IRL: Private Equity Career Change

Catherine Frances Napier, 2018

Catherine Frances Napier, 2018

Michael Sullivan, 2018

Michael Sullivan, 2018

In real life, private equity careers are some of the most highly sought after at Booth. Michael Sullivan successfully landed one of these coveted jobs through leveraging his past experiences, his Booth degree, and one of the hardest working personalities I’ve ever seen. (He started school and navigated a big career change with two kids and another one on the way – talk about impressive.)

“Having completed the CFA charter program, I wanted to take more aggressive classes upfront. I started with Financial Statement Analysis, Cases in Financial Management, Competitive Strategy, and Taxes and Business Strategy. Those classes helped me apply what I had learned in the CFA program to more tangible examples,” Michael explains.

In addition to the coursework, Michael dove into the Private Equity Club and Private Equity Lab, the latter of which allows students to intern with a Chicago-based private equity firm to get experience. As he says, “My path was clear: get into the Lab, get an internship, and network my way through until I could make enough connections to find a role post-graduation.”

Michael also engaged with the Polsky Center and volunteered at the 2017 Booth PE Conference as a sponsorship volunteer, which helped him build relationships with full-time students and with the team at Polsky. So, when Michael applied for a role in the PE Lab, the Polsky Center was able to advocate for Michael when Kinzie Capital Partners was interested in hiring Michael and checking on his references.

“Like a lot of career-changers, I had holes in my traditional skillset. As it relates to PE, I had not done investment banking and had not been exposed to deal execution. However, I had come from a very strong consulting background, and my work in the CFA program demonstrated my capabilities in valuation and financial analysis. The courses I had already taken, and still planned to take at Booth, demonstrated to Kinzie what I was capable of doing.”

Michael’s skills and aptitude, in addition to being an active member in the CFA society, being named the co-chair of the Evening/Weekend PE Club, actively contributing to the full-time PE Club, and continuing to work as an independent consultant for a client, Michael had found on his own, culminated into Michael landing an internship offer in private equity with Kinzie.  

To make the offer work, Michael agreed to quit his consulting job to pursue his PE internship dream. This way, he could work full-time over the summer and develop invaluable experience with a top PE firm. (As Michael says, this was a “unicorn” of an opportunity.)

While Booth was instrumental in paving the way for Michael to achieve his goals, his wife, Shea, was another critical element. When Michael debated quitting his consulting job to be a full-time intern, Michael asked his wife (pregnant with their third child) if that would be alright. She looked over and said, “Yes.”

Michael adds, “I love that Chicago’s community is so welcoming to me and my family. How simple and obvious is it to include my spouse on everything? But the school does it without fail and with style.”

Michael is already giving back to the community. With Michael’s help, Kinzie continues to take on interns quarterly and actively supports the PE Lab. In real life, Michael landed the dream job and is already paying it forward to the next generation of Boothies.

Advice from Michael Sullivan on Changing Careers

“Another thing that really helped me through the transition – when I think about the courses at Booth – was Strategic Leadership, taught by Chris Henke. It always felt like a real misnomer. I began taking a much more strategic approach to my network after that class. If you think about your network as a sociogram, as where do you have connections with people, you can map out who you don’t know. It was an effective way to outline the people I wanted to connect with and who might be able to connect me. As I looked at my network, I knew few folks in private equity, so I went to Notre Dame alumni and Booth alumni with humility and said, here’s what I am trying to do, can I get five minutes of your time? I do contribute a lot of that thought process to Professor Henke’s class.”

“Entrepreneurial Selling was another influential class. I learned that you have to be ready to ask for something. If you don’t have a clear ask, you’re wasting the opportunity. After that class, I dramatically changed how I prepared for events. I thought hard about what is my 40 second elevator pitch and what would make them say, ‘Here’s my card, and let’s have a coffee.’ That was extremely influential as I passed through all these different networking events that I was doing in the fall.”

“What I want people to take away from this is – it’s as hard, if not harder than everybody says it is, to make a transition. But there’s a lot of resources available to you, and you’ve really have to lean into the transition process. You have to map out your goals and determine how you will leverage your resources to achieve them. You’ve got to swallow your pride and admit that you don’t know everything and that you need help. The only way you’ll learn is by starting to ask people. That was a game changer for me. I told people – I know this is what I want to do and I am not the perfect candidate, but where do you see gaps in my experience that are the most important to address?”

“A lot of career changers early on in the process are ‘open to many options’. My guidance is that’s a huge disservice to you. Be as specific as possible about what you want to do. Being specific will allow you to refine your story as you talk to those helping you. It will also help you network more efficiently. When you are unsure about your goal, you are potentially going to the wrong events and meeting the wrong people. Further, those people don’t know how to help you because you can’t articulate what you want.”

“My wife and I put a lot of effort into planning my transition. She provided us stability. Whether in business or in life, picking the right partner is so important. You need to lean on each other sometimes. She has been a constant sounding board through the CFA program, Booth, and figuring out each of my transitions.”

“I worked at four major corporations before I quit and opened up my own consulting firm. Now, I work for Kinzie. Four major firms – Accenture, JP Morgan, what was Omnium / now Northern Trust, and CNA. An important part of any career transition is learning how to tell your story. What did you learn, what did you take away, and why did you make the transition? On its own, your story may not make sense on paper, but that is the opportunity for you explain why your history is a real competitive advantage.”

“Your risk profile is usually more aggressive than you think it is. I walked away from steady income with two kids and one on the way. All I’ve done seems crazy, but then I remember that there are people out there willing to risk more. Don’t be afraid to take chances. My work history has been that much more influential on my development because of jumping around those firms – I learned a lot from major cultures in a short time frame because I took that route.”

“Take care of yourself, learn your body, stress manifests itself in very interesting ways.”

“Those weekend classes are clutch! I am fried as it is, but I get a lot out of a Saturday, because I am more awake on Saturday morning. In addition, I get to meet more people from the Weekend section. It’s great expanding your network beyond your home section when you can.”

“It always seems insurmountable until you’ve done it, and then you remind yourself, that the opportunity is going to be gone – you’ll graduate, and you’ll wonder if you got enough out of your time. For me, that’s what fuels me – the inherit loss of opportunity because I was too tired. There’s always someone who is going to try harder, to work more hours than you, and you just have to keep pushing yourself.”

“You have all the same resources the rest of us do. It’s up to you to make the most out of them. You might not know how to maximize the resources, and that’s where support from everyone else comes in. Sometimes, just being at Booth isn’t enough. How can you get the most out of the opportunity? That’s entirely up to you.”