The 40th Anniversary of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) in Cleveland was celebrated this past fall. This monumental milestone provided the perfect opportunity to recognize top deal-makers in the area, including our very own Sean Dorsey.
As a prominent member and past speaker, Sean was selected to sit down for an in-depth spotlight interview. He candidly speaks about starting his own company, League Park Advisors, named as a nod to his Cleveland roots, and the lessons he has learned throughout his 30+ years in the business.
Full-length ACG Spotlight Interview
Click the link below to watch the full video or skip past the video to read the interview transcript.
Interview Transcript between Nicholas Cwikla and Sean Dorsey of League Park Advisors.
Nicholas (00:04): Well, Sean, thank you so much for joining us for ACG’s 40th-anniversary celebration. You’ve had an amazing career spanning multiple professions, starting out as a lawyer at Baker Hostetler, and then senior managing director at National City Corp., And most recently being in investing and leading League Park Advisor. So, thank you so much for joining us. Over the course of your career, I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to work on many different transactions with many businesses, is there one that sticks out in your mind as being most memorable?
Sean (00:38): Well, I would say the one I’m working on right now, League Park. Starting a little investment bank at the time in 2010 after the Great Recession was maybe questionable at the time. Did the world need another middle-market M&A shop? And I had spent all this time at that point, 25 plus years at Baker, as you mentioned McDonald and Company, wonderful period, KeyBank, and then National City. Lots of experience and I had this idea that service leadership was sort of something that I felt passionate about, and I felt that it was the right way to run an investment bank and I was excited to see how that would go. And what I mean by that is putting the client first, serving someone, really being sort of front and center caring for that person and in addition, though, that person doesn’t know where they’re going, right? They need an expert guy. They haven’t done this before, typically, so how do you combine that concept of service leadership and really be outcomes-oriented at the end? I thought it was a great opportunity to do that and now 12 years later and lots of deals and it’s been fantastic in that regard, and it’s led me to lots of different other people and other things. Having the ability to work with Wayne Twardokus for all these years, or Alan Jaffa and Jonathan Ives on Safeguard Capital or Rick Bunka on Park North, or Jason Farro at Lighthouse Insurance Group. I can go on and on, Brett Jones with Woodhill Plating. All these people have been fabulous in my life. So, it’s been my number one thing. It combined my deal interests, but also the idea of building something and yeah, I think it’s my most memorable thing.
Nicholas (02:40): Yeah. That’s great. So, your career and the deals you work on, I’m sure are not a straight line, I’m sure there’s ups and downs. What’s one of the biggest obstacles you faced in your career and how does that shape your perspective on deals or on life in general?
Sean (02:57): The biggest obstacle is always the market. When I first got into this business in the eighties financing was a big deal. Think about interest rates at 15%, and very little credit available. So, a lot of your time was spent thinking about how to finance a business. So, structure financing, and that’s how I ended up getting into investment banking through structure and real estate financing and I learned a lot of that at Baker Hostetler. So, that was the thing you had to learn. And then sort of in the nineties, the public equity business became a big deal and we were able to take mid-market companies public through our McDonald franchise, but you didn’t have to know how to do that and we took companies public, like Coal National 1-800-CONTACTS, Buffalo Wild Wings, lots of names you’ve heard of names from Cleveland too but then that petered out with the dot.com bust. And then the 2000s ended up being more the time I would say for the banks. The banks started getting super strong and lending became sort of the thing to do and then the last 10 years have been private equity, right? Private equity barely existed 25 years ago, and now private equity is so critical to the deal business. So, it’s the changing markets that’s probably been the biggest obstacle.
Nicholas (04:29): Being able to adjust and pivot.
Sean (04:30): And give the right advice to your client so your client doesn’t do this every day. So, they’ve heard that it’s time to go public back in 2002. A lot of companies want to go public, well, the time had passed, right? Or bank debt was very easy to come by and it’s actually become a lot more disciplined since the 2008, 2009 downturn. So again, adapting to the markets and being up to date on that and not just focusing on what you’re doing today is probably the most critical aspect of it.
Nicholas (05:05): What’s one thing that you would do differently in your career if you had the chance? Or alternatively, what’s one thing you would never change, even if you could?
Sean (05:12): I’ve enjoyed the entrepreneurship, I’ve enjoyed the building, and I think a lot of people in the deal business end up just focusing deal to deal to deal and I love that too, but I wish I had thought about building a business like at National City. National City was the beginning of the real building for me. I got a blank slate, they said go build a business, and boy, it was within seven years we had 40 people and six, seven offices, worked really hand and glove at the bank. We really enjoyed it, and I had another chance at Lake Park, and then Lake Park spawned all these other businesses, and I would say they have not all gone well but as a whole, it’s been super, super fantastic. It’s been rewarding, it’s been personally interesting, and I wish I had gotten started taking those risks earlier in my career. I think you noted that lawyers tend not to be as risk-oriented and I think I just wish I had gotten started sooner.
Nicholas (06:19): So, playing off that point, lawyers are historically not very, very risk-oriented and I’m curious if there was a point or how you got over that risk aversion in making the leap to do it on your own.
Sean (06:34): Well, I had the good fortune of having some really great mentors; Al Adams, we talked about, fantastic, smart guy. Bob Markey John Gehrlein Jim Griswold I can go on and on. Lots of fantastic people and a lot of my contemporaries, my colleagues were fantastic, they went on to do wonderful things too. So, it wasn’t like we were just lawyers in that regard. We were really business counselors and I think I’ve carried that out throughout my career, whether I’ve been a lawyer or investment banker. So, for me, largely I’m doing the same things. I’m just sitting in a slightly different place on the table. So, it was natural for me to take the risk, I guess, to get into investment banking because I feel like I just broadened out my career, I didn’t narrow it.
Nicholas (07:34): So, you mentioned some of your mentors, is there a particular piece of advice they gave you that carried you forward and that you’ve held onto as you worked your way through your career?
Sean (07:47): Well, I think sticking to it, working hard, being relentless is probably the number one thing you learn as a lawyer too, right? It’s–
Nicholas (07:58): Rabbit dog.
Sean (07:59): Sometimes it’s not particularly glamorous, but if you hang in there and you stick to it, you really have an incredible opportunity to learn a lot about business, about people about how things really happen and I would say that those mentors gave me the ability to do that very early on in my career. Al Adams would send me off to meetings and say good luck, or Bob Markey would tell me– I remember him saying to me– we were working on the sale of his family business, Markey Ryan Meats, and we were selling a business for Scripps Howard, and I had this big chunk of work on my plate and I said, “Bob, what do you want me to prioritize?” He says, “Well, I’m going to give you a different thought, what are you planning to do at 2:00 AM this morning?” And I said, “Well, originally I thought about sleeping”. He said, “Well, I guess I gave you a different idea, didn’t I?” So, sticking to it was a big part of it.
Nicholas (09:08): That’s great. It’s so funny that’s your word of advice and career that came up in both of our prior interviews that folks giving people a long leash and pushing them into the next part of their career without micromanaging was them stepping up and giving them space to run their own business, and run their own deals and explore and fail and succeed as well.
Sean (09:35): Yeah, and I would say that what keeps you going is passion, right? If you don’t have passion in this business, if it’s just about the money, you cannot persist and today, back to the service leadership thing for me, I have a huge passion around it and what it really does is it motivates me. I’m still an inline investment banker after 40 years, which is, you know, and I love every bit of it. So, passion, doing something you really love doing, which is what I do. It’s been a big motivator.
Nicholas (10:09): Cleveland’s got a great business community here, and there’s great organizations like ACG Cleveland. How has Cleveland’s business community impacted your career and impacted the value that it provides to businesses?
Sean (10:23): The thing that hasn’t changed that much is the people, right? So, we have a very close-knit deal community here. We’ve mentioned a few people that we know commonly and over the years I’ve really built some wonderful relationships with people. Now, we might be at different organizations from time to time. Mergers, we can’t dictate how that all goes or when somebody wants to evolve their career to that different level or next level but the deal people in general, ACG, Association for Corporate Growth has really been a wonderful way for many of the deal people to stay in touch and to share old stories and to build new careers together and I think that it’s one of the absolute best things in my life, in my business life for sure and I think it’s one of the really unique things about Cleveland. The old saying is that most people in our business in Cleveland, they don’t really negative sell. They really try to positive sell themselves, which says a lot about the character of a lot of the people in the business.
Nicholas (11:34): So, outside of your professional career, you’ve dedicated a lot of time to charitable work, is there a particular charity that sticks out in your mind, or that’s your favorite?
Sean (11:44): Well, it changes over time, but my big thing is, again, get back to this passion thing, I like to work with people who are super passionate about what they’re doing. So, my wife as an example is very passionate about animals, and we’re very involved in the rescue village. There’s a gentleman by the name of Richard Clarke who started St. Martin de Porres, and now he’s doing partnership schools and this guy is very, very passionate about what he does. And so, I find myself wanting to support those kinds of people, and they kind of pull you in, you know. We’re so busy every day doing our thing. This is their thing and them being kind enough to let you to be part of theirs has really been a fantastic thing.
Nicholas (12:32): So, over the course of your career, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change and change in the Cleveland community. What do you think’s one of the biggest changes in the investment banking industry or the Cleveland community as it pertains to business?
Sean (12:45): Well, I would say that when I first got into business there was a very large community of large corporate people here. People who have been in business for a very long time in established institutions, and there are a few of those left but there’s not as many. Your firm alone, [Inaudible:00:13:07] Saters, been there forever in Columbus, but it hadn’t been here in Cleveland. So, there’s a lot of people in Cleveland who aren’t part of those organizations and are trying to figure out how they can add value and I would say that that’s the biggest change that unless you know when you’re coming into this market, fairly sophisticated market, if you can’t figure out how to add value, then it won’t work. Whereas maybe in the old days, you came here, you worked for an organization, and you sat in a chair. It was the organization’s responsibility to figure out how you added value, it wasn’t yours. I think people have learned how to compete nationally, just competing regionally isn’t probably enough anymore. You got to really think about your career, and your business career on a national basis today.
Nicholas (14:01): Do you have any advice for future young professionals or young professionals coming up in the business today?
Sean (14:08): Oh, well, you know, sure. Old guys always do, don’t they? I would say first, you got to be strong about it. It’s not an easy career choice, and especially in the deal business. So, you make some sacrifices and you’ve got to be able to hang in there with it. There’re some challenges to making a career in it. I tell people they should always think big. You can do more. Don’t limit yourself. The deal business is always changing, it’s always broadening, it’s always retracting. Your job is to figure out how you fit in that, and how you add value in it, and I just think thinking big is something I’ve learned to think about. I think the deal business generally is a team business and when you care about the people you work with, when you care about your clients, when you have a service orientation, not just to your client, but up and down, your boss, what it does is it, one, you provide a much better product, you do a much better job, and that’s important for you making a living but you also build these long-term relationships with people. I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of people in this community, in all these organizations. Think about it, Baker, McDonald, Key, National City. I mean, not many people have worked in that many places and I’ve tried to maintain wonderful relationships, whether they’re the CEO of Key, like Chris Gorman to, you know go on and on.
Nicholas (15:49): So, having worked across so many businesses, is there a common thread or theme that you can pull out as being a driving force that you would call a best practice?
Sean (15:59): Again, I would just reiterate my best practice is service leadership. It’s never staying focused on what’s the most important thing. The deal business can pull you in lots of different directions, and there’s all these ups and downs, ups and downs and if you ride the roller coaster, you can make yourself absolutely miserable. But if you stay focused on the prize and you say to yourself, I want the best outcome because I care about everybody, it really drives you to do the right things, and those right things, almost all the time lead to the best results.
Nicholas (16:43): All right, Sean, appreciate it so much.
Sean (16:44): Thank you.
Nicholas (16:45): Thank you so much.
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