As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ransdell, founding partner and the managing director of Fuel Venture Capital. Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Miami, Florida, Fuel VC boasts a portfolio of 23 technology startups all over the globe, including PredaSAR, Soundtrack Your Brand and Taxfyle. Prior to co-founding Fuel VC, Jeff served as a managing director and market executive of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where he oversaw more than $130 billion of global private client investment assets, a P&L of $2 billion, and over 2,000 employees across the Southeast Wealth Management Division.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career as an entrepreneur. I owned a chain of fitness clubs, a textile manufacturing business, and a sound and light production company that served live-music venues and nightclubs. A funky combination of businesses, which I ultimately sold to a family office for a good chunk of change. But altogether, they each taught me what it takes to develop a business from scratch and run it efficiently so it’s actually worth something at the end of the day.
There’s a ton of minutiae to running a business. And what I quickly realized about that everyday minutiae, is that if you want things to run smoothly, you have to attend to the minutiae quickly, otherwise it messes with the flow of things and, more importantly, the sense of morale among the staffers at a business.
There once was a mess in the bathroom at one of my fitness clubs, hours after the custodian had left for the day. I noticed that everyone seemed to kind of be standing around, waiting to see who would go and fix it, as it wasn’t necessarily anyone’s specific role to attend to bathroom messes. So I did it. I hoped it would show them that we were a team, and that we should all be stepping up for the collective success of the team. The gesture showed I was a team player and wouldn’t expect any more from them than I do from myself.
I bring that kind of philosophy to mentoring startup founders today as managing director of a venture capital firm.
After selling those businesses, I went to work for Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor because after working with them for so long through the acquisition of my companies, I came to really love the people who worked there and what they stood for. I had an educational background in international finance, and this was around the time of the dot-com boom of the 90s… The folks at Merrill thought I’d be a great fit because I had a pretty vocal stance on where the world was headed because of the rise of the Internet, and some key people thought the more senior leaders needed exposure to that perspective… They offered me a job and the rest is history. I spent more than two decades with Merrill Lynch before transitioning to VC.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The first time I called the trading desk in New York City when I began working for Merrill from the Midwest, I called to buy what I thought was a pretty large lot of stock. I was trying to explain to this trader what I wanted to do with this purchase. It was my first time working with someone from the New York office, and that became apparent when he stopped me and said, “You talk too much. Just tell me what you want.” Ha! Here I was, wanting to build a relationship and befriend this guy who ostensibly was my colleague in another state, and he was just like, “Hello! Keep it moving!”
That taught me a major lesson: Get to the point.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Brian Sepe. He was a senior exec at Merrill Lynch, a living legend. He was the head of LATAM when I started working out of New York City and Miami — the job I eventually took.
Brian was a former helicopter pilot in the military and that taught him that everything matters. You don’t get into a helicopter and not think about every detail, because if you don’t, accidents can happen and people can die. So I learned that all decisions, big or small, matter.
I was helping him run our Latin America division for the Wealth Management side of Merrill Lynch. Back then, Merrill had the largest share of Latin investors of any Wall Street bank. One day the president of Guatemala and members of his administration visited our Miami office because they had questions about an account that had been opened up in the U.S. from someone in the Guatemalan government. It was convoluted, but essentially it was a matter of investigation into possible corruption. A pretty serious meeting.
I walked in first with everyone, and Brian instructed me to walk out and meet him back in another room a few minutes after we all were seated. I did, and he said, “Tell me where everybody is sitting, and who each person is.” So I did, then we walked into the boardroom together. He shook hands with the president, then proceeded to ask everyone to change seats. He told the president to take a seat to his left, then had everyone else kind of rotate to new chairs. I had no idea what he was doing.
Afterwards, he explained. “These guys showed up to our office unannounced — and that was no oversight or accident. They did that for a reason. And I had to show them that we were in charge here, and I was the one running things. So I played a game of musical chairs to get things started. Small gestures like that matter. Everything matters. Don’t forget it.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Fuel Venture Capital was founded to provide savvy, forward-thinking investors access to high-value, high-impact investments through private technology companies. After almost two decades of working with Merrill Lynch, I noticed that most advisors were dismissing major economic trends, namely the surge in billion-dollar technology companies, pre-IPO. They were playing it safe to deliver returns each year to their clients that those clients would be satisfied with. But they were essentially cheating their clients from earning much larger returns; they were far too risk-averse, and maybe a little unmotivated, too.
Historically, the assumption has been that investing in the stock successfully is a one-way ticket to wealth. Once upon a time it was, but it’s not so clear, or so common anymore. Once a company is on the public markets today, the real wealth has already been taken, by the people and institutions that got in early and put money in when the risk was big and returns were uncertain. But it’s not easy to get a seat at the table in those early days. Those are very exclusive deals.
My team and I give ultra-high net worth individuals and the institutions that serve them a seat at the table.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
A lot of communication and regular meetings. Trying to focus on the good things and being understanding that things need to be flexible. It’s not much more complicated than that. More communication, more empathy, more adaptability.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m motivated every day by the people who I serve — my employees, my founders, my investors. I feel I’m responsible for helping them enjoy positive, successful outcomes. So I don’t do it for me, I do it for other people.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Determination. If you get frazzled and give up, or can’t get out of bed in the morning, then your team is left without a leader, and the operation falls apart.
That’s why we’re having the success we’re having — none of us has stopped.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Victories. Every victory big or small is crucial because it creates momentum, which creates confidence and keeps everyone going. We’re very lucky to have invested in some outstanding founders who have incredible visions and are disrupting the verticals they’re in, and we’re fortunate to be in a position where we are knowledgeable and prepared to help steer their great ideas and their talented employees to success.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly and transparently. I always say: If you have to cut a dog’s tail off, you don’t do it one inch at a time.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to think small. We live in a world where within one minute, if you don’t get what you want on your phone’s web browser, you think there’s something wrong with your wifi. The world is changing fast, so you have to change quickly along with it. So even if you’re a big organization, you have to be nimble and move like a small company. “Decision by the committee” is a mistake.
That’s the biggest lesson I took from Merrill to Fuel Venture Capital — we can reiterate in a day. At Merrill, any pivot takes a year because those decisions have to go through dozens of people. If I’m advising my peers from the past who today are operating big businesses, my advice is to master the art of being big while acting small.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t give up. Stay the course.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Too much deliberation. Lack of decision is worse than the wrong decision.
- Too many cooks in the kitchen. Leaders are put in place for a reason. It’s important to take advice and guidance, but it’s your job to make decisions.
- Overcorrection. People see crises and they take a much bigger dose of the medicine than is needed, and that creates problems. I think a recent case of overcorrection is the trend of companies shutting down their offices completely since the onset of the pandemic, whether to save money or because they think the future of the workforce is entirely digital. The real answer, I believe, will not be that extreme, but somewhere in the middle that combines traditional, in-office work with remote flexibilities. The companies that went from traditional to all-remote long term will see a fragmentation in their workforce. Mark my words.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I’m a big believer in efficient markets. If you’ve put something on the market and nobody is buying it, there’s something wrong. So the big question during tough economic times for business leaders and entrepreneurs is, what is the demand — what are the markets clamoring for? — and how I can play a role in supplying?
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- When in charge, be in charge. A lot of decisions had to be made during the beginning of COVID-19 in 2020. I took advice from my team, but ultimately, I made the tough calls.
- Communicate often. Also related to the pandemic — we weren’t sure what was going to happen, but we stayed in touch. That went a long way to keeping everyone focused, and not panicked.
- Communicate clearly. Good communication hinges on clarity. If you talk a lot but don’t say anything, you might as well stay silent. So I try my best to tell people what I know, what I don’t know, what is factual and what is conjecture or inference.
- Be transparent. See №4.
- Create a culture of accountability and strong work ethic. I expect the people I work with to work overtime only because I do, and I do it because I consider it my responsibility to get it all done, and get it done well and on time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There are no office hours for leaders.” You don’t go home when the clock strikes 5 if you want people to trust you and look up to you and do their best. I’ll believe that and behave accordingly until the end of time.
How can our readers further follow your work?