Humatica Managing Partner Andros Payne interviews Joost Heeremans, Partner at Gilde Buy Out Partners, and Stijn Vos, CEO of ESDEC, about the lessons learned during its recent buy-and-build process.
How did you build trust between formerly competing management teams?
Stijn Vos: Key was, first, to start listening. We needed to understand how they see their business, their culture, and the market. The challenge is to not jump to conclusions too fast. Getting a deep understanding of where each business stands is important. Why was one firm very profitable, operating from Arizona with a very small team, and the other not profitable, with roughly the same revenue with a lot of people in production? We really had to get a good understanding of how they look to their own businesses, and then how they look at the combination. And then, week by week, workshop by workshop, we could all move in the right direction.
Joost Heeremans: Listening and fact-finding were very important. But also making it clear upfront that everybody is part of the team. That diffuses a lot of anxiety. Of course, people will wonder what’s going to happen? What does my future look like? Do I still have a job? Immediately taking this out of the equation brought additional calmness and rational thinking into the room. Secondly, painting a “North Star”. Communicating to the whole team that there is one mission, one goal: bringing more solar to this world. We can all contribute to that. People really felt secure and inspired. After that you’re not competing anymore, you’re in the same boat.
What are the required qualities of the CEO to be able to master a complex buy-and-build PMI?
Vos: It’s important to not put yourself at the front. Observe, see what is happening. Try to make the right decisions, the ones that are important for the process. For me, it’s always important to not make an ego show out of it. Ego takes all the oxygen out of the room in my opinion. However, you also have to show your leadership. It’s about EQ and IQ. Look at the hard facts, understand the data. Then understand the dynamics, the different cultures. At this point you can draw a conclusion and point the way forward, consistently telling the same story.
Heeremans: I would summarise it as low on ego and high on energy. You don’t want to force yourself into saying “I’m the boss”. It’s about being humble and trying to understand what other people are saying because they want to be heard. Listening, understanding, and asking probing questions. At the same time, keep the energy high. An integration process is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There’s always initial excitement, but you have to keep it up during the whole process. As a result, people will run faster and put all their weight into the integration effort.
One of the tricky elements, in this case, was to merge the sales organisations. You had three different companies with two fundamentally different go-to-market approaches. How did you effectively master that challenge?
Vos: It all starts with making the right decision about the go-to-market strategy. The expectations on salespeople have to be very clear. Of course, you also have to make sure to have the right salespeople. You want to be able to realise synergies from a shared IP portfolio and you want people to stay and grow the business. We made minor changes on the sales and technical side and ultimately managed to create a lot of momentum with our sales teams winning large customers.
Heeremans: I think it comes back to how you build trust by defining the vision and having everyone in the same boat. It helped that we mixed up people across the different entities. You don’t want to create silos. People have the opportunity to work on the other side. And people learn from each other. You also want to celebrate early successes. People have to see that it’s working, that they’re actually winning market share. That creates a lot of energy. Also, you need an accessible CEO who can immediately remedy any channel problems that will automatically come up.
You used Humatica to facilitate the merger. Where can a third party help in complex post-merger integration?
Vos: As a management team, we had to keep our focus on our markets and maintain momentum throughout the merger process. Humatica helped by facilitating the process. It also helped to have an independent sounding board I could use to check my opinions with. Humatica has the right people to support at the right levels and created a plan in a very short timeframe. Every week, the picture on the future set-up became more complete. That really helped to create even more momentum and build a winning company.
Heeremans: For me, three points stood out. Firstly, the process support. Doing any integration is intense, it’s always a lot more work than you think. Having a team supporting you with all the little things and putting them in a structured framework is hugely valuable. Secondly, being fact-based and gathering more data because there’s a lot of data around. Separating facts from fiction. Thirdly, Humatica’s previous knowledge about complex integrations. Just having a person in the room with 20+ years of experience, having seen what can go wrong, and supporting you on the journey.
What is the role of the private equity sponsor in the process?
Vos: We have now been working with Gilde for over three years. What helped us immensely is that Gilde’s team is dedicated and completely up to speed. They can challenge us because they are on top of it. And not on top in a frustrating way, but in a very constructive way. Joost’s commitment in the steering committees and coming over to California really helped. It is very good cooperation, like a marriage. It’s intense, professional and everyone has a clear understanding of how they fit in – working together towards the “North Star”.
Heeremans: I think marriage is a good metaphor. As with any marriage, it starts somewhere, and you fall in love with each other. But, over time, you have to work for it. In this case, both sides understood that. As in any marriage, you have open communication, immediately saying what bothers you or what motivates you. This is very important. Both sides are always available during this intense process, which makes this cooperation seamless.
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