Jonathan Jean-Pierre learned as much as he could in investment banking at J.P. Morgan and then at Facebook before pursuing a more entrepreneurial path at Stanford GSB. The eternal optimist and Wharton graduate loves the tangible nature of his CEO role at Specialty Eye Institute (SEI), and thrives most when he can feel the impact of his work—on people, the business, and society.
Alpine is a middle market private equity firm focused on software and services businesses up to $500m of EV. We closed our seventh fund at $1 billion in November 2019. Our CEO-in-Residence (CIR) model allows proven operators to step into leadership roles within our portfolio while our CEO-in-Training (CIT) program has helped more than 25 recently graduated MBAs from the world’s top business schools accelerate into the CEO chair.
Have you always known you would become a CEO one day?
No, not really. I grew up in a household of physicians. My father is an anesthesiologist and my mother was a nurse. As a result, most of our dinner table conversations didn’t revolve around management or business and no one in my network had ever focused on business as a career. It wasn’t until I started at Wharton that I realized how impactful business could truly be, even in a complicated industry like healthcare.
What inspired your early career choices and how did those experiences lead you to Alpine?
I had a few internships in investment banking during college which evolved into risk management at J.P. Morgan. I focused on companies in the tech, media, and telecom space and I fell in love with those sectors. I especially liked working with early stage startups like Square and Dropbox that had very different business models than companies J.P. Morgan had worked with historically. Because I was in risk management, we focused a lot on the downside. We spent most of our time asking ourselves what could go wrong or where we were going to lose money. Consequently, every meeting had a really negative overhang which was difficult for me personally as I tend to believe that things are going to work out. I felt this clash between my own personal values and what I was doing professionally. I decided to explore a career in an area more suited to my personality.
I transitioned into a sales role at Facebook, working on the Procter & Gamble account which at the time was the largest marketer on Facebook. That experience was a complete 180 for me—different industry, different function, and a completely different culture. I appreciated the way Facebook really focused on people and empowered team members to bring forth novel ideas. I was incredibly fortunate to be there at that point in the company’s life. After three and a half years and a transition into a manager position, Facebook had tripled in size and it became harder and harder for me to feel the impact of my work. I started getting the itch to learn more and to be challenged again, so I decided to go back to business school.
How did you discover Alpine and how did you know it was a good fit for you?
During the first year of business school I was very focused on pursuing a position in the sports industry, ultimately leading to an internship at the NBA. The thought of private equity portfolio operations never crossed my mind until I received an email from an Alpine team member a few months into my second year. Everything I had heard about private equity was in contrast with treating people well and all about pursuing profit. But after doing some quick research on Alpine, I decided to attend an info session. It was packed. TEAM CEO and Stanford GSB alum Rachel Green shared her experience with the program and the opportunity that it afforded her. It was really refreshing to hear about Alpine’s approach, especially their investment in people and culture and the opportunity to really dig into something more operational in a leadership capacity, right out of business school.
It was really refreshing to hear about Alpine’s approach, especially their investment in people and culture and the opportunity to really dig into something more operational in a leadership capacity, right out of business school.
How does working at an Alpine portfolio company compare to your experience at Facebook?
Over time at Facebook I got very comfortable in my role and the learning curve began to flatten. Here at Specialty Eye Institute (SEI), I’m still in that new phase and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. My role at Facebook was functionally focused on sales. Here, I have to think about a lot of different things, including marketing, billing, finance, HR, operations—from how we run our clinics, to how I communicate with our doctors, staff, external partners, and with Alpine. It’s a lot of managing interpersonal conflict as well. There’s never a dull day.
How did you know that Midwest Vision Partners was a good fit? What factors did you consider during the matching process?
When I matched, Midwest Vision Partners (MVP) was brand new—the company didn’t even have a name—and I wasn’t sure what my role would be. At the time, the only other team member was Joseph Giles, the CEO, who had been tapped by Alpine to lead the company. Healthcare was a new industry for me so I liked that there was a lot to learn. It was like a startup environment, I had to look at all the opportunities that came up and figure out what I was excited about.
I started out overseeing strategic programs. My focus was twofold: identifying best practices from within our portfolio that could be scaled and finding areas of opportunity where we could drive organic growth. Then I had to put programs in place to execute on that. My first few months at MVP gave me a chance to build relationships with physicians and team members at each of the practices we partnered with. It also afforded me the opportunity to build my knowledge of the ophthalmology industry and key headwinds.
Your transition to CEO at Specialty Eye Institute happened fairly quickly. How did you and Joseph know it was time for you to take on the CEO role?
Within five months of starting at MVP, we acquired a number of different practices, quadrupling in size. An opportunity came up with one of the practices, Specialty Eye Institute (SEI), as their former CEO retired right before the deal was completed. Joseph asked me to go out to Jackson, Michigan—where SEI is based—for a couple of weeks to assess the people on the ground, get to know the practice, and understand what they needed in a leader.
I spent four or five weeks out here and got a chance to meet everyone, including all of the doctors. Then as the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders changed the way we live and work; everything shifted. I stayed in Jackson to help navigate the business through the crisis. We shut down 7 of our 10 clinics, remaining available to those patients who were classified as emergent. Much of what we do actually preserves people’s sight, so if some patients don’t get treatment, they’ll start to lose their vision.
During those first few weeks, I helped implement safety protocols in line with recommendations by the CDC. The vast majority of our patients are elderly so it was important to create the safest possible environment. Over time I became intimately familiar with the practice and the people and I came to really enjoy it. I liked that it was very hands on, allowing me to really feel the impact of my work. I told Joseph that I wanted to throw my name in the ring for the CEO role. I believed—and still believe—that SEI’s practice has a lot of potential. Joseph and the key doctors were supportive, so I transitioned into the CEO role in April.
How has your optimistic approach served you during your time at Midwest Vision Partners and then as CEO of Specialty Eye Institute?
We help protect or restore people’s sight. This mission is incredibly powerful given sight is commonly regarded as humans’ most valuable sense. In conversations with team members I emphasize the important role we play in the lives of patients, not just the fact that we offer eye exams or cataract surgery. My first few days at SEI I spent the bulk of my time in exam rooms observing interactions between physicians and patients. These moments crystallized for me our role in the communities we serve.
Through the early days of COVID-19, I had a series of Zoom calls with all of the physicians, and I was very honest about where we were and that there were many things that we didn’t know. When there’s a lot of uncertainty, I focus on the things that I do know. I knew that our patients needed care. That became a rallying point for the group, we remembered that we had a mission and it didn’t change because of the pandemic.
When there’s a lot of uncertainty, I focus on the things that I do know. I knew that our patients needed care. That became a rallying point for the group, we remembered that we had a mission and it didn’t change because of the pandemic.
We asked ourselves: how do we really measure up to our organization’s values of patient-centered advocacy and compassion in a time when we can’t be that accessible to patients? In the height of the pandemic we embraced telehealth, an option foreign to ophthalmology given the high volume of diagnostic testing. We found it was a very effective medium for triaging patients, allowing us to bring in only those with urgent needs. We’ve come a long way since then. Today we are seeing slightly more patients each week than we were at this time last year.
What have you appreciated most about Alpine’s support system during your time with MVP and SEI?
I’ve come to really value the Alpine community. I think the experience is so unique that it brings fellow CITs together very, very quickly. Having the opportunity to lean on my colleagues and get advice or laugh about the stuff we’re dealing with is very uplifting. [Alpine Partner] Matt Moore and I connect once a month and I have a handful of CITs I catch up with on a pretty regular basis. It’s helpful to feel that connectivity with Alpine.
Recently, I’ve been encouraged by Alpine’s stance on Black Lives Matter and racial equity. They asked me to be part of a committee to figure out what role they could play to help increase equity. They want to see good done in the world. As part of that committee work, Alpine also put together a one-page plan outlining the actions they want to take over the next quarter, the next year, and the next three years. A lot of their focus is around recruiting, really branching out and going beyond the traditional schools that they work with. Another aspect is having an expert come in to assess the Alpine culture to identify things they do to promote diversity and inclusion and the things that detract from it.
Last month we had a CIT forum purely focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We discussed what DEI means and our role as leaders in promoting that within our own portfolio companies. It was a powerful conversation that inspired action from many of the portfolio leaders.
What has surprised you most about your Alpine experience so far?
It would have been easy to discredit my experience because many people I work with have decades of industry experience—especially the physicians. At the end of the day, my role is to motivate and support people, remove obstacles, set a vision, and really clarify our goals. I have found that I’m very capable of those things and of communicating that message.
I see the bigger picture and see where we need to go, and I understand what I need to do and what the people around me need to do to get us there. Sitting in the CEO seat is all about articulating a vision for an organization and motivating team members to bring it to fruition.
Sitting in the CEO seat is all about articulating a vision for an organization and motivating team members to bring it to fruition.
I put together a plan of what I want us to accomplish over the next two years, highlighting the five things we need to do really, really well in order to grow and serve more patients. I’ve been spending a great deal of my time recruiting new physicians because that’s a big part of our growth story. We are fortunate to have three fellowship-trained ophthalmologists starting this fall.
A major part of our value is our emphasis on the patient experience and overall communication. I’ve asked my team what the experience should feel like for a patient who walks into our clinic for the first time. There are specific moments when we have an opportunity to make a powerful impression on a patient or a referring doctor, or even a new employee. I’m constantly looking for those crucial moments where we can take an action that will have an outsized impact.
I love healthcare because I can genuinely say that we have an amazing impact on society and on peoples’ lives. I see it every time I’m in an exam room with a patient and they’re ecstatic or they’re so thankful. I make it a point to be in a different center every week, to see the patient experience, and to check in on team members to see how they’re doing. I always learn something.