From Goldman Sachs to Deloitte to a Kellogg MBA, AJ Brown’s credentials are winding—and impressive. As he followed his own path, the former D1 soccer player has kept his eye on one consistent goal: to operate a small services business in the spirit of the family business he grew up with. After a successful exit as CFO of Avitru, he returned to Alpine as a CIR and then became president and CEO of Apex Service Partners, a residential HVAC, plumbing and electrical services group that partners with world-class service providers to build an industry-leading national platform. The Florida native shares how captaining soccer teams prepared him to run companies, the power of authenticity and trust at Alpine, and the unmatched value of an amazing first hire.

Let’s start with your background. Have you always known you wanted to be a CEO?

My first job was working for my dad’s Budweiser distributorship in Fort Myers, Florida when I was about 13 years old. I repackaged broken beer cases, removing broken bottles from the case, cleaning off the remaining bottles, and getting glass all over my hands. But I enjoyed it. I liked standing all day, and I liked the people that I was working with. Most of all, I admired that my father was the leader of this 400- or 500-person business.

At the time, leadership for me came in the form of sports. I was always a really big soccer player, and I think my time on soccer teams applied directly to the CIT experience. As a soccer captain, you’re not the coach, so you can’t call all the plays. You’re more focused on influencing the team than directing it. As a captain I could never punish a person, but I could lead by example and show team members the right ways to act, the hard work to bring to practice, and the sense of sportsmanship to exhibit with competition.

As a CIT, I worked with or managed more seasoned professionals with longer tenures in the industry. That idea of influence served me well in those roles, too.

How did you begin your career?

During my senior year at Providence College, I realized that Goldman Sachs wasn’t going to recruit on my campus. So I snuck up to a Goldman Sachs recruiting event in Cambridge, on the Harvard campus. I was hired for an internship which led to a full-time job.

Goldman shaped my technical skills, but I joined in 2009 and every two months you were worried your phone was going to ring and you were going to be called into the corner office to be let go. I knew Goldman wasn’t a sustainable place for me, so I took a role as a senior consultant at Deloitte. I was also inspired to leave Goldman because Deloitte gave me a post-MBA role.

When I joined Deloitte, I thought I would learn all about strategy and operations. Well, you don’t really learn that. You learn how to communicate and how to structure your thoughts, and you learn how to create presentations. You learn how to connect with clients and how to sell. I was promoted to manager and learned how to manage people who were older and more experienced. As a manager, I aimed to figure out what my direct reports wanted and how make sure they got that out of their projects, while balancing project goals and my own goals. That balancing act was a good challenge and the lessons I learned help me every day at Alpine.

You took a non-traditional approach to business school. What experience from those two years shaped your future?

Deloitte had a good culture and people cared about each other, but I realized that a big company was not for me. I liked and admired the small business culture in a company like the one my dad ran. I thought I wanted to go into private equity investing in order to invest in small businesses and help them grow. I had the finance and operations background required to be successful, so I figured I could make an impact investing in and working with businesses. And I knew what it was like to work with CEOs and boards. So I went back to business school at Kellogg.

My plan had one problem. To get a private equity job, I needed private equity experience. To solve this chicken and egg problem, I started interning at a McNally Capital, a Chicago-based private equity firm. I would take classes two days per week and would spend the other three days at the fund. I worked for free and told them I would do all of their operational stuff if they would give me deal reps. I worked at one fund for almost a full year and then went to Frontenac, a slightly larger fund. Frontenac has been around since 1971 and their model is similar to Alpine’s in the sense that they back CEOs.

As I worked with more and more companies through the PE firms, I realized that small changes I made with the management team had a massive impact. I really enjoyed the process and started to think more and more about the operational side of private equity.

I realized that small changes I made with the management team had a massive impact. I really enjoyed the process and started to think more and more about the operational side of private equity.

How did you know that Alpine was a good next step for you?

When I first heard about Alpine, I couldn’t believe they had a CIT program; it was different from anything I had heard of before. As I started conversations and went through the interview process, I fell in love with the culture. From my time at Deloitte and Goldman I realized that if you work with people you like, the rest will work out.

One big moment that solidified my love of Alpine was a conversation with Alpine Partner Mark Strauch. He asked what I could have done better during my time at Goldman. Rather than make up a story about a deal or report, I told him the truth. I said, “I was an analyst at Goldman Sachs, I just put my head down and worked. Sure, maybe I should have been more collaborative or built lasting friends or networked more, but I was trying to keep my job.” He thanked me for my honesty and told me my honest answer was exactly what he wanted to hear. He valued my transparency. At that point, I felt a real connection with Mark, and I knew that I could always bring him the truth and he would have my back.

Signing on with Alpine after Kellogg was certainly a riskier career path. But I knew if I did my best, and acted with integrity and intention, they would back me. Having Alpine’s trust made my decision to join feel less risky. I knew even if I made mistakes, I’d learn and be supported along the way.

How did you know Avitru was a good fit?

I wanted to find a place where I could make an impact right away and the CFO role felt like a good way to draw on my skills and do that. Then I met Jim Contardi, CEO of Avitru. He was an amazing software sales guy, and I was a finance M&A guy. His management style was very hands off. We believed we could learn from each other; I could learn sales from him, and I could run my own process for finance and M&A. Avitru was in Atlanta, and I’m from the southeast so it was a match made in heaven. It was a great business, a good niche, and my role provided a good complement to the CEO.

What was most important to get right in your first 90 days?

Once I signed on but before I graduated from Kellogg, I sat in a board meeting. But Avitru couldn’t report financials. As the incoming CFO, that was a rude awakening. I had a big challenge from day one. I had to unwind a hairball that was a perfect mix of people, process, and technology issues. I had to get scrappy. I became the analyst, the accounts receivables person, the M&A guy, the technology implementation guy, the hirer, and everything else.

The key to my success was my first hire. I hired Nick Morinto as VP of finance and accounting. He is a really good person. Hiring Nick allowed me to focus on redoing the sales commission plan, helping to rationalize marketing spend, and helping to increase sales. And I did a lot of work with the sales team, a passion of mine—though I give all sales success credit to our VP of Sales. My one recommendation to everybody is to get your first hire right. I’ve succeeded in hiring a great first person twice now. I think that has been the key to my impact and success. When you can start leveling up and not having to worry about the hairball that I just mentioned, that’s huge. And then your first hire starts hiring people, too. Top grading the team and getting the right people in the right seats was a major priority and one that transformed our business.

My one recommendation to everybody is to get your first hire right.

After two years and nine months, we sold Avitru to Roper Technologies. We knew they were going to take care of the employees. The coolest impact we can measure is that Avitru was maybe 30 employees when I joined, and 75 when I left. And the revenue grew at an even higher rate than that. It was a really successful run, and from what I hear, it’s been even more successful after I left. The Avitru team deserves all the credit.

After leaving Avitru you had a few options. How did you decide to run another Alpine company?

I had a few offers from bigger private equity firms. I was back in a regular recruiting process. But I didn’t want to return to a big company. I considered a few paths; one option was another private equity firm with a totally different focus and a chance for a new experience; another option was to go into investing because I had operations experience and felt like I understood how to evaluate companies now that I had been through an exit; and finally, I considered returning to Alpine as CFO of another portfolio company. There’s always more to learn and more companies to see. Then Alpine Partner Matt Moore asked me to interview for the CEO-in-Residence role. Alpine was raising a new fund and wanted to consider me for a CEO role. I was flattered.

I went through a full interview again. I met with Graham Weaver, Will Adams, and every single partner. As soon as I finished managing the Avitru transition, I signed as an Alpine CIR and started searching for my next opportunity.

How did you evaluate companies from the CIR vantage point? And why Apex Service Partners?

I came from a service industry, and watching my dad run a services business made me want to get back to that. I was less interested in building products in a technology company. Give me people who can do things well and let me add technology to improve the experience. Pretty soon I got a call from Graham about a plumbing and HVAC business that they loved. They wanted me to lead the platform. That was Apex.

I started researching the industry and talking to people. Plumbing and HVAC is a great industry, really big, and really fragmented. I knew the role would play to my M&A skills, while still allowing me to build a team and have a bunch of shots on goal. And the business was reoccurring in nature. It was always essential. Everyone needs plumbing and HVAC, no matter what. We closed the deal in June 2019.

What are you most proud of in the past 15 months at Apex?

Work has been a whirlwind since then. Apex is operationally intensive, and we’ve done 15 acquisitions in as many months. We began as a 40-million-dollar business with 250 employees, now we’ve reached ~200 million dollars in revenue and have 1,100 employees. We’ve had to figure out regions and ownership and people, and we’ve built what we call Partner Services, a corporate team to serve our local businesses. It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting better every day.

I’m really proud of the first hire I made here. Will Matson is really my co-founder. He’s CFO and head of M&A, and overall, he’s able to strike the balance of tactical and strategic work, which is so powerful for anyone in a high-growth business. We’ve grown fast, and the more scrappy and tactical people we hire—especially those who can see and work toward a strategic vision—the more successful we’re going to be. As we add more people, our roles will continue to evolve. We will need to mold into whatever type of leaders will make the business, our employees, and our customers successful. As you can probably tell, I’m super competitive and I have an innate desire to win.

What’s next?

My job right now is hiring, empowering, and getting out of the way of talented people on our team. As CFO, I was in the weeds, I knew every single number. Now as CEO, I’ve had to evolve to focus on the big picture. And that applies to more than just finance. It spans HR, operations, and the rest of the business. Now I’m figuring out what levers to focus on and pulling those. Our big one so far is the add-on lever. We recently made a big hire in marketing, so the next one will be the sales and marketing lever.

I’m focused on building culture and winning through others. It’s all about trust. It comes down to partnering with people who are like-minded and high character that you know you can trust to do the right thing for the employees, the customers, and the business.

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