Before the financial crisis of 2008 and its subsequent acquisition by J.P. Morgan, Bear Stearns was riding high as one of the most prestigious investment banking firms on the Street. Its undoing was doubling down on mortgage-backed securities in 2006 and 2007, even as the losses compounded. After the collapse of Bear Stearns, many of its talented investment bankers began to move up the ranks at its new parent bank, jumped to a competitor or left banking entirely.
Nick Leopard, the founder and CEO of Accordion Partners, a strategic consultancy for chief financial officers, fits into the latter category, although he was lucky enough to leave the bank just before it folded.
After graduating with a B.S. in finance from Saint Joseph's University’s Haub School of Business, Leopard began his career as a business development officer at a commercial lending and finance company before transitioning to investment banking.
At Bear Stearns, Leopard worked in the financial institutions group (FIG) group of the investment banking division. He was on a specialized strategic finance team working on public and private transactions and balance-sheet restructuring.
“I loved it there,” Leopard said. “At Bear, everyone was pretty entrepreneurial and scrappy, and we worked really hard.
“Bear tended to recruit from the type of university that was not necessarily getting the love from larger investment banks – they were looking for hardworking people who didn’t have an ego to them. That was the culture at Bear,” he said. “The people there had a chip on their shoulder or were brought up in a hard-working environment, and it was a place I loved to work in.”
Leopard believes that investment banking was an excellent launch pad for his career, even if he didn't tread the most typical path.
“With investment banking, you can build up your career there and remain there, or become a CFO or head of corporate development somewhere," Leopard said. "With traditional management consulting, like with Bain or McKinsey, you could become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But if you wanted to get to the operating partner side of private equity, there wasn’t a natural track for that."
After leaving Bear Stearns before the 2008 blowup, Leopard joined the mezzanine fund management division of Brooks, Houghton & Co., a New York-based merchant bank focused on the middle market.
“We had just raised a fund and the bank was doing fine, but then the recession hit, and they asked me, ‘Can you go to Dallas and spend the next two months there?’ I worked to optimize the processes to prepare a client company for a sale,” Leopard said. “I thought, ‘It would be great if there was another group out there that could work alongside us to provide finance support and consultation.”
Leopard spotted a business opportunity driven by major shifts in the private equity community. With management fees under pressure, many PE firms were not building out their portfolio operations groups, but at the same time, LPs were asking them, “What’s your portfolio ops strategy?”
In addition, Leopard worked with CFO who were fishes out of water after going from the button-down corporate side to coming under private equity ownership for the first time.
“My experience working at Brooks Houghton helped me identify a real market opportunity to build the next dominant consultant centered on CFO services, working down inside a [PE client’s] portfolio company alongside the CFO and their team with a need for better insights into this business,” Leopard said. “CFOs want the ability to forecast better and pinpoint where their company is making and losing money.”
“Though the office of the CFO, PE firms and their LP investors want better forecasting, pricing optimization and reporting to the management team with more actionable insights rather than just data,” he said.
Leopard is now looking to aggressively grow headcount at Accordion Partners. The firm currently has 62 employees and he estimates that will probably be up to 80 or more by the end of this year.
“The hard thing at the beginning was recruiting top-tier people in without any brand – it was a major challenge when you don’t necessarily have brand recognition,” Leopard said. “Now is a great time to start building our team out with people who not only have experience working on deal structure, but all the soft skills to work alongside a management team, tech skills and the expertise to drive big strategic initiatives and helping to launch new practice areas
“Recently the business has been growing so much, we’re looking to build out from junior ranks as well, so we’re hiring talented people to step in as analysts or associates,” he said. “At the beginning of a career, it’s important to get great fundamentals down, such as balance sheet restructuring, FP&A and corporate development, get exposure to those and the opportunity to develop your skills.
“When you get a bit more senior in your career, it’s important to get soft skills, not just technical skills, so you can work alongside people and be an adviser in a nonthreatening way to achieve your goals together.”
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