Tim Burke approached his twenties as a learning opportunity. After a degree in history and two years at Teach For America, he realized he wanted to make an impact by running companies, but he already felt behind. Rather than give up his dream, Tim educated himself with roles at Red Ventures and then Bank of America before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School. Now as CEO of NetGain Technologies he’s building additional leadership skills while drawing on his ability to make any community feel like home. He shares the power of humility, the importance of ethical choices, and the inspiration he draws from serving NetGain’s clients, small businesses at the heart of the American economy.
Have you always wanted to be a CEO?
I actually thought I was going to be an attorney. I have a significant amount of attorneys in my family, and so that just felt like the predetermined path. After graduating from college, the legal market still hadn’t totally rebounded from the 2008 recession and I wasn’t feeling inspired to go to law school. As I explored options, a buddy invited me to check out his classroom at Teach For America. It was amazing to see the amount of leadership, autonomy, and impact that he had there. I applied and ended up teaching sixth and seventh grade math in Charlotte. I absolutely loved my two years in the classroom— teaching taught me a great deal about the power of authentic leadership, the importance of humility when driving change, and the outcomes that are possible with a great team.
I absolutely loved my two years in the classroom— teaching taught me a great deal about the power of authentic leadership, the importance of humility when driving change, and the outcomes that are possible with a great team.
After my two years at TFA, I started looking for business roles. Through Teach For America, I learned about a company called Red Ventures, a growing technology and marketing firm just outside of Charlotte. I was hired for a junior analyst role there and cut my teeth in all things business. Red Ventures was the best possible training ground I could have asked for. But I still saw a gap in my skills. I started considering business school, but before going back to school I wanted to try something completely different, at a different size and scale. So I took a role at Bank of America as a senior VP of their credit card line of business. Then I applied to and ended up attending Harvard Business School.
The summer between my two years at HBS, I took an internship at a private equity fund in Charlotte, a hybrid role between portfolio operations and investing. I got involved in some deal flow and I realized that working in PE didn’t always mean investing. Similar to the way I could feel direct impact on my students when teaching, I was interested in getting into portfolio companies and driving change. So I started focusing on a place where I could have a lot of autonomy and impact.
How did you decide Alpine was a place you could find that autonomy and impact? And what considerations went into the matching process?
Alpine felt like a de-risked form of a search fund in my mind. I loved a lot of the folks I spoke to. I kept telling them I wanted to start running a business as quickly as humanly possible. I wanted to take on the challenge and prove to myself that I could use my skills and mindset to be a great CEO. I firmly believe that I have found community and a sense of home anywhere that I’ve lived. So when it came time to find a company, I was incredibly geographically agnostic. I spent time in the Mississippi Delta training for Teach For America; I spent time in Clemson; I spent time in Charlotte, North Carolina. When we found NetGain Technologies, an IT service management company based in Lexington, Kentucky, I jumped at the opportunity. They had a strong culture, and the current owners were really committed to a smooth transition. Lexington is also not too far away from Cincinnati, which is where I grew up, so for the first time in 12 years I was able to be close to home and accessible to my family.
How did Alpine support you in your first few months as CEO?
Alpine provided great resources to help me hit the ground running. They also showed incredible confidence in me, which gave me confidence in myself. They told me to trust the fact that they’ve seen people go into organizations before and that they would help set me up for success. Part of that setup was through the Alpine Playbook. There are a ton of really good nuggets in there on what you should be looking for when you go into the business. I referenced the playbook when setting the cultural tone of NetGain, too. I also have an executive coach through Alpine. He and I catch up every other week and talk about tactical and non-tactical issues. I usually tell him when I think I’ve made a strategic misstep and we debate a lot of big decisions in the company.
How did you build trust during your first 90 days?
When I joined, NetGain was a 34-year-old family-run business. The Jacobson brothers, Jason and Brendan, were running the business before they sold to Alpine. In my early meetings with Jason, he was clear that he wanted to maintain the culture and the way employees were treated, and I agreed. We talked a lot about making sure the core values of the business stayed the same. It was important to listen and learn about the best way to keep that culture going, even as Jason and Brendan stepped away. We also called all of our top clients and did the handoff together. We were very open the entire way through and I think that made the transition incredibly smooth.
The trust factor really came from actions that I took with the team. I made it a priority to get to know everyone on a pretty personal level. I wanted to build a fundamental relationship that had nothing to do with the outcomes we were trying to drive in the business. A mentor of mine in business school advised me not to change much in the first six months. So I sat, listened, learned, and asked questions. I’m a big proponent of servant leadership, of getting your hands dirty, and leading from the front.
That listening and learning approach was really put to the test when it came time to write a major RFP last year. We were pitching the Forcht Group, one of the larger companies in Lexington and in the state of Kentucky. To make sure we were successful and won the business, I held the team to a pretty high editorial standard when it came to the RFP. This was a moment where I decided I could help us win and benefit everyone, but I couldn’t stand by and watch. If I could apply my skills on the margin or in the gaps of the rest of the team’s skills, I knew we could put together a really awesome presentation. I held nearly daily scrums with the team for a month. We honed our approach and really got an understanding of the business outcomes we were going to be driving. Those RFP processes can be brutal and a lot of back and forth, but I got really involved and it was a great opportunity for me to get to know a lot of different people on the team. We eventually submitted the RFP, made it to the final round, and signed our largest client to date. It was a big win for the entire team.
Describe a major challenge that you’ve tackled in the past year-and-a-half at NetGain.
The economic downturn as a result of COVID-19 presented a real challenge to our company. It was a good chance to really focus on crisis management and to draw on Alpine and my executive coach for support. Our business is interesting in that half of it is very recurring revenue—help desk, predictable, IT services—and the other half is one-off projects or infrastructure changes or retainer work. One side of our business was incredibly well-defended when the downturn occurred, and the other side struggled quite a bit when budgets got cut.
I spent a ton of time thinking about the reports I needed to put in place. What’s the strategy for decision-making from this point forward? How do I need to think about cash management? How do I need to think about personnel changes? How do I message all of this to the team in a way that makes them feel like they’re on board with the decision? My coach helped talk through a lot of those key decisions.
Ultimately, we were swift in our action and the way that we addressed a lot of those challenges. Now we’re back to basically 100 percent of our initial year budget. We were not even close to that in March and April, and I’ve just seen a major turnaround due in large part to the changes we made. We have delivered more cash to our shareholders this year by a pretty decent margin than we did year to date last year. The business is growing, the business is performing well, and I truly believe that my coach was instrumental in helping me think through a lot of those challenges.
What do you love about the IT service management industry?
I love seeing all of the new technology that comes through the door. And the different businesses that I get to interact with that are part of our client base. One of our clients is a forge that produces parts for Toyota. They have machines built in the 1940s that are still producing incredible automobile parts. You visit and you have to put on an entire sort of suit over your clothes because the soot covers everything. I also work with a lot of community banks in the area and I get to see a little bit about what their banking footprint is. During an acquisition, I was able to visit a Durham coke bottle manufacturer full of old-school coke machines. We also have healthcare providers and chemical manufacturers as part of our client footprint. I feel every day like I’m truly experiencing the small business American economy in a way that I would never otherwise be able to.
I feel every day like I’m truly experiencing the small business American economy in a way that I would never otherwise be able to.
That’s all facilitated by the fact that our business can help anyone. A lot of the partners that we have need help with technology, and it’s cool to be able to see some of the outcomes that we’ve driven with some of our clients.
The growth story of our business is ultimately going to be written partially organically, but also a significant chunk of it is inorganic growth. From an inorganic standpoint, I focus a decent portion of my time on trying to understand where we are in deal processes. Organically, we’re trying to build a sustainable customer acquisition funnel. We are an organization in transition. We have some tenured salespeople who are highly effective at doing things the way they’ve always done them. At the same time, we’re doing some new-school marketing, so it’s difficult for us to measure certain things. We can’t reliably and predictably say, this is our sales cycle, this is what we have in the pipeline, etc. Once we get that growth engine more dialed in, it’s going to be a lot more fruitful for us, for our growth, and for the people who work here.
I’m also really focused on service excellence. There’s a virtuous cycle that can exist inside of a managed service provider, where you have a defined technology stack or series of technologies that you train your people on. Then, you bring on clients and implement those technologies. The clients are incredibly satisfied because you’re doing what you know, then they refer you to their other contacts in the community. It’s my goal to help us reach this virtuous cycle over time.
On the team side, this is a traumatic time. People are having to cope with things that they don’t typically cope with. Mental health is something I think about all the time. Our team doesn’t have the camaraderie they used to have in the office. I want to make days feel unique so that our team doesn’t feel like it’s Groundhog Day every day. I often ask myself how we can continue to create an environment that is attractive for the best talent, and how to make sure we’re bringing on smart and capable individuals so that they can be highly effective at their job.