firm headquartered in Chicago. “We had to go out and see who was going to lend and we didn’t know what was going to happen from here to there. Making sure management teams were supported was challenging and we saw leadership step up and rally the troops,” she said.
Last year also required adjusting to new ways of working. Gretchen Perkins, a partner at Avance Investment Management, found that her life changed from rushing to catch planes to attending Zoom meetings in her new home in Florida.
“There is now something called Zoom etiquette,” she said, adding that she finds people are more respectful when speaking over Zoom. “Also, a meeting that takes three hours in person can be done in 90 minutes,” adds Perkins.
Chrissy Svejnar, a managing director for Ares Credit Group, the credit division of Ares Management, said she has never felt more connected to her colleagues, especially those in Los Angeles and London, thanks to Zoom. “Ares has done a great job at holding global town halls. Our CEO recently interviewed [retired U.S. Army general and former secretary of state] Colin Powell over Zoom and that was cool,” she said.
“MAKING SURE MANAGEMENT TEAMS WERE SUPPORTED WAS CHALLENGING AND WE SAW LEADERSHIP STEP UP AND RALLY THE TROOPS.”
Associate, Wind Point Partners
That said, Svejnar admits that some of her firm’s younger associates feel “a little disconnected” to senior members and there are missed opportunities to bond over business wins and losses. “If a deal died [before Covid], we would get drinks and this doesn’t happen any longer. We go to the next one and we don’t have that moment of pause,” she said.
Svejnar suggests that senior managers should reach out to junior staffers for one-on-one connections and teambuilding.
All of the professionals speaking on the webinar said their firms are implementing new policies to promote diversity and inclusion in their businesses. This is a topic that was never really discussed 20 years ago, according to Kim Van Cleef, director of private equity at Ducker Worldwide, a private equity and consultancy firm based in Troy, Michigan, and the ACG Detroit Women’s Forum panel moderator.
“This takes time. You cannot slap together a PowerPoint presentation one month before going to market,” said Madland, who adds that her firm is looking to partner with more women-owned firms.
It also makes business sense. Perkins cited a McKinsey report that found that diverse workforces tend to outperform their non-diverse peers by 25%.
“Getting new, young recruits isn’t a challenge but mid and senior levels are a hard nut to crack,” said Svejnar, whose firm has updated its policy where they interview four people for a role, two of whom must be diversity candidates.
One challenge in looking for diverse recruits is that firms often rely on the same sources for potential candidates and must expand their horizons for hiring diverse recruits. “Firms can do a better job by asking workers if they know someone good for a particular role,” Dear said.
As with any new effort to implement change, achieving D&I will be slow. “It’s a long game. You can’t do this overnight,” Perkins said.
Phil Albinus is Middle Market Growth’s managing editor.