From his early days mowing lawns in his Cincinnati neighborhood to his new role leading Alpine’s Orion Group, Will Adams has always loved building businesses. A Colgate and Kellogg grad and recipient of Alpine’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the partner-turned-CEO reflects on the firm’s founding, his reputation as a “work-life harmony” advocate, and the exciting opportunities facing Orion’s team.
How did you get your start in business?
It was pretty early on. I learned as a kid that if I wanted to make money, I could pick up a rake or a lawnmower—or a shovel, in the winter—and do some work around the neighborhood. All through high school, I had a landscaping business, then a house-painting business. It would be me and a crew of four or five friends. I never had a regular job in college, either; it was always creating my own companies, finding entrepreneurial ways to make money. I was the guy on campus who would make T-shirts or baseball caps for special events and get people together to go out and sell them.
After college, I went back to Cincinnati, where I grew up, and spent about a year as a salesperson for a material-handling business there—they sold and serviced warehouse equipment like forklifts and racks. That was an amazing education, because I had hundreds of clients and got to see the back of every kind of business you can imagine. But I quickly decided what I really wanted to do was get into consumer products like my dad, who spent his career at Procter & Gamble. I found a job with Clorox here in the Bay Area, and again learned a ton and worked with some great people. A few years into that, it was clear to me that there was so much about the business world I still didn’t know; that’s when I decided to go to Kellogg.
How did you end up at Alpine?
Accidentally! I moved back to San Francisco after business school and spent a year in management consulting, but it didn’t suit me—I was working with really large companies and missed being closer to the action. So I teamed up with three people who were starting a web-based small business, doing last-mile delivery. It was right at the end of the dot-com bubble, and like so many at that time, the business didn’t make it. But we had a great couple of years, and I came out of it with a partner, Mike Duran. He and I decided that rather than trying again to start something from scratch, we should find a business to buy. And while we were looking, a professor of Mike’s from Stanford introduced us to Graham.
Graham was working on fundraising while we were hunting down deals, and we’d get together every couple of weeks to compare notes. We met all over the place—the Stanford Mall, a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s marina called Dragon Well, and my favorite, Dino’s pizzeria just around the corner from my house—and from the start, we just had such fun conversations. Right around the time Graham closed the first fund, Mike and I struck a deal to buy a Chicago-based distribution company, and at some point Graham said, “Why don’t you guys join me?” So we did.
Tell me more about the hat you wore back then, and how your role at the firm evolved.
I was very focused on the portfolio back then, which in some cases meant actually running a business for a period of time. Great Falls Marketing, a Fund I company, was one of those. It was flailing, and we couldn’t afford a failure. So in 2004, I effectively stepped out of Alpine and moved to Maine for two years to be its CEO.
I enjoyed that work, but after getting that business back on track and seeing Alpine continue to grow, it wasn’t scalable for me to play such an active role in any one company, so I resumed my work building out the Alpine portfolio. My role increasingly became about identifying what worked best on the talent front—finding, evaluating, and hiring great leaders—and identifying and codifying the other fundamental best practices a well-run business needs. A lot of those things I collected by keeping my eyes and ears open, visiting businesses we were considering investing in, and working alongside CEOs we had backed. I remember walking through one company on a visit with Danny Sanner and being blown away by how tightly run and organized it was. Everyone had their quarterly priorities and metrics tacked up above their desk. When we asked the CEO about it, he said he’d read Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. So I read it, too, and loved it. I emailed the author, Verne Harnish, who ended up speaking at our annual meeting. His One-Page Strategic Plan, which is essentially a framework for aligning your values, goals, and KPIs, became a fundamental tool we use in all of our businesses to this day.
You recently transitioned into a CEO role again, this time for Alpine’s Orion Group. What prompted that change?
A number of different things came together. Alpine had raised its largest fund, and I knew putting myself in the position to deploy a lot of that capital was one of the best things I could do for the firm. Plus, after 20 years, I was ready for a change. I found myself excited about going back to directly leading, rather than influencing, a company. I love being close to teams, and that was harder to do working with eight or nine companies at once—I felt like I wasn’t developing the level of expertise in any of them that I personally find rewarding. After so many years of doing lots of things at once, the idea of building one thing, and doing that as well as I could, had a real appeal. And what was most exciting was the chance to help an entire team of early-career leaders develop. The Orion Group is what we call the platform and believe it will succeed by acquiring and growing a collection of affiliated but independently run businesses. These businesses thrive with good leadership, and I saw an opportunity to use the approach we pioneered in Alpine’s CEO-in-Training program to build a team of first-time CEOs who could take on the world. So far we have five incredible new CEOs on our team. For them and the rest of our team—including Alpine all-stars Isaiah Brown (my partner and co-CEO) and Max Agranoff, who are joining me on this journey— my ambition is to create opportunities for our team that exceed those I was fortunate to have early in my career.
So here we are! It feels like the best of both worlds, because I’m still so close to Alpine. Graham and, in addition to being some of my best friends in the world, are on my board, and they’re there for me whenever I need support or just want to trade ideas. But I also get to lead and build a company, and to do it by putting others in positions where they can succeed, which I believe is my purpose. That’s what gives me energy and makes me fulfilled.
You’re a proponent of “work-life harmony.” Why?
I think it’s important that we honor and protect personal time. I’ve always prioritized things like getting home for dinner and taking time off to be with my family. If I have to make a choice between business or family, it’s family, no question. I remember hearing someone say that about me early in my career and thinking at the time, “Is that really the reputation I want to have?” But ultimately, I decided to just embrace it. This is me. And I’ve found that if you set expectations and make it clear that you’ll support others, they’ll support you, as well.
Work-life harmony means something different for everyone, and that’s as it should be. It can also change throughout our careers. But it’s important for everybody. We all need to be fulfilled on a fundamental, personal level, as well as on a work level, if we want to show up and be our best.
Over time, I’ve also realized how much it matters that we as leaders set a good example on these things. Work-life harmony means something different for everyone, and that’s as it should be. It can also change throughout our careers. But it’s important for everybody. We all need to be fulfilled on a fundamental, personal level, as well as on a work level, if we want to show up and be our best.
What are you looking forward to right now?
We have big ambitions at Orion—we believe this can be the best investment Alpine has ever made, and help define the careers of everyone on our team. There are lots of fun challenges that come with that: building a strong acquisitions engine, figuring out how to consistently grow the companies we own, and being ever mindful to honor and advance the teams and cultures of our companies.
Figuring out the people side of the equation is a puzzle that is fun and rewarding for me. When a founder chooses to sell their business to us, we bring in a new CEO, and elevate people within the company to play bigger roles. It’s a lot of change. Getting that right is truly different for every team, but doing it right unlocks so much potential. So for me, the big challenge right now is just living up to the promise I’ve made to this team, making sure I’m building those relationships and giving every leader the time they need. They’ve entrusted us with the biggest step of their careers thus far, and I’m committed to supporting them and everyone else at our companies so they can grow as quickly as possible.