Max Jackson, Investment Manager in ECI’s Commercial Team, discusses his round-the-world route into private equity, seeing investments through from strategy days to successful exits and why he memorised strings of numbers as a child.
Q: How did you move from an engineering degree into private equity?
I chose engineering at university as I had always enjoyed problem-solving and being hands-on, but after a couple of engineering summer placements I found myself wanting more variety in the day-to-day work I was doing, which made consulting appeal. I started in operational improvement at Newton Europe post-university, where as well as making recommendations to businesses we also helped implement them – which was a part of the job I really enjoyed. I then moved over to Melbourne, with my Australian now-wife, where my focus shifted more to strategy. This gave more exposure to senior management and their decision making, but I was missing the ability to see the impact you’re having, and how the decisions that are made play out.
This made private equity a natural fit, as we work with management teams over a period of years, and are accountable for the decisions we collectively make along the way. I also feel that the level of impact you are able have as an individual is higher.
And since I joined ECI in 2018, they’ve been supportive in helping me broaden my experience, for example through a secondment to OC&C and becoming a CFA charter holder. This has given me a more rounded skillset for value creation and the chance to play more of a role in new deals.
Q: Was that part of the reason you wanted to join ECI initially?
One of the main reasons was actually the Commercial Team role itself – it’s fairly unique to have the opportunity to split my time between working on transactions, with all the excitement that comes from a competitive process, and value creation, where I can leverage my strategy and ops background, work with management teams long-term and support their businesses’ growth, which is hugely rewarding.
Another reason was that I had friends in the private equity industry, and so was able to do some informal referencing before I applied, and I only heard positive things back from them on ECI. A great reputation and track record, but also the team being particularly low-ego and collaborative.
Q: What are some of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on?
I always really enjoy the first strategy day we run with a management team after an investment. Here we share learnings from the deal process and collectively agree the strategic priorities for the business over the coming years. These are easily some of the most impactful and high value days we have, as they set the trajectory for the whole investment period.
A great example was with CPOMS, the provider of cloud-based safeguarding solutions to schools. At the initial strategy day back in 2018 two of the topics we discussed were internationalisation and how we could use data to support organic growth. This led to a follow-on piece of work around international strategy and their ultimate move into North America which became a key part of the story at exit, when they were acquired by the US leading provider of school safety solutions, Raptor Technologies.
On the data side, we built CPOMS a machine learning model to predict which UK schools would be most likely to become customers in the future, based on the characteristics of existing customers. This generated a prioritised list of schools to target and helped support their high organic growth. So, from quite high-level strategic discussions to hands-on support, it was amazing to watch the business grow and deliver on all those objectives we agreed together at the very start.
Q: How is the use of advanced analytics and data visualisation by private equity firms changing?
I think whichever industry you look at the amount of data being generated and analysed is growing exponentially. AI and machine learning are becoming ubiquitous – not just in technology companies, but anyone looking to make better, quicker, and more informed decisions.
It is becoming more of a focus for our portfolio companies too and is increasingly an area management teams are looking for our support with, whether that is helping with building out an internal team, introducing the right advisors or actually creating advanced analytics models to support with decision making.
We are seeing a growing number of use cases for driving value through AI and machine learning. I recently hosted the ECI Unlocked: Data Forum, where we brought together data leads from across the portfolio to network with like-minded professionals and share their experiences and best practice around data, analytics and AI. We heard from three portfolio companies on the recent work they had been doing in lead scoring, natural language processing and building a data team from scratch in 100 days – no mean feat!
Q: What advice would you give to people who want to move into the world of private equity?
Be proactive, both in terms of building a network and building your understanding of the industry. A quick coffee with someone is invaluable in getting up the learning curve quickly and people are usually happy to help.
And be patient. Many private equity firms are small and have low churn, so a bit of patience can help with being in the right place at the right time when a role comes up.
Q: Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
Hopefully a Partner in the commercial team! There’s a long tenure at ECI – the average for Partners is 15 years – and I think that reflects that it’s a great place to be. The work we do is interesting and rewarding, and there is a fantastic culture – so hopefully, I’ll be around for a while.
Quick Fire with Max:
Have you and your twin ever tried to communicate telepathically?
No, but we were asked this so often growing up that we memorised a string of numbers to trick people into thinking we could.
What is the first thing you plan when you see a sunny weekend?
It’s now probably a cycle with friends, rather than a long afternoon in the beer garden.
What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
For a wedding present, a friend had a miniature model of the place I got engaged made into a living terrarium – it’s a sealed ecosystem so I haven’t had to water it and it is still alive two years on!
What’s your favourite city in the world?
Milan – it’s where my mum is from and so I have a lot of good memories from there growing up.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I had a baby recently and I’m currently reading “The Baby Sleep Solution” by Lucy Wolfe. No sign of it working yet, but I’m hopeful it will soon!