How search funds turn MBA “searchers” into young CEOs

Hannah Greenberg and Alex Lopez
Hannah Greenberg and Alex Lopez are “searchers” on the hunt to buy a U.S.-based software company.

Hannah Greenberg and Alex Lopez, both EMBA 20, are best friends who hope to add “chief executive” to their resumes.

The pair are looking to buy a software as a service (SaaS) company in the hospitality or financial services industry through their new search fund Ven Capital Partners. They scour markets for a perfect match, typically a successful 60-something owner who is about to retire. ”A lot of family businesses don’t think about succession and they don’t have a plan of what’s next for them when they retire,” Lopez said. “That’s where we come in.”

Greenberg and Lopez are known as “searchers” in the finance world, joining a growing tribe of MBAs who, lacking a pool of their own capital, use an established investment vehicle called a search fund to acquire a single, privately-held firm.The group includes pioneers like Mahesh Rajasekharan, MBA 09, and Sumit Garg, MBA 08, who co-founded search fund Globe Equity Partners in 2010. Two years later, the pair bought Cleo Communications, where Rajasekharan remains CEO.

More recently, Jeff Oldenburg, MBA 18, co-founder of the Tusker Fund, acquired Echosec, a Canadian cybersecurity company. Lance Barnard, MBA 21, founder of LML Capital, last month acquired and became CEO of Ward Pharmacy in Denver, Co.

“A very young CEO”

The search fund model isn’t new, but it’s growing fast at business schools. More than 400 search funds have been raised since 1984, according to a 2020 Stanford Business School Search Funds study, half of them within the past several years. From 1984 through 2019, investors put $1.4 billion of equity capital into traditional search funds and acquired companies.

Jan Simon teaches the Search Funds course at Haas.

“Search is really taking off,” said Jan Simon, a former Goldman Sachs executive who teaches the popular Search Funds course at Haas and is a managing partner at Vonzeo Capital Partners, typically investing in up to 25 search funds per year.  For MBAs who want to partly own a firm and serve as CEO, “it doesn’t get better than the search fund model,” said Simon, who also teaches at Barcelona’s IESE business school. “The average person who does this is 32 years old, a very young CEO,” he said. A typical search fund entrepreneur can land 25% to 35% ownership in a company (30% in the case of a team) over several years.

“Search is really taking off,” said Jan Simon, a former Goldman Sachs executive who teaches the popular Search Funds course at Haas.

Bill Rindfuss, executive director of strategic programs for the Haas Finance Group, pitched Search Funds as a new Berkeley Haas finance course in 2019, inviting Simon to teach it as an extracurricular. “It was well-attended and got great student evaluations, which helped greatly in getting it approved as a new course,” Rindfuss said.

While other courses, including New Venture Finance taught by Maura O’Neill and M&A courses taught by Peter Goodson, help prepare students to launch their own funds, the Search Funds class is the headliner for students focused on search.

The course teaches MBA students with little to no CEO experience how to raise money—usually between $500,000 to $800,000—from a group of a dozen or so individual investors. The class also walks students through the complexities of the search and acquisition process. Searchers typically hold the companies they buy for six to 10 years.

Startup vs search

The model isn’t for everyone, though, as there’s risk. About a third of all searches end without an acquisition. Search also might not be the right fit for students with true startup aspirations. “I ask students, ‘What appeals to you?’” Simon said. “Do you like to go from 0 to 10 in starting a company? A lot of people want to be in the middle—from 100 to 1,000. It’s that type of entrepreneur we’re looking for, someone who is taking an existing business and growing it.”

For Lopez, a former U.S. Marine with an investment banking background, and Greenberg, who has a private equity background, a search fund is the perfect middle ground, as both are entrepreneurial but had no interest in building a startup from scratch. While their total fund amount is undisclosed, their lead investor is Pacific Lake Partners, and they’ve also drawn a few investors in the Haas community.

They’re now looking to buy a company with a minimum of  $1.5 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) on revenue up to $50 million, and a clear path of repetitive business from existing customers. “Our job is to find companies that aren’t actively for sale and figure out where they are financially before it gets to the point where they want to be more formal,” Greenberg said.

Lopez, whose family is from Mexico, said he and Hannah add to the diversity of an industry that is lacking Latinx and female representation. Women account for just 7% of searchers, according to the Stanford Business School study. No data in the study tracked ethnicity.

“Women and Latinx entrepreneurs are slowly getting more opportunities in the space, but Hannah and I would love to pave the way for many more,” said Lopez.

A roller coaster at times

Joe Odell photo
Joe Odell, EMBA 20, co-founded search fund Steadfast Horizon.

There are also relatively few MBAs with families in the search fund space, which demands that searchers move to wherever they buy a company. Jess Patterson and Joe Odell, both EMBA 20, are an exception, starting search fund Steadfast Horizon last year.

By March, they’d raised $800,000, on the high end for a search fund, from 24 investors.

They’re unique in search in that they both have families—yet are willing to relocate to where a deal takes them. “Traditional search skews toward a different profile than our own,” Patterson said. “But our families are all in and ready to move.”

Odell said the process has been an emotional roller coaster at times, but fun.

“I didn’t feel like we were going to make it a few times during fundraising,” he said, adding that the “searcher” community has supported them along the way. “Search is incredible opportunity-wise and it’s not cutthroat. Each one of us is trying to build a new future for ourselves and those we love.”

 

 

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