Everything you see in The Firm’s spacious headquarters tells a story of success built on grit, hustle and unyielding faith in the power of teamwork. Excellence is a way of life, and no detail is too small, right down to the way the phone must be answered.
Over the past decade, The Firm has grown into the highest producing Merger and Acquisitions (M&A) company on the continent. To date, The Firm has sold 296 businesses and their top-tier portfolio has grown to more than 160 current opportunities for sale from Bellevue, Nebraska to Sofia, Bulgaria. Assets under management total $376 million spread across 21 industries with a proprietary buyer’s index of more than 36,000 qualified and motivated buy-side parties.
And, most importantly, each new day closes with the promise of an even better tomorrow.
“I don’t just want our story to look backward on what we’ve done,” said Cortney Sells, company founder and CEO. “I also want it to be about what’s now and what’s next. We’ve only just scratched the surface on how good we will become. The only competition that we strive to beat every day is ourselves.”
There is no idea or goal too big for The Firm to run at; in fact, the more outrageous the better.
“We call them our BHAGs (be-hags),” Sells said proudly. “Our Big Hairy Audacious Goals. You know, we always have ‘Here’s our goal,’ and then ‘Here’s our Firm-Crazy goal.’”
BHAGs are important for the ability to inspire the staff to reach things well beyond their grasp, surpassing industry goals previously thought impossible by the Swans and as well as the standard thought in the M&A industry.
BHAGS are so essential to The Firm’s collective mentality that everyone here has a story of their favorite one.
“We sat around the table in 2018 and asked ourselves, “Can we hit at least a million transaction dollars every week for an entire year?” Sitting there last year it was kind of a joke, our BHAG, but we got close to it,” said Rachael Rand, Senior Client Advisor. “We thought, well, that’s probably not going to be a BHAG going forward. Then comes 2019; we put our heads down, pushed forward and did it. We crushed that BHAG!”
There was a time when merely paying rent and making payroll was as much BHAG as the company could handle. Sells remembers well The Firm’s humble beginnings.
“I had my one employee and we worked out of my itty bitty 800-square-foot premanufactured trailer home,” Cortney explains. “I remember I used to drive around my favorite neighborhood in Omaha—West Shores. I was strategizing and developing my business plan as I would drive around and look at these big houses. And I’d think, OK, someday I’m going to make it. Someday I’m going to live here.”
“And then I would run out of gas. In fact, I ran out of gas there four times. Let me tell you, carrying my gas can out there was a dose of reality,” Sells laughs as she recalls the memory.
“In 2014 when I first started with The Firm, we were in a five-person office,” remembers Rand. “Our budget was nothing; we could not afford many office supplies. We would take turns bringing the hand towels from the bathroom home on the weekends to wash them and bring them back to the office to save money on paper towels. As paper towels would have been a luxury. Keurig? What’s a Keurig? We had a big coffee pot and could only turn it on if we had clients coming.”
Somehow, the modest conditions didn’t dissuade the staff from the big vision Sells had cast; everyone just dug in harder. Vistage executive board chairman and longtime colleague Rick Faber, who has formally coached Sells for seven years, said, “Such commitment to the corporate mission is a rare commodity.”
“That grit, that sheer determination to win at The Firm, it means everything to this team,” he said. “I never heard out of Cortney’s mouth that they felt they couldn’t compete with bigger players in the national market. The group Cortney has developed have never behaved like they were the underdog, ever. They felt they were equal to their competition even when entering what is known as a “Boys Club” industry. Embossing that they were ‘Boldly Different,’ (one of the company’s core values) is not just words…it’s a way of life.”
Early on, Sells adopted a philosophy of hiring the best person she could find, building a job around their unique skills and then pushing them for daily improvement. “We don’t hire positions, we hire people.”
“At the very beginning, there were a lot of times we didn’t know exactly what we were doing,” said Cassandra Powers, Chief Operations Officer. “But we were going to do the best that we could, and we were going to figure out a way to make it happen. No matter what was thrown our way, we continued moving forward to beat the odds to get our clients to the closing table.”
Such challenges remain intact. Ten years ago, the crew was not only the new kids on the block but also, in Sells’ words, “that all-chick firm from Nebraska,” fighting to be taken seriously.
“I reached out to a local IT company and asked if we could perform a valuation,” said Rene Rademacher, Senior Advisor. “Instead, he said, ‘No, I’m actually interested in purchasing a business.’ He then came in and experienced our process, only to later admit that he wanted to see how a buyer is treated in our organization.
“I think he doubted that we could do a transaction like his. However, after a show-stopping experience compared to our competitors, he asked us to represent him in the sale of his business. Three months later, it sold for several million dollars.
It is now comparatively easier to leverage The Firm’s track record of success to get their foot in the door to select the elite clients of their choosing.
“There’s definitely an extreme amount of collaboration, getting different perspectives from different Swans in the company, regardless of how long you’ve been with us or what position you hold,” said Makayla Kalagias, Brokerage Principal. “We can have somebody start on Monday and they are going to be sitting in our team meeting Tuesday morning, with their voice being respected and heard.”
“We only hire people prepared to be challenged,” Powers explains. “Whenever I interview anyone, I tell them no day is ever the same when we’re navigating emotionally-charged clients through the most intense stage of their career. The Firm is definitely a role that will force you to grow.”
When reflecting on the company’s internal success, the ladies at The Firm revert back to their core values: Ethically Driven, Always Confidential, Grit, Industry Experts, and Boldly Different. These values are printed on the walls at The Firm to serve as a constant reminder of what they strive to represent daily, and they are re-visited at each and every team meeting as their guiding principles.
With this fresh take on values and company morals, The Firm also relies heavily on what they call their “Swan Ideology,” which is how they landed on their signature logo. “We even use this ideology with our clients,” Sells explained. “Swans always present themselves as calm, cool, and collected on top of the water, while they are feverishly paddling their tails off underneath. That is what we offer to our clients. My Swans and I will outwork any other M&A organization.”
It would be easy for leadership to coast and lean on the company’s system for future success. Instead, there’s a constant search for new ways to improve. “There are a couple of great things about the way Cortney leads,” Rand said. “Number one, we’re around a lot of seasoned business owners just by virtue of what we do. And she is a sponge; she gets on a call with a client and absorbs the successful practices of that business owner and then applies them at The Firm for our greater good.
“And something else she has mastered is the ability to be agile. If something is wrong on Tuesday, we are no longer doing it on Wednesday, no matter what it is.”
Success represents something different to everyone. Some take the validation of success as the payoff of hard work inspired by humble upbringings. Others wander academically or professionally before finding financial and personal fulfillment. But everyone here credits The Firm for their growth and finding their true calling in life.
Also in This Issue
- Inspiring Women in Business
- The Gift of Freedom & Time: How one sale opened the doors to greater family ties and fun new projects
- Post-Sale Prosperity: Angela Ye - Now it's her turn!
- Programs for Women in Business
- Mission Accomplished: An offer the MJ VanDamme owners could not refuse
- Learning from a Pro: Angeal Boone, C.P.A.
- From Land-Locked Business Owner to Ocean-Based Retiree: The move from Ohio-based owner to Florida-based beach bum
- Real Estate Guru to Health Services Buyer: Adding a new career path while focusing on further growth opportunities
- Silver Linings From COVID-19: Succeeding in a "Corona Economy"