Key Points From the Interview
inding a business to acquire can be tough, but the search is only half the battle. In this episode of Acquiring Minds, we focus on the challenges that arise after an acquisition.
Mike Curry started his career in investment banking in the U.K. He returned to Atlanta and opened a custom clothing business for men. But then the 2008 financial crisis hit and the business didn’t survive.
It was a chance conversation with a former client that propelled Mike down the path of entrepreneurship through acquisition (ETA). After graduating from the Booth School of Business, Mike had limited funds to buy a business. They decided to go for the traditional search fund model and find investors who’d been business owners themselves. In 2014, they acquired Apex Physics Partners, a medical physics (radiation safety) business.
“When you buy a business, you don't buy the hearts and minds of the employees.”
For Mike, the first couple of years as CEO proved grueling.
“There were times where we doubted whether or not we would be able to be good leaders,” he says. But the challenges of those early years helped Mike build up the strength and community he needed to double Apex’s revenue and the size of its team.
Mike learned how critical it was to build relationships with his team from day one as a new CEO. In this episode, Mike talks about navigating the transition from acquisition entrepreneur to leader, gives his top tips for winning over employees, and makes the case for why we need more business leaders from diverse backgrounds.
“I just want to make sure more people in more places, from other backgrounds, no matter how you slice it, see someone or hear from someone, that [ETA is] achievable.”
✳️ About Mike Curry
✳️ Episode highlights with timestamps
Acquisition Entrepreneur: Mike Curry
💵 What he acquired: Mike acquired Apex Physics Partners in 2014 with his partner, Keith Burns. Apex provides comprehensive medical physics and radiation safety solutions to its clients. In the five years following the acquisition, Mike doubled the Apex team and its revenue while building trust with employees.
💡 Key quote: “When you buy a business, you don't buy the hearts and minds of the employees.”
👋 Where to find him: LinkedIn
Acquisition Tips From the Episode
Top takeaways from this conversation
👌 It’s going to take more time than you think.
While being a CEO might sound glamorous to some, the reality can be much harder to swallow. “People probably overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in five,” Mikes says.
Your first couple of years as a leader are all about building momentum for the future. “It takes time to build your muscle as a leader, to build trust with the team, and for the team to get in sync.“ Once you’ve built up that foundation, you’ll find that creating change comes much more easily, he adds.
Mike spent his first year as CEO speaking with his staff and collecting their feedback. In the following years, he acted on that feedback. By year five, he had proven that his attentiveness to the team’s needs contributed to higher team satisfaction, and even a doubling of the company’s revenue.
🏆 As leader of the company, it’s all your fault.
Mike explains that the journey from acquisition entrepreneur to business leader is tough but worthwhile. When Mike stepped into the role of CEO, he faced more problems than he’d predicted. From conflicting stakeholder needs to worried employees and difficult customers, he felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of challenges that were suddenly on his shoulders.
Being able to connect with other leaders who’d faced similar problems helped Mike navigate this tricky transition. Mike remembers a conversation with another CEO who told him: “As the leader of the company, you should recognize that it's all your fault.”
At first, Mike was floored by this statement, but he soon realized that to take control of the business and steer it in the direction he wanted, he first had to take accountability and responsibility for all of its struggles.
After coming to terms with this, Mike moved forward with a new sense of agency and tackled those problems head-on, confronting difficult clients and finding better ways to motivate employees.
🤝 Step one: build trust.
For Mike, the difference between a business you’ve acquired and a business you founded is the nature of your relationship with your employees. “When you feel as though people trust you, and trust the direction that you're taking the business in, then it feels like it's your business.”
Establishing this kind of trust with people you’ve just met, however, takes time. To build rapport with hesitant employees, Mike and his partner took part in everyday activities at the office: having lunch with the admin staff and taking out the trash, for example.
Once employees started opening up about their frustrations, Mike was able to make tangible shifts. He increased take-home pay and reevaluated PTO policies, which boosted the team’s satisfaction and performance.
Inflection points from the show
[3:12] Leaving London behind: Mike was recruited by a London banking firm fresh out of Emory University. When his father passed away, he returned to Atlanta after three years in the UK. Back home, Mike was reminded of how much he’d loved his entrepreneurship class in undergrad and felt the itch to open his own business.
[3:38] Mike’s first foray into entrepreneurship: Partnering with a close friend, Mike opened a custom men’s clothing business in 2007. The 2009 financial crisis caused him to close its doors.
[5:12] Stumbling upon entrepreneurship through acquisition (ETA): After shutting down his clothing business, Mike met with a former client who opened his eyes to the world of small business acquisitions. After this encounter, Mike devoured every grainy YouTube video on search funds he could find.
[7:07] The Godfather of traditional search: In his research, Mike came across Professor H. Irving Grousbeck, a leading figure in the search fund model of business acquisition. When he decided to cold-call the professor, he was lucky to discover that Irv was happy to talk him through the process. Mike pinpoints this conversation as the turning point that got him excited about ETA.
[8:50] Committing to the search fund model: A few years after speaking with Professor Grousbeck, Mike enrolled in the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He graduated in 2013, then moved back to Atlanta with his longtime friend, Keith Burns. The two decided to go into business together, began seeking investors, and ultimately bought Apex Physics Partners in 2014.
[12:55] ETA isn’t just for MBAs: While Mike took the investor-funded, post-MBA route of acquiring a business, he wants listeners to know that there are plenty of other ways to do it. He believes the business world needs more diverse leaders and encourages others to consider self-funded searches if search funds aren’t for them.
[14:58] Mike’s “gut-check” moment: Mike’s tipping point came at the end of his first year at Booth when he decided not to participate in the conventional summer internship recruiting process. Instead, he worked at a local private equity firm to gain a deeper understanding of how to evaluate and manage businesses.
[16:28] Buying a business is both art and science: During his time at the firm, Mike learned both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of buying a business, including how to build relationships and rally a team.
[17:22] Build your team of advisors: Mike tells listeners they don’t need experience in private equity to successfully acquire a business. He suggests visiting online communities, talking to local small business experts, and forming a group of advisors with varied skill sets.
[19:55] Why traditional search: Mike enjoyed the sense of community that came with the search fund model. At school, he met like-minded peers and mentors who coached him through the process. He’s a big proponent of self-funded search, however, as it opens the door for those who don’t have the far-reaching network of a business school student.
[24:53] Leadership isn’t easy: Mike discusses the trials that arose when he became CEO of Apex, including financial issues, competing stakeholder needs, and the difficulty he faced trying to win over employees. For others grappling with similar challenges, Mike suggests leaning on a community of colleagues and close advisors.
[27:05] It’s all your fault: In his first year as a business owner, a peer gave Mike the best piece of advice he’d ever gotten: “It’s all your fault.” It woke him up to the idea that CEOs must take accountability for everything if they want to move a business forward.
[30:13] Get employees on your side first: A business can’t be successful without dedicated employees. That’s why building trust with his team was Mike’s top priority as a new CEO.
[35:26] Actions speak louder than words: To show his dedication to Apex employees, Mike did small things like having lunch with the admin staff and taking out the trash. He also spent his first year collecting feedback from them, which he then acted on in the following years.
[38:58] Change won’t happen overnight: The first couple of years after becoming CEO should be dedicated to laying the groundwork and building momentum for real impact in the years to come.
[41:20] Five-year retrospective: In his fifth year at Apex, Mike and his partner led a presentation reflecting on their time at the business. Under their leadership, the company doubled both its technical staff and revenue, increased salaries, offered better PTO plans, and provided more growth opportunities for employees.
[45:36] What the world needs: Mike was inspired by recent social unrest, including the murder of George Floyd, to publish his Entrepreneur Magazine article. He hopes the option of ETA will “open the aperture in terms of opportunity and diversity” because he says the world needs more diverse business leaders.
Links & Mentions
✅ Mike's article in Entrepreneur Magazine: No Big Startup Idea? No Problem. Here's How to Buy a Business.