Brett Hickey is the Founder & CEO of Star Mountain Capital, a specialized U.S. lower middle-market investment firm with approximately $1.5 billion in assets under management that has completed over 100 investments to date. Star Mountain employs a data-driven approach to provide value-added debt and equity capital to established small and medium-sized private companies leveraging its scale-driven resources and longstanding relationships. Star Mountain also has a secondary investment business providing early liquidity for investors in U.S. lower middle-market private credit and private equity funds or direct assets. Brett has over 20 years of investment and advisory experience, with over 15 years specifically focused on investing in the U.S. private small and medium-sized business marketplace.
Throughout his career, Brett has been structuring, analyzing and managing private equity, mezzanine and U.S. Government sponsored investment funds for nearly 20 years. He also has extensive experience performing due diligence on, selecting and building small business fund managers. Brett has helped structure over a dozen larger funds representing a few billion dollars in assets.
Growing up in small-town Canada, Brett was very involved in the local community and sports scene. He admits he didn’t think too far ahead about the future; mostly, he enjoyed competing, practicing, and having fun. In hindsight, he figures those early interests helped him build grit.
The first business activity Brett initiated involved a small, empty classroom at his highschool. He approached the principal and asked if he could use the classroom. Thankfully, he also had the foresight to note that being able to use the classroom was going to support the curriculum of the entrepreneurship class he was taking at the time. The principal said yes!
From there, Brett approached a clothing company and convinced them to give him clothing on consignment. He didn’t have the money to pay up front, so he needed to be able to sell the items first. They agreed, it turned into his first business!
Around the same time, Brett started a roof shoveling company. He would garner business (and in snow-heavy Canada, many roofs needed to be shoveled!), and then take a cut from his labor team. All this was happening around 15-16 years old; Brett had an early start to business and deal-making!
Star Mountain Capital
Brett built Star Mountain Capital primarily to bring large market expertise down into the private lower middle market. Upon moving to the US, Brett had seen the sort of buying and selling that was occuring, and where there were opportunities for growth. He found he loved working with the access and resources of big firms…but also noted the many inefficiencies of the lower middle market. With Star Mountain, he wanted to build a specialised firm that focused exclusively on the lower middle market and its challenges and opportunities. To do this, they pursue two primary approaches:
- Star Mountain provides flexible capital solutions. This includes having both debt and equity investing capabilities. They can sit down with business owners, gain clarity on their desires, needs, and goals, and then come up with the structure and expertise needed to grow.
- With a separate division for that same market, Star Mountain uses a secondary funds business to purchase limited partnerships interests from those looking for liquidity. Across that platform, the company has closed over 100 separate investments.
Although exact definitions may vary slightly, Star Mountain thinks of lower middle market companies as not being start-ups, but also not yet a highly efficient market. This often applies to companies with over 15 million in annual revenue, and under 30 million in annual EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization).
Star Mountain focuses on industries that have positive macroeconomic tailwinds and in which they have competitive advantages.
They tend to stay away from real estate (highly competitive) and gas & oil (highly volatile), and focus more towards technology companies, business services, transportation and logistics, education, and healthcare. Because they have deep expertise in those sectors, they can most confidently command the best deals for their clients.
Overall Market Trends
Recently, I did a solo-cast on the SPAC explosion, which has been a major trend in 2020 and moving forward. Brett noted that this seems to him to be an indicator that there are a lot of bubbles in the market right now. As you see abnormal dynamics and valuations, you’re also seeing higher risks, reminiscent of the late 90’s. This might signal a number of “black swans”, and there may be some bubble bursting.
Some people are going to make a lot of money, but others will lose a lot.
Based on current valuations, there is a lot that could happen. That’s going to probably include some hard drops.
Conversely, however, the valuation arbitrage between smaller companies and larger businesses is larger than it’s ever been. (SPACs are a great example!) Essentially, you’re taking private companies and reverse merging them into a public shell, with private owners giving up about 20% of their company. This allows them to move much more quickly to the public marketplace, often at higher valuations. If you can find 2-3 good quality smaller businesses, each with about 5 million in annual EBITDA, and effectively combine them and bring them to market, you can set yourself up quite well.
(Listen in to the full episode to hear more about Brett’s thoughts on this!)
Pressure to Deploy Capital
People who deploy funds don’t want their money to just sit in a bank account collecting interest. They are looking to get it invested in quality companies that will yield good returns. In overheated markets, however, this can create a pressure to deploy fundcapital in order to get things moving. That can result in entering into less-than-perfect deals.
Brett notes there are a few angles here.
For one thing, if you’re a wealth manager for a lot of people, it’s really hard to time the markets. History shows, in fact, that you really shouldn’t try to time them. As a result, a lot of the capital in the world will continue to stay invested. However, when people do pull out, the market can drop fast — last year we saw it go down about 35% over just a few weeks. We’ve seen that in 2008 and in other recessions as well. Even if things are frothy, however, a lot of money will stay on the market with the assumption that things will turn around and go back up again.
In the alternative investment market there is less obligation to stay invested. However, it’s worth remembering that zero investments equal zero chance of profits.
Star Mountain focuses on simple premises and alignment of interests. 100% of the senior team has personal capital invested in all of Star Mountain’s deals, and every employee owns part of the company, making them completely employee owned. They find it essential to structure their funds appropriately relative to capital, market, and time. If you have many years to put your money to work, you can be more selective and identify better deals. Having your team fully aligned also allows for better deal alignment. Rather than seeking aggressive deals, or feeling pressured to deploy capital, you can then enter into opportunities that are best suited to your investment and return needs.
They also ask questions like:
What if there is a problem? How would I solve it? Could I lose my own money?
That sort of mentality is critical to ongoing growth and sustainable results. Brett also notes it’s a harder mentality to maintain in larger firms where employees are only employees and don’t tend to have the same level of skin in the game.
Specialized Asset Management & Investment Decisions
Every investor talks about management and the importance of the team behind a possible company to invest in.
Brett and I wanted to talk about a few other factors related to making investment decisions. Last year, Brett notes that his firm looked at around 1,500 investment opportunities. They invested in about 30 of them. Some of the options just didn’t fit their focus at all, which is always a possibility.
For those companies that did fit the general picture of what Star Mountain was looking for, however, Brett noted a few distinguishing factors.
Start with a business plan that has the highest probability of success as possible. This means considering the industry, sector, competitiveness, what the product or service actually is, and other factors. If that doesn’t make sense, the rest of it doesn’t matter.
If the probability of success looks good, Brett’s team turns to looking at competitive positioning within the business. What dynamics are at play? How does the business fit into the market, and in what ways can it set itself apart?
From there, the current diversity and quality of the customer base is key. This includes what relationships and contracts already exist, how sustainable the base is, and how long-term the relationships have been.
As those areas are clarified, then Brett notes you’ll start to get into the alignment and makeup of the team as whole.
Ultimately, you’re looking at the predictability of revenue occurring, as well as what can put revenue at risk. Brett states that revenue can solve a lot of problems, in that it gives you the time to work through issues and work through challenges.
Corey Kupfer is an expert strategist, negotiator and dealmaker. He has more than 35 years of professional deal-making and negotiating experience. Corey is a successful entrepreneur, attorney, consultant, author and professional speaker who is passionate about deal-driven growth. He is also the creator and host of the DealQuest Podcast.
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