We invest in exceptional people to create exceptional companies. Since 2001, Alpine has believed that inspiring growth in people is the most sound way to build growth and revenue. We start within our own offices, and share our learnings with our portfolio companies. Here are some of our favorite stories about heroes being unleashed.
Alice Song planned to raise a search fund and then run her own company after Stanford GSB. The Yale graduate started her career at J.P. Morgan’s Investment Banking group and then spent several years as an investor at GTCR, a Chicago-based private equity firm, before a GSB fellowship gave her a glimpse of large company life at Eli Lilly. She opens up about fostering a culture of inclusivity, the power of attributes-based hiring, and how A-players make all the difference.
Alpine is a middle market private equity firm focused on software and services businesses up to $500m of EV. We closed our seventh fund at $1 billion in November 2019. Our CEO-in-Residence (CIR) model allows proven operators to step into leadership roles within our portfolio while our CEO-in-Training (CIT) program has helped more than 25 recently graduated MBAs from the world’s top business schools accelerate into the CEO chair.
Tell me about your background. Have you always known you wanted to be a CEO one day?
I knew I wanted to go into business relatively early on. I was born in China and immigrated with my parents—both engineers—to the U.S. when I was four. Watching my parents build and run a small business sparked my desire to do the same. They get so much pleasure out of helping customers and growing something all their own.
After Yale, I spent five years building my skills working in finance, investment banking, and private equity. During my time at GTCR, I loved sitting down with executives in my portfolio, talking strategy, and working on new add-ons. I craved that team element and wanted to build something. That felt like a different muscle from investing.
I applied to the Stanford GSB with the goal of raising a search fund—eventually acquiring and running my own business. I received a fellowship that allowed me to spend a year at Eli Lilly helping launch one of their Alzheimer’s brands. I was part of the team that was figuring out our sales strategy in order to get the product into patients’ hands as quickly and efficiently as possible. I loved the impact we were making in our patients’ lives, but the experience taught me that I liked working in nimble teams. I knew I wanted to work at a smaller company where I could have more of an impact right away.
What did you learn about yourself at GSB? And how does that experience inform your leadership style?
I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of business school. With search funds in mind, I understood the acquisition part of the process, so in business school I wanted to focus on becoming the best possible leader. GSB had a lot of programs geared towards finding your authentic voice and leadership style. I took all the touchy-feely and leadership classes that I could.
I think GSB was the first time I really felt free to be myself and to put myself out there. I told my story authentically and people responded in a very positive way. That experience made me much more comfortable in my own skin and I think that confidence makes me a better manager and a better leader.
Joining Alpine is different from raising a search fund. How did you decide to join Alpine as a CIT?
During business school I interned at a search fund investing firm and at a search fund-acquired company. I talked to a bunch of investors and had started to line up my investors for my search. I was intrigued by Alpine, but was never sure if it was the right fit for me.
I went through the Alpine interview process in my second year anyway, just because I had heard so many great things about the program. The community of other CITs and peers really stood out to me. Alpine emphasized how lonely it can be to run a business, and that network felt appealing. I knew I didn’t just want to be a CEO or leader of a company, I also wanted to keep learning and growing. The Alpine environment felt like a place where I could really maximize on that goal.
I knew I didn’t just want to be a CEO or leader of a company, I also wanted to keep learning and growing. The Alpine environment felt like a place where I could really maximize on that goal.
Explain how you made the decision to join Traject as COO, not CEO like you had hoped.
Traject, then ASG MarTech, had an opening for a COO role because they were looking at a bunch of acquisitions. The company was going to grow a ton and even though I would have to wait a bit to become a CEO, I decided to go for it.
My thinking was threefold. One, Seattle was one of the cities on my list of places to live. I love the city and my fiancée could work there as well. Number two, I wanted to get in on the action. I was ready to learn and to start working with people. And finally, I looked up to Steve Reardon, then-CEO of Traject, now Group CEO of ASG. I admired his ability to see through a problem, to get to the core, and then to make a decision. I wanted to work alongside him and to learn from him.
Even before my first 90 days was up, Steve let me know he was going to take a larger role back at ASG and asked if I wanted to be CEO of Traject. I knew it was the right choice for me and for the company. During my short tenure as COO, I had gotten to know our really solid leadership team and trusted them completely. I knew that we would work well together and continue to grow Traject.
What have you learned from Alpine that you hope to practice throughout your career as a leader?
The PeopleFirst aspect of Alpine really resonates with me. The entire firm and all the companies that they buy go through the PeopleFirst Playbook, focusing on passion and purpose. I like the idea that Alpine wants A-players and they welcome folks to bring their full selves to work. As a gay, Asian-American woman, I have often been “the other” in the groups I’m a part of, especially in finance. I value being able to bring my full self to work and I love working with a very diverse team. I hope to carry this kind of inclusive culture wherever I lead.
As a gay, Asian-American woman, I have often been “the other” in the groups I’m a part of, especially in finance. I value being able to bring my full self to work and I love working with a very diverse team. I hope to carry this kind of inclusive culture wherever I lead.
How do you think about continuing to hire and support a diverse team? Are there initiatives that you’ve been able to start or things you’ve pushed for?
The past couple of months have been really eye-opening for me and I think everybody at Traject. We ask ourselves: What do we look like? How can we improve certain areas of diversity? How can we bring in more women for our engineering or technical roles? We also talk about the different ways that we define diversity, including diversity of experience. Do we index too much on education? Are there nontraditional ways that someone can gain the skills and experience that they need to be an A-Player in our company?
Beyond hiring, we’ve been thinking about how we can impact our broader community. We started a mentorship program with this program called WiCSE, Women in Computer Science and Engineering, a shadowing program where we partner with a university. Female engineering students shadow some of our engineers through an immersive nine-week program.
After the death of George Floyd and protests spread across the U.S., many ASG CEOs, myself included, wrote emails or Slack notes to our companies sharing that we stood behind the protests and were committed to diversity. We also recognized that some of our employees could be really distracted and struggling during work because of everything going on in the world. We took the time to acknowledge that and to make space if people wanted to talk. I have found it refreshing to be a part of a cohort of people who are so civic-minded and empathetic.
I have found it refreshing to be a part of a cohort of people who are so civic-minded and empathetic.
How has the Alpine Playbook informed your approach?
Everybody we hire is so critical. I’ve seen the impact when you have an A-Player and the effect that she can have on the business versus a B-Player or even a C-Player. I really encourage my team to spend a lot of time on recruiting and hiring. And they get it.
The deep dive approach to interviews has been incredibly helpful. I love trying to figure out just what motivates somebody, what they really care about, and then how these values show up in their experiences, successes, or failures. Framing the interview around motivations and following those questions helps us assess whether a person is a good fit for our company. I went through the process myself when I was interviewing for Alpine and I’ve found value in sitting on the other side and hearing the different responses. The process works.
We recently hired an engineering lead for our biggest brand and that brand has completely turned around in terms of the team’s energy and output. The amount of work they can get done in each sprint and their focus on quality has been incredible to watch.
We grew about 25 percent in 2019, which is quite good. Our most recent brand acquisition closed in November and we just closed another tech acquisition two weeks ago. We also have two companies in the pipeline which could bring a lot of scale to our company.
The other thing I’m really focusing on is getting growth back after setbacks from COVID-19. Our clients are mostly digital agencies who serve small businesses. They were impacted by the pandemic so we were impacted. As they start to come back, we’re supporting them in growing and thriving again. Whether we’re providing them with marketing materials, resources, webinars, or a different product feature, there’s a lot we can do to help.
We’re building a best in class marketing software platform for digital agencies and marketers. If you were to ask me a year ago if I could have predicted that this is where I would be right now, I would have said: “This is everything that I would have wanted plus some.
If you were to ask me a year ago if I could have predicted that this is where I would be right now, I would have said: “This is everything that I would have wanted plus some.