Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating?
I graduated in 1991, smack in the middle of a recession. To tee up my post-Owen career, it’s worth noting that during my second year, there was a class where groups of students would take on projects for local businesses. There were several to choose from but my group chose to help a gentleman named Jon Yarbrough, who at the time wanted to start a slot machine company; kind of unique and intriguing. At the time, the gaming/casino business was exploding nationwide. My Owen group and I took that project, I got to know Jon well, and due to the recession I stayed on and helped Jon with the Company. That company ended up being Video Game Technologies or VGT and 20 years later sold to Aristocrat Gaming for roughly $1.3 billion. Anyway, I gained a ton of knowledge about the gaming industry during that time and parlayed it into an equity research job in New York. I worked for Ladenburg Thalmann, Bankers Trust/BT, and Alex Brown (Deutsche Bank) where I was a Managing Director. I met some fascinating people in the casino business and on Wall Street but at the end of the day learned how an investment bank worked and how important it was for soon-to-be public or public companies to understand how an investment bank worked.
What is your company and where did the idea come from?
As an analyst at an investment bank, I’d have management teams continually come and see me. Their hope was that I would get on board and support an equity offering, or that I’d write positive research to support the stock price. They would lay out the merits of their company and why it was a great investment and oddly there would be an advisor next to them, essentially coaching them on how to articulate their story to me. This advisor typically had a public relations background and no real understanding of my job, how an investment bank worked – they had little knowledge of finance or what created value for stocks. So I thought to myself, I talked to 100 portfolio managers a month, I know what an equity analyst needs to hear to get onboard with a company. I should be the one advising the management team on how to communicate to Wall Street and in 1998, ICR was born to do just that; former senior Wall Street professionals helping Boards, CEOs and CFOs navigate the communications roller-coaster of being a public company.
So three of us (friends from high school – one was an equity analyst like me and the other a lawyer) formed an LLC and we were on our way. We capitalized the company with $50,000. Over the ensuing 24 years, we’ve specialized in advising companies on their communication with investors, their business/financial media strategy, crises and M&A communications, and governance (ESG). We’ve also helped companies with their IPO and SPAC strategies and are fortunate enough to work with the best investment banks, private equity firms and corporate lawyers in the world. Boiled down, ICR helps companies build and preserve their corporate reputation and maximize equity value and we do so for over 1,000 companies (clients include Shake Shack, Peloton, Zoom, Intel, Paypal, Draftkings, Tiray, Teledoc to name a few). The business has become pretty sizable, about $200 million in revenue and roughly 400 team members.
What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?
When I was a kid, my Dad worked for a couple of companies, and then he went off on his own as a sole proprietor; a small accounting business. He did work for small companies and did people’s tax returns. He was always around when I was playing sports as a kid and teenager. He was probably the biggest influence on me generally, but career wise he figured out how to make a living while having flexibility to call his own shots and spend time with his family. So when I saw that I was commuting to lower Manhattan, working ungodly hours at a global company, I felt pressure to create an alternative. I had no vision for building what ICR is today, but I knew I had a great disruptive idea at the time (disruptive to the existing PR world).
What words would you use to describe the company you created?
I don’t have one word to describe ICR, but I’ll share how we talk about ourselves. This is a great lesson for any entrepreneur that’s building a business. When we started, we were a family. We’d say, “Welcome to the ICR family” – we were kind of this small ragtag group. But families are sometimes dysfunctional, like Uncle Joe comes to Thanksgiving dinner, he talks politics, he drinks too much, but you have to keep inviting him every year. That’s what family does. The analogy we like better is that we’re a professional sports team. You need the best people in the best slots; you have to care about each other, you need to have chemistry, and you need to work together to win week in and week out. But if you don’t have the best people in the best slots, the system breaks down, and you can’t win.
What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?
I think when you’re starting anything, it’s one step forward and two steps back. You don’t have the resources to do everything perfectly the way you might want unless you just raise an immense amount of capital (which also comes with a downside). In addition, you have to fight to make a name for your company and fight to get people to believe in your vision. Lastly, you have to have a balanced ego. You need enough of one to get to the top, but you have to be humble enough to know what you don’t know and bring in people way smarter than you to execute those things.
What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?
Humility, optimism, and creativity. There will always be someone smarter and richer, but creative and optimistic leaders who are grounded win in the end in my opinion.
What are you most proud of about your business?
I think number one is helping over 400 people be in a position to learn, excel, and have more responsibility. ICR has helped them live their lives, pay their mortgages, and raise their families. That’s incredible, and it’s the most gratifying thing. Second is the management teams we’ve helped solve their most complex challenges. Third is the value we’ve created. ICR has sold to private equity twice – to Investcorp (Bahrain) and CDPQ (Montreal). These two organizations manage about $500 billion in global assets and they’ve identified ICR as a rock solid business that will grow and endure long after I’m gone.
What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?
I always tell people that if you’re going to start a business you have to have a competitive advantage. We did when we started; we were Wall Street people doing PR – we understood how communication strategies tied back to the valuation of the business. Our PR counterparts didn’t.
Second, I would say relentlessly network with your classmates and everyone that you know, particularly when you’re young because as an entrepreneur, you’re going to face challenges. You’ll say, “Who can I call to help me with this?” There’s no way you’ll want to pay a consultant. Every single person that comes your way, treat them as a winner and treat them as someone that can help you down the road.
There’s never been more cheap or free tools to start a business and there’s never been more money sloshing around. Go for it!
What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?
I have three teenage girls right now (18, 16, 16) so I’m in the thick of it. My home base is Westport, CT but I have a home in Big Sky, Montana, where I can completely relax. I also spend time in Jupiter, Florida. Mostly I love to travel and learn new things. The best place I’ve ever stayed was in Montalcino, Italy in Tuscany. There’s a hotel there called Castiglion Del Bosco (CDB), which is nuts. Start your business, set a series of achievable goals, and when you hit a few of them go to CDB. You can do this!