6 Surprises From My First 6 Months in Private Equity

As a newcomer to the private equity industry, one of the most common questions I hear is some variation of what’s surprised me, what’s the biggest change, or what is it really like working in PE, or at Watermill. I could probably come up with 100 things, but let’s keep it simple.

6 surprises from my first 6 months…

  1. We eat lunch together every day. My first week I secretly worried that this could be a bit much, but it is awesome. And when I say we eat lunch, I mean everyone—interns, admins, partners, etc. The Watermill management team talks a lot about how they view the company as a family and this practice embodies that ethos. Discussions vary widely, covering everything from the state of the economy, to a challenge at one of our portfolio companies, to someone’s latest family vacation, and it’s a great way to reconnect each day.
  2. CIMs fascinate me. I don’t know how long this one will last, but so far, so good. I would like to make a plea to the investment banking community to stop overusing the words “leading” and “premiere”, but once you get past the first few pages, these books are really interesting. The variety of obscure, niche companies out there is both mindboggling and impressive. Analysts put a lot of time into these, so I’d also like them to know that there’s at least one person out there reading every word.
  3. The lack of women in the industry is noticeable. I debated whether to include this one, but I think it is important. I knew going into this job that there’s a serious lack of women in private equity, but having been to business school, which is also still heavily male dominated, I assumed it wouldn’t be a big deal. The two are not a good comparison. I don’t remember feeling different because I was a woman while I was at Tuck; the idea of it seems ridiculous, and I know I owe that comfort level to the women in the classes before mine who paved the way. Gender also isn’t a thing at Watermill. But in the broader PE world? Sometimes it is totally awkward. Whether it’s the guy at an event who announced to one of the partners, referring to a female colleague and I, “I see you’ve brought your marketing angels”, or the event for young professionals where a speaker I was looking forward to suggested that if you’re nervous walking into a room of strangers, you should find the prettiest woman in the room and offer to squire her about, there are too frequent reminders that the gender balance is off. My hope is that we’re in the front wave of an era of greater diversity of all kinds in private equity, but that will take time.
  4. The ownership mentality of the team. Technically this was a factor that drew me to Watermill during the interview process, but hearing something mentioned and seeing it in action are two different things. Everyone is welcome to get involved in improving the businesses we invest in. There’s a deep sense of responsibility for the stewardship of these companies. I was hopeful this would be true when I accepted the role, but seeing it in action is humbling. The work is fascinating, but it is also high pressure to know that our choices and decisions can have a far reaching impact.
  5. Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water. I knew there’d be a bit of culture shock with this transition, but I hadn’t realized how different it would be to be the only marketing person in an analytical environment, versus the only marketing person in a creative environment. Ultimately, I believe that approaching challenges differently and viewing deals through a different lens is valuable, but I miss having a team around that geeks out on things like video, design, and SEO. It is probably why I’ve been practically giddy when I’ve met people on the road in similar roles at firms like Huron Capital Partners, LLR Partners, and BlackArch Partners. It is nice to feel like we’re speaking the same language!
  6. The Watermill team is incredibly accessible. We’re a small team and every member is not only busy, but frequently traveling to all sorts of far flung places. I assumed this would make it harder to get up to speed, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Across the board, every last member of this team has been willing and even eager to stop and answer questions, no matter how small. The same level of accessibility is provided to our investors and portfolio companies and I believe the quantity and quality of those interactions is one of the keys to our success.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I’m sure these are just the first of many things that will surprise me in private equity and I am excited to see what the next six months will bring. I’m grateful to the team at Watermill for being so supportive of this new role and for their openness to trying out new things as we finalize our 2015 planning. More frequent, more personal blog posts are one of our goals and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. We don’t have the comment functionality up and running yet, but in the meantime you can email me at sbowen@watermill.com.

Sincerely,

Sarah

January 8, 2015 | , , , ,