As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Tate, Managing Partner at Montage Partners.
Jordan co-founded Montage Partners in 2004 and is involved in all aspects of Montage Partners’ investments, including sourcing and execution, valuation and structuring, and post-closing oversight. In his role at Montage, Jordan serves as a member of the board of directors for six of the ten companies in which Montage is currently an investor. Prior to Montage, Jordan was a member of the investment banking group at Merrill Lynch & Co. where he worked on mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance transactions across a variety of industries. Jordan holds an MBA with honors from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bachelors’ degrees in finance and accounting, summa cum laude, from the University of Arizona. He is an active member of the Arizona chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
It involved some moving. As a kid, we spent three years in Pittsburgh, 11 years in the Chicago area and four years in Phoenix. I’m the youngest of three. By the time I came along, my parents were either burnt out or had really refined their parenting philosophy because, in any case, I was given a high degree of autonomy and trust as a kid. I’m grateful for it, and think it helped shape who I am. I have great parents who were intentional about teaching values.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I could give plenty of answers about experiences that helped guide my journey. But, certainly one is when my dad’s job was eliminated. My dad was VP and GM of the Chicago office of a video production company. When I was 10, that company was acquired, and my dad lost his job. This had a big impact on our family. But, it was also my first introduction to M&A, long before I knew what private equity investing meant.
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?
When we started MP, I was in my 20s. I was so afraid of making a mistake that I would get hung up on minute details, whether in financial statements, legal documentation, or a company’s insurance policy. Looking back now, this distracted me from seeing what’s most important: that people build companies. And what we should be most focused on is the people we’re backing. This may not be objectively funny, but it’s such a stark contrast to our philosophy today that it’s comical to me to envision myself spending hours taking issue with whether the word material is included or not included in a rep in the purchase agreement, rather than spending that time with the president of the company we’re investing in to understand his or her personal goals over the next 5–10 years of life or his or her fears about the transaction.
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?
Absolutely. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of help over the years, including great mentors. In 2013, I joined YPO. YPO as an organization and the lifelong friendships I’ve developed have made me a better person in every aspect of life. I owe my introduction to YPO to one of those great mentors that I’ve been so lucky to know over the past 15 years, Mike Lofton. Mike is a true friend in the purest definition of the word. He’ll tell you hard truths about yourself, call your attention to your blind spots. He’s not a pump-up-your-ego at all costs sort of friend. He’ll let you know when you may not be as awesome as you might think. I’m eternally grateful to Mike for his friendship and for the impact he’s had on my journey.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Sure. So, MP began in 2004 and we were fortunate to exit three successful investments prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Heading into the Great Recession in 2008–2009 we weren’t invested in any companies, so we were lucky. But, despite continuing to grind long hours throughout 2008–2009, we were heading into 2010 still not having invested in anything new. That period of time felt a lot longer when living it than it may sound looking back over a decade later. By the end of 2009, I was having serious doubts and did a lot of soul searching as to whether I was wasting my time. Just keeping at it, putting one foot in front of the other despite those doubts, may be one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I don’t think I have any particular secret when it comes to working through a difficult time. I think we’re all capable of enduring far more difficulty than we may first assume. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech. For anyone who doesn’t know it, I’d recommend reading it in its entirety. It’s inspiring. It’s a great lesson for kids and adults. It’s hanging in a frame near our kids’ bedrooms in our house. Even when facing a difficult challenge, we can all do our best. Regardless of the outcome, maximum effort is a better choice than not trying and resigning yourself to watching from the sidelines.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’re really excited about where we are as a firm in 2021. There are parallels between the characteristics that we look for in companies to invest in and how we operate our company. We’re focused on consistency, doing the right thing, and investing for the long-term. That means we’re in good shape coming out of COVID and remained focused on executing our long-term strategic plan even while navigating the COVID environment in 2020. Our 10 partner companies are well-positioned coming out of COVID and are also executing on their long-term strategic plans. We look for consistency (in behavior and financial performance) when making investment decisions. We strive for consistency ourselves. I suppose that level-headed temperament correlates with resilience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When we invest in a company, we’re ultimately focused on helping people achieve their goals (not just companies achieving company goals). We believe that partnering with the right people and supporting those people to achieve what they want to achieve individually will lead to good outcomes for them, for their companies and for us. We’ve invested in 17 companies to date. So, there are 17 stories of us getting to know the people we’re investing in and what they want in their own lives and asking ourselves if we’re genuinely the right partner to get them to their goals. We only work with people that we like and trust — within our own team and with our partner companies. The types of people that we partner with are people with similarly high standards who want to work with a capital partner that they like and trust. So, at the end of the day, it’s the caliber and integrity of the people on our team that differentiates us from other sources of equity capital.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I just finished reading John Mackey’s book, Conscious Leadership. There is a quote in the book by Anne Lamott: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” As I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing more and more the importance of unplugging. It’s healthy and leads to better decision making with a less cluttered mind. It’s up to each of us to figure out what unplugging means to us, and to make sure we’re unplugging when we need to.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As an individual, I have certain causes that I support and as a firm, Montage Partners is aligned with Arizona Helping Hands, an organization that provides essential products to foster kids. We support Arizona Helping Hands financially and also through our team volunteer events. But, more important than this is how we strive to treat all stakeholders across the companies we’re investors in. What I mean by that is we subscribe to the principles of Conscious Capitalism. That means we view capitalism as fundamentally good for society when a company operates with genuine concern for its team members, genuine concern for delivering real value to customers, genuine concern for win-win relationships with its suppliers, genuine concern for being good stewards of capital and delivering returns to its investors, and genuine concern for being respectful of our natural environment and being positive citizens of the communities in which we live and work. Community involvement takes different forms at different companies. But we expect companies that we invest in to subscribe to a multi-stakeholder mindset and make a positive impact in their own way while simultaneously accomplishing growth and financial returns goals. We don’t view these goals as mutually exclusive. We actually think that a multi-stakeholder mindset results in better returns for us as investors. And the positive impact has lasting reach and creates a virtuous circle. That’s capitalism at its best. Ultimately, this impact far exceeds the impact of individual charitable giving like Montage Partners’ financial support to Arizona Helping Hands, for example.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1 . The more leadership biographies you read, the clearer it becomes that there is no single right way to build an organization. So, be yourself. Be authentic.
Movies and the press can sometimes paint business leaders with a single brush, implying similarities as if there is a single list of qualities that forms the recipe to build a successful organization. Reality is very different. Four of my favorite books are John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, Conor O’Cleary’s biography of Chuck Feeney, founder of Duty Free Shoppers (now part of LVMH Moet Hennessy) called The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, Steve Schwarzman’s What It Takes, and Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. John Mackey, Steve Schwarzman, Chuck Feeney, and Phil Knight are very different people with different styles. They each built very successful, lasting organizations with thousands of team members and revenue measured in the billions, by being their authentic selves. They weren’t following a model of how to act to be a successful leader. My takeaway is that, as a leader, we should all be our unique selves at work and in our personal lives, and we should encourage our colleagues to do the same. That’s a better recipe to build an enduring company. I would have loved to hear that early in my career.
2. We all have blind spots. If you want to become a better leader, find mentors who will tell you hard truths about yourself.
One of the traps of being in a leadership position is that people may not always give you unfiltered feedback. You might think you’re self-aware with a solid grasp on your strengths and weaknesses. But the reality is that those who report to you may not want to tell you where you need to improve. To reach our potential as leaders, we need to constantly work to improve and evolve. To improve, we need someone to give us an objective look at our blind spots. A great mentor can be supportive and, at the same time, tell you hard truths about how you might be falling short. I mentioned a close friend and mentor earlier, Mike Lofton. For me, I’m lucky to have people like Mike in my life who will reflect an unfiltered mirror on me when I need one in order to evolve. For an up-and-coming leader, my advice is to find one or a few successful leaders who will help you shine a light on areas you need to improve. Otherwise, you might mistake everyone’s silence for validation that you’re doing a great job, when chances are that we can all get better if we have a little help.
3. Every company has a culture. Be intentional about creating one that you want to be a part of.
This took me some time for me to figure out. If we would have met back in 2004 when Montage was just getting started, I had a vague idea of how important culture is to building an enduring company. But culture seemed like an abstract, squishy concept. I came from an investment banking background. Financial statements captured everything that mattered when it comes to defining successful company, right? For me, it took a little maturity and seeing a lot of companies to piece together that companies that scale and succeed over long periods of time have great people and a culture that unites those people around shared goals. Shared goals can include things like a fun environment to work, opportunities for learning and development, and a safe environment in which it’s okay to take chances and make mistakes in the process of growing the company and growing as individuals. This realization first became part of the lens through which we evaluate what companies we want to invest in, but over time it also became obvious that we’d better be intentional about creating the culture that we want at Montage Partners as well. As our team grows, we want to make sure this is still a place we all want to work and that we’re proud of 10 years from now.
4. The people you surround yourself with will be the biggest determinant of success (not you), so surround yourself with great people, help them achieve their goals, and the organization will succeed as a team while your role will eventually evolve into chief communication officer.
We can probably all think of someone who is super smart, hard charging, and a high performer — an individual star. Coming out of college, this is more or less who I aspired to be. Along the way, my aim has evolved. In business school, I met a CEO who described leadership as “achieving more together, through other people, than I could achieve individually.” This frame stuck with me. Jim Collins’ book Built to Last describes a concept of the clock builder vs. the time teller. The time teller is the “charismatic leader”, the individual star “with a thousand helpers”. The business rises or falls on the back of the time teller. The clock builder is the leader who may be quieter, less of a self-promoter, maybe less of an individual star, but who focuses on surrounding himself or herself with great people, fostering a great culture and helping others achieve their goals as a way to ensure the organization achieves its goals. For those who haven’t already read the book, guess which type of leader correlates with more successful companies over the long-term?
5. If you set out to build a company to make money, you’re unlikely to succeed. But, if you work to build a company with genuine concern for all of its stakeholders, making money will likely follow naturally.
Okay, so this, for me, is one of the great paradoxes of life. If you would have asked me in my first two years out of college, “what is the purpose of business?”, I would have told you, “to make money, it’s as simple as that”. After almost 20 years cutting up financial statements, evaluating management teams, and trying to find companies that can scale and succeed over the long-term, my view has evolved. Making money is necessary for a business to live and to have sufficient cash flow to re-invest in growth and attract capital. But, trying to make money as the company’s goal is doomed to fail. Companies that thrive, scale, and succeed over the long-term take care of people and pursue a bigger purpose. They treat their team members well, they serve their customers in a very real sense, meaning they make their customers’ lives better in some very real way, they treat their suppliers with respect and ensure that their suppliers earn a sufficient margin to sustain and evolve their own business over the long-term, and they’re broadly making a positive contribution to society. If they’re getting these things right, there is a good chance that they’ll be profitable and can re-invest in growing, building scale, and continuing to evolve. In the process, they’re increasing their equity value and making their investors money. John Mackey’s book Conscious Capitalism does a great job explaining this virtuous circle. I would have been skeptical about this early in my career. Now, it’s a core belief that’s at the heart of everyday decisions for me. I would have loved for someone to hammer this home early for me. It’s not necessarily intuitive but that doesn’t make it any less true. I dare anyone who is skeptical to try this frame of mind on and put it to the test — chances are you’ll make more money as soon as you stop thinking about making money as your #1 goal!
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
The emphasis on people and culture has only increased in importance. When we began 17 years ago, it was there. But the degree to which we were focused on financial criteria vs. people and culture has shifted more toward people and culture in recent years. This applies to our consideration of what companies we want to invest in and also applies when we think about who would be a good fit for our team. We’ve been devoting more time to protecting and enhancing culture. In 2020, we stood up a culture committee and a process for ensuring rotation of representation on the culture committee so that we have fresh ideas and broad representation on a sustainable basis as the firm continues to grow.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
So, I agree that in some cases it requires living an experience (maybe a painful one) to truly evolve our thinking. However, I really do believe in the value of mentors, and also in reading widely. We can all learn from the successes and mistakes of other leaders, past and present. That could be someone you know personally, in a mentor relationship. Or it could be learning from a wide variety of leaders through reading. Either way, I think we position ourselves to learn faster, potentially spotting mistakes faster, than we would by operating on our own and learning only from personal experiences. Whatever challenges we’re navigating, there’s a good chance that someone else may have faced something similar that we can learn from and apply to our situation. Maybe we avoid some pain and get where we’re going a step faster.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
In my heart, I truly believe that capitalism, when done right, has had a greater positive impact on humankind than potentially any movement in history. When companies provide a great work environment for their team members, when they provide a service or product that makes their customers’ lives better, through voluntary exchange, when companies contribute positively to the communities they operate in, when they support their suppliers so that their suppliers can do all of the same things with their team members and communities, the impact amplifies to a massive scale and changes the world. We may not even notice it. But, what’s the alternative? Until 200 years ago, a majority of the world’s population lived in poverty. While poverty still exists, we’ve come a long way through voluntary exchange. I believe in human ingenuity to solve big problems. Capitalism provides the framework to unleash the power of human ingenuity. I want Montage Partners to play a role in backing great companies, great people to amplify the impact. That’s our movement.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Montage Partners’ website, www.montagepartners.com, is a good place to start. We share a lot of content. We cover everything from navigating the M&A process as a business owner to a deep dive into our firm’s core values. Our Insights page is updated regularly, or you can follow us on LinkedIn for real-time insights and news.