Mark Strauch started his career chasing—and eventually, living—a dream of leading businesses. But in 2012, he decided to change gears. Below, Mark reflects on the path that led him to Alpine and the reasons he joined the team; shares a transformative experience that later became the subject of a novel; and explains how his “people-first” approach, along with a commitment to diversity, will help shape the future of the firm.
First, tell me about your career before Alpine.
I think the theme has really been finding people who were willing to bet on me. Like most young people, I started out not having any idea what I wanted to do; I studied industrial engineering in school purely because it was hard and I wanted to see if I could do it. Then, with degree in hand, I remember looking for my first job and thinking, “I don’t know anything. Why would someone hire me?”
I ended up joining Accenture’s Silicon Valley consulting group, which gave me the opportunity to learn from a lot of smart people and work with some exciting high growth software businesses—and after a few years I joined one of those companies, Electronic Arts, as a director for supply chain. I was thrown in the deep end, leading a group of people who were all way more experienced than me, and I learned a ton. That experience planted the seed of desire to someday lead a company, so I went to Kellogg and got my MBA. My first job out of school was as an M&A investment banker, which is a whole story in itself. After a couple of years there, I took a role as VP of sales and business development at a high-profile startup backed by Sequoia and Accel-KKR. But to make a long story short, the company didn’t work out, and I was let go. It was really my first big failure. A few months later, I was fortunate enough to get recruited by a later-stage software company called Business Engine, where I eventually became President and CEO.
Well, now you have to share the story about that first job.
For someone who wanted to be a CEO, an associate role at an investment bank probably seemed like an odd choice coming out of business school, but I knew I could learn a lot about what made companies valuable and how deals were done. I really wanted the job. So, I flew out from Chicago to the Bay Area for the final interview—and I didn’t get the job. I was disappointed and didn’t understand. My flight home didn’t leave until the following afternoon, so I sat alone in my hotel room all evening wondering what I’d done wrong. The next morning, I somehow managed to summon a brief moment of irrational courage, so I put my suit back on, took a taxicab back to the office, and asked if I could get 15 minutes to speak with the managing director. Eventually, the receptionist took pity on me. I walked into the MD’s office, super nervous, thanked him for the opportunity, and said, “This is very difficult for me to say, but I think you made a mistake.” I looked him in the eye and told him he should have given me an offer. Not only that, but I dug an even bigger hole for myself when I predicted that if he hired me, he would look back one year from now and rank me as the #1 associate in the entire firm. Even retelling that story now is so embarrassing!
I remember exactly what he said to me: “It takes a lot of guts to come in here and tell me that.” I remember responding, “Yes sir, it does,” and I just sat there. Then, after one of the most awkward moments of silence I can remember, he said he appreciated how much I wanted the job, but that he had to get to another meeting. I flew back to Chicago thinking I was such an idiot—but the next afternoon, a FedEx envelope arrived at my apartment with an offer letter inside. And sure enough, one year later, that same MD invited me into his office. With a wry smile on his face, he reluctantly admitted that my audacious prediction had proven correct!
The novel The Accidental CEO is based in part on you. How did that come about?
The author, Tom Voccola, was assigned as my executive coach after I took over as CEO of Business Engine. I had joined the company a few years earlier as VP for Europe, based in London, came back to the U.S. as COO, and then ended up being asked by the board to lead the company. To give you a sense of how ready I was—when I got the job, which ended up being a turnaround assignment, the chairman of the board told me, “Mark, sometimes it’s not about who’s right for the job; it’s about who’s left.” Not exactly a rousing endorsement. At first, I did everything wrong. I thought being a CEO was about trying to be the smartest person in the room—having the big idea and then running after it. But I quickly realized that my instinct was wrong because people weren’t bought in and the team was reluctant to follow me. That’s when I met Tom.
Working with him was truly transformational for me, not only as a leader, but as a person. Early on, he led me through an amazing exercise—it was just the two of us in this big ballroom in the Dallas Marriott. He stood in the center and told me to go to one corner and close my eyes. I thought, “Oh, man, this is going to be such a waste of time,” but I played along and decided to lean in. He told me to recall my very first memory, then walk slowly toward him and try to remember everything that had happened in my life since. It took about 45 minutes, and it was dizzying. Once I got back to the middle of the room, he told me to keep going to the opposite corner, and imagine everything that would happen in my life from that point on. And then finally, he asked me to imagine the three people who would speak at my funeral—a colleague, my oldest son, and my wife—and what they would say.
I was too choked up to actually get through it, but he had made his point in a way I would never forget: My purpose, the whole reason I’m here, is to leave some sort of lasting impact or legacy that matters. Did I endeavor to be great? Did I inspire people around me to be fearless? Was I a man built for others? Working with Tom helped me understand that the most profound measure of my impact would be in the relationships I built along the journey. So, I’ve tried to live up to the promise of servant leadership ever since.
My purpose, the whole reason I’m here, is to leave some sort of lasting impact or legacy that matters. Did I endeavor to be great? Did I inspire people around me to be fearless? Was I a man built for others? Working with Tom helped me understand that the most profound measure of my impact would be in the relationships I built along the journey. So, I’ve tried to live up to the promise of servant leadership ever since.
What does that service look like in terms of your work?
For me, it starts with cultivating a shared reality and checking in with people about where we are and what people want—and don’t want—rather than just charging ahead with the presumption that your idea is the right one. It’s also following a set of specific practices that we have memorialized in Alpine’s PeopleFirst Leadership Program, which includes employee engagement surveys, coaching workshops, quarterly renewals, and individual purpose & passion sessions. This playbook is designed to support our Alpine team, our portfolio company leaders, and every single person who works for an Alpine company. Being a servant leader probably sounds warm and cuddly. But to me, it’s really about relentlessly serving both our shared mission and our people so that we endeavor to be great, win in the marketplace and live meaningful lives. Our definition of winning means not only being the best investors of our time, but also being a force for good in the world and being the best place to work for a team of truly exceptional human beings. As a leader, my team is my primary customer. If they are happy, empowered, and advancing, the results will speak for themselves.
Our definition of winning means not only being the best investors of our time, but also being a force for good in the world and being the best place to work for a team of truly exceptional human beings. As a leader, my team is my primary customer. If they are happy, empowered, and advancing, the results will speak for themselves.
Why did you decide to join Alpine as a partner?
I’d left Business Engine after a successful turnaround exit and spent a few years doing interim CEO stints—then one of Alpine’s partners, Will Adams, reached out and convinced me to lead an Alpine portfolio company called EDC. I resisted and he persisted. Ultimately, he prevailed and I took the job. We brought in a remarkable team and really transformed the business; it nearly tripled in size in just three years. I figured I’d move into a CEO role at another Alpine company, but instead of that, we eventually landed on the idea of my joining the firm as a partner.
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I’d enjoyed running companies; I wasn’t a professional investor. I thought, “Why change course now?” But I liked the idea of taking on a new challenge, and I was so impressed with the people at Alpine and the culture they were building, which was just coming into view. I got the sense I could make a difference at Alpine and help build the firm to a place that was bigger and more impactful than people ever imagined. I’d told them all about my transformative work with Tom, and to their great credit, the partners embraced the idea and ran with it. When I joined the firm, I could see evidence of the special Alpine fire, and I wanted to help turn it into a raging inferno. So I said yes, and it turned out to be the best professional decision I’ve ever made.
What hats do you wear in the firm today?
I co-lead software and tech-enabled services investing for the firm, alongside Billy Maguy. Like many of us, my passion is building businesses, and a lot of my work centers around that. I serve on several boards—including as founder and chairman of ASG, which has become Alpine’s largest investment. Over the years, I’ve played a central role in developing our operational playbook and I also enjoy mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders at the firm and in the portfolio.
Beyond that, I feel personally accountable for continuing to help build our unique culture, particularly in terms of becoming a more diverse organization. That’s not about looking good—it’s about doing what’s right, and about winning, because diverse teams are fundamentally better teams. I really believe in the saying “talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.” Because of our apprenticeship model and how much we emphasize values and attributes rather than specific experience, we’re in a better position than most to challenge traditional thinking about what a private equity investor looks like or what a CEO has historically looked like. I think our CIT program in particular is a reflection of where we want to go. Alice Song, the CEO of Traject, is a good example. She was graduating from Stanford Business School less than three years ago, but she is wise beyond her years—anyone who meets her is struck by how mature yet humble she is. Now she’s running a $50 million ARR business and crushing it.
Within the firm, we have farther to go. The partnership is still white and male. But we’re making progress and we are all aligned about who we want to become. Haley Beck, for example—she’d be the first to tell you that as a Computer Science major, she didn’t know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet when she started here as an analyst five years ago. But she’s extremely bright, capable, and passionate, and in the last five years, she’s gained decades worth of experience doing deals and serving on boards. Now she’s a vice president, and I hope and expect she will be a partner someday.
What’s next—for Alpine and for you?
Beyond making sure our growing software franchise continues to be successful, I think to me it’s really about guarding our culture as we grow—always endeavoring as a firm to be both great and good. I believe those two things are wildly synergistic, and I want to continue proving to ourselves, and to others, that this is the modern model for a successful organization. The next step is just to carry it on in larger ways. Every fund is an opportunity to demonstrate that our success isn’t just because of our unique investing strategy; it’s because of our people and our PeopleFirst operating philosophy. It’s who we are and how we roll.
For me personally, I hope I can help be a gas pedal for the firm—help us imagine the possibilities and move confidently toward our vision of impact, as investors and as human beings. From there, I see it as my job to get out of the way. I want to leverage my years of experience as investor and operator, but make sure I’m never drowning out other voices. I want to let people spread their wings and take on more responsibility. I’m happiest when I am constantly having to modify my role to make room for the next great team member to expand their impact, advance their career, and experience the remarkable journey I feel blessed to have traveled.
Every fund is an opportunity to demonstrate that our success isn’t just because of our unique investing strategy; it’s because of our people and our PeopleFirst operating philosophy. It’s who we are and how we roll.