As an early member of the Alpine team, Billy Maguy has had a front row seat to the evolution and growth of the firm. The Stanford GSB grad reflects on his years with the firm and shares the challenges he’s tackling and his goals for the future as Alpine enters its third decade of operations.
How did you find your way to Alpine?
I still remember the day; it was somewhat of a chance encounter. I was leaving a meeting at the Stanford Business School career center, and one of the counselors there called out to me from behind her desk. She’d just gotten a call from Alpine, and they were looking for an intern to work during the summer. The counselor thought I would be a good fit; she knew the team at Alpine because several of the leaders of the firm went to the GSB and thought I should reach out given my background and interest in investing. At the time I was looking to do something in the public markets, but the opportunity sounded interesting and was local, so we set up a meeting. I think it was supposed to be an hour or so, but I ended up staying the entire afternoon; and people just kept coming in to meet me, one after the other. I loved the team, the strategy, and the companies they were finding. I thought, “Wow, I didn’t realize there was this type of opportunity to work in the micro-cap private equity market, and it seemed really interesting.” Long story short, I spent the summer of 2003 with Alpine and it was a fantastic experience.
Back then the team was small, and they didn’t have room for another person, so I knew there wasn’t going to be an offer at the end of the internship. So I went back to the GSB for my second year but kept in touch with the team. During the winter quarter, Graham reached out to see if I could spend some time refreshing analysis on a prospective company we evaluated during my internship, and I agreed. I remember staying home and working through spring break while my classmates were off vacationing, and I continued to work through the first part of spring quarter. I still remember the moment when Graham called to make the offer. It was an easy yes and I joined full-time the week after graduation. What do you call it…luck, chance, fate? I don’t know, but I feel just as fortunate now as I did back then.
What were some of the lessons from the early days at Alpine that helped shape the company going forward?
There were several. Early on, our team spent significant time working in our companies as interim CEOs, CFOs, etc. helping some businesses through challenging times and helping others execute their growth plans. We realized that model wasn’t scalable for us, and at the same time we saw the impact that great leadership teams had on our companies. When we looked at our own data and our bright spots, it was obvious that when we got the management team right, we had more consistent success. Those learnings led to the creation of our internal talent teams and our CEO-in-Residence and CEO-in-Training programs that are key pillars of our investing strategy today. Having these executives in residence ready to go on day one really allowed us to accelerate the implementation of our growth initiatives and playbook.
I think some of our early experiences also helped us be students of the game and lean into our core value of continuous improvement. This materialized across all aspects of our business, but I think most importantly in how we run Alpine. We have a saying internally that Alpine is our most important portfolio company, so we aspired to make Alpine the best-run company. To help fulfil this vision, we learned from giants across the fields of leadership, strategy, hiring and topgrading, investing, etc. and applied those learnings across every aspect of our organization. When I joined Alpine, I always thought that one day I might go run one of our companies. Then a few years in I realized that I am running a company: Alpine, only it’s not a software or product company, but an investment firm. I embraced the leadership challenge of building Alpine and saw that same drive in the other partners and members of the firm.
We found ourselves solving the same problems over and over again across our companies. Our businesses needed to build out their management teams, crystalize their vision and strategy, learn to prioritize and focus, expand their sales and marketing, create great cultures and high employee engagement, utilize data to make better decisions, and package and price their products to deliver value to their customers. So, we began building out our playbooks, training our managers in these management rhythms and practices, and fostering community among our executes so they can network and share best practices. Some of my fondest memories of Alpine are from our annual Growth Summit where we bring in leaders from our portfolio companies for a three-day workshop. I’m very proud of this culture and camaraderie where everyone is invested in their own learning and professional growth, and in sharing their knowledge to others.
How has your own role at Alpine evolved?
Our team was less than 15 people for the first 10 years or so; back then, it was a lot more “doing.” For example, a deal would come in and I would lead initial analysis, and if we liked it we would run the deal all the way to closing. Today, Alpine is a larger organization, and our deal velocity is much higher, so I’m not leading every deal. I’m leveraged across multiple deal teams, and I spend a good amount of time training and developing the investing professionals on our team. While I’ve always liked hands-on work, this transition is a net positive for the organization because it creates more leverage for everyone on the team and makes us better. We aspire to make Alpine a great place to work where people can spend their careers, and a key part of that is training and development. One of the most important roles I and the other partners have is spreading our knowledge to everyone at Alpine.
Tell us about the origins of PeopleFirst and what it means to you?
PeopleFirst came from the belief that people and teams can drive over 50% of the outcome of an investment. We asked ourselves, what if we could marry our industry and company analysis with being great on the people side, what would that look like? When PeopleFirst first showed up on our one-page plan, it was in reference to our PeopleFirst Leadership program, which is now our CEO-in-Residence and CEO-in-Training programs. From an investing perspective, we were going to start with an executive team before finding an investment, and have that team work alongside Alpine to evaluate opportunities, with the ultimate goal of placing each executive into a portfolio company to run.
But then we realized that ‘PeopleFirst’ could represent more, and that it embodied our broader philosophy about putting the needs and wellbeing of people first—both within Alpine and within our companies. So many company cultures are challenged with low employee engagement and satisfaction, and we knew that people are the key to any company’s success. So we created programs to help our leaders build great cultures. We measure things like employee engagement and net promotor scores, make these metrics transparent to the organization, and engage with team members on initiatives to improve the company’s culture. This is one of the things that makes Alpine unique and a fun place to work. The fact that everyone cares so deeply about PeopleFirst creates tremendous alignment and accountability within our firm and is a big reason why people feel fulfilled in their roles.
What’s challenging for you now as a leader?
A recent challenge has been COVID-19. Like many others, I believe I’m more effective in person, and so being remote for this period of time has been difficult. There are some newer members of our team who I’ve worked with for a year and still haven’t seen in person since they joined full-time! But it’s something we talk about a lot as a team. We want to create shared awareness of our reality and its challenges, and we do different things to maintain and build those connections.
I’m also thinking a lot about how to be an effective leader as Alpine grows. Our deal teams tend to change from deal to deal, and it takes time to build relationships and to understand the different work styles and preferences of your team members. It’s a fun challenge—it’s about making sure people are inspired and feel connected, that the vision is clear, that they know how much we as leaders care about them and are invested in their success. Whenever I’m working on a project with someone, I let them know my goal is for them to rate me a five out of five. I’ll ask them to tell me what they think that will look like, and then to give me feedback along the way. Whenever I’m not a five, I want to know so I can understand how to best support them.
What are your goals—for yourself and for Alpine—going forward?
When I think about why we’re all here, it’s really our three big tenets. One is to produce great returns for our investors, and of course there are always things I want to keep working on there—whether it’s understanding markets, being more effective in leading boards, or making sure we’re setting the right strategies and priorities. The second tenet is to have an impact on the world, and we’re having a lot of interesting conversations about that right now, not only in terms of what our companies do and how their teams grow, but the impact we have as individuals. If you go back to the early days of Alpine, that’s something we’ve always strived for.
Our third tenet is being the best place to work for exceptional people, and to me, that’s at the core of everything. The most important company in our portfolio has always been Alpine, because our people are our biggest lever of success. If we get that right—if we’re fulfilling our promise to our team and they’re productive and happy in their roles—that’s what allows us to keep building this culture and enables the performance that will sustain Alpine. It’s a privilege; our team members often join us very early in their careers, and there are a lot of different things they could do. We want them to feel challenged and inspired and to feel like Alpine is a place where they can spend their careers.