Stout’s Stephanie Davies and Blake Otte discuss their longtime career relationship, networking strategies with private equity firms, trends for women in the field, and advice to their younger selves.

October 02, 2019

As Co-Heads of Sponsor Coverage, Stephanie Davies and Blake Otte have formed a power team at Stout. Every day they bring passion and purpose to their role of expanding the firm’s Investment Banking platform.

Blake and Stephanie’s finance trajectories each started with school in New York. Blake was educated at both Cornell and New York Universities, where she studied economics and wrote a thesis in public policy economics, graduating magna cum laude. Her career has spanned various roles within mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and debt, both in transactional and business development. Stephanie completed her M.B.A. at New York University with specializations in strategy, finance, and law. She then began her career in investment banking before switching over to private equity (PE). Both women are thriving in their careers, while balancing being mothers.

We sat down with Blake and Stephanie to talk about how this partnership began, how they stay organized with a chaotic schedule, and what they see for Stout’s Investment Banking group in the future.

What factored into the decision to approach Stout’s Sponsor Coverage opportunity as a team?

Blake: Stephanie and I had known each other professionally for about a decade and had also become close personal friends. It didn’t take long to figure out we were both interviewing for the same position at Stout. We quickly reached the conclusion that this was a golden opportunity to work together to grow a robust Sponsor Coverage platform. We both had experience building business development functions and had both worked in M&A on various sides of the fence. We knew and agreed exactly on how to get started.

Stephanie: Blake and I didn’t hesitate to position us as a team for what Stout had originally deemed a single lead role. We knew we worked well together, we enjoy each other’s company, and there’s implicit trust between us. We wrote and pitched our business plan, and Stout leadership was willing to flex their thinking on how to proceed. We couldn’t wait to hit the ground running!

What are your goals for the Sponsor Coverage platform at Stout?

Stephanie: The primary goal for any Sponsor Coverage team is to build strong, lasting relationships with PE professionals. We work every day to elevate the brand and increase visibility for Stout’s Investment Banking team. We want to make sure the financial community appreciates the volume of deal flow Stout is bringing to market and ensure we’re a go-to partner when a PE firm is ready to exit its platform.

Blake: We always want Stout to be top-of-mind for sell-side activity, debt, and business valuation in the sponsor community. We want to be a highly valued, trusted partner known for our deal flow, market intelligence, and ability to execute a tight process.

How do you collaborate with each other and the bankers?

Stephanie: The key to any successful relationship is communication. We operate as an interchangeable team. We speak multiple times a day and take time to plan. Whether we’re engaging with a banker or PE professional, they see a united front from both of us and always have access to the same information.

Blake: Integrating successfully with Stout’s Investment Banking team was a key aspect of our business plan. We knew we needed the industry bankers to trust and respect us to be successful. Our first action was to meet with each member of the team to discuss our knowledge and relationships throughout the PE community. We also wanted to understand and nurture the highly valued connections at the firm, which helped us focus our efforts.

There are thousands of PE firms in the U.S. How do you prioritize those you want to establish a relationship with?

Blake: Knowledge from our experience in the industry, knowledge we’ve gained from the bankers, and research all help us determine who we should target. Investment size criteria, industry overlap, and relationships are filters we use to prioritize. We ask “who has seen deals, knows our process, and is confident in how we handle ourselves.” Those are the people we know will hire us.

What are the hallmarks of a productive relationship between a PE firm and an investment banking platform? How do you add value?

Blake: Strong, two-way communication and candid, no-nonsense discussions with PE groups about how you can help each other is key. When I can focus my time and effort efficiently and have a legitimate shot at business because of proper guidance, I will go the extra mile.

Stephanie: Our value-add is individual attention and providing our PE relationships with a full picture of Stout’s deal flow. We become the point persons and open doors to our bankers when it’s appropriate and relevant. We drive efficiency for all stakeholders by keeping things centralized and organized. We’re accessible, we bring thoughtful, creative ideas to a process, and are easy to do business with.

How does Stout differentiate in a competitive, crowded market?

Blake: Stout is in a unique position – we’re not bulge bracket, but we’re bigger than a boutique. We’re bringing the best of both to bear on behalf of our clients – a robust middle market M&A practice with deep industry expertise and deal teams with strong, senior banking leadership from start to finish. It’s paying off – the market is gravitating to our remarkable growth story. Our transaction volume has more than doubled this year, and we have active deals ranging from $5 million to more than $100 million in EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization].

How do you define success in this profession?

Stephanie: Being visible in the market and known as a well-oiled machine with robust deal flow is success for us. Our personal brand and our ability to be accretive to a practice is also essential.

Networking is at the heart of a successful sponsor coverage model. How did you hone your networking skills? What advice do you have?

Blake: Networking is part art, part science. My education began at home, and through playing sports. Communication is at the center of it, but it’s not just about the words you speak, it’s also about picking up on cues and nuances of non-verbal communication. Pay attention to your surroundings. Keep your eyes open, be observant, and remember that sometimes the most important part of communication is listening – hone this skill because it matters most. However, you must follow up. Your word must be your law or else it’s meaningless. Remember and write down details that matter so you can follow through.

Stephanie: Networking is one of the most valuable things any professional can do for their career. I think of it as branding one’s self and the company they represent. You have to put yourself out there! It can be intimidating. At events, I typically start at the bar. There’s almost always a line upon arrival and that makes for a captive audience. It’s easy to start a conversation with the person standing next to you. Beyond the bar line, I typically I try to start a conversation one-on-one or join a group conversation of three or more people. Trying to break into a one-on-one conversation can be awkward at times, so I typically avoid this tactic.

Both of you reside in New York. What are your strategies for reaching the PE community in the Southern, Midwestern, and Western States?

Stephanie: The Sponsor Coverage team is wherever PE firms and deals are! Technology is great for connecting people, but nothing beats face-to-face meetings. In the beginning of this financial sponsor coverage journey, we focused on a Stout Investment Banking brand-awareness effort by networking at industry association events. Now that the market knows we’re a part of Stout and the unprecedented amount of deal flow we have to offer, we’re setting up city trips and booking one-on-one meeting times.

Blake: Our primary, secondary, and tertiary markets are based on PE hub locations. Geographically we’ve split the country for ease based on who has the better relationship or experience in that area, but we have trust and can be interchangeable, so we aren’t territorial. We’ve each witnessed situations where professionals have gotten protective or territorial, and it can be unprofessional or just erode the bottom line. We’re determined to avoid the typical pitfalls we saw growing up in the industry. Essential to achieving that is our mutual trust and rapport with each other.

Women and minorities are traditionally under-represented in the PE community. What has it been like working as a female in a traditionally male-dominated sector? What trends do you see for women working in this field? Do you see opportunities expanding?

Blake: When my career began, there weren’t many women in investment banking, let alone Latina women who were also mothers, like me. This has come with its own unique set of circumstances but with opportunity, as well. I’ve always been driven, but especially so when someone would suggest I wasn’t capable of something. Rather than follow the then-culturally traditional path of my South American mother, I pursued math and science. Early in my career, I attributed my success to growing up with three brothers and feeling comfortable with male audiences. I could play golf and hold my own doing more traditional male activities that kept me from being excluded. Thankfully, diversity has become more embraced in the last decade, both in spirit and in policy. Opportunities have expanded, and while women and minorities are still under-represented, we make up more of the investment banking and PE communities than ever before. At the end of the day, women account for more than half of consumer purchases, and Latinos are one of the fastest-growing populations in the country – there are a few PE groups that have a thesis around it.

Stephanie: Some days it’s hard, but the influence of women in this field is growing. There are plenty of audiences who haven’t wanted to take a woman seriously or didn’t want to think of a woman equally in skill or capacity, especially early in our careers. However, as people get to know us over time, these barriers have started coming down, and there’s a greater feeling of equality and inclusion.

You spend a good deal of time on the road throughout the year. How do you stay organized both personally and professionally? What tools do you use?

Stephanie: Traveling as much as we do is hard while sustaining a family, but organization, communication, and being understanding of others is key. We are so grateful for the support of our families because without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we love. Whether we’re at home or a thousand miles away, we make sure our husbands and our kids know they are our top priority, and that keeps our home front stronger than ever.

Blake: When it comes to the secrets of staying organized, advanced preparation and technology play a big role. In the office, a strong, customized CRM [customer relationship management] system is our holy grail. We have insights into each other’s lives with shared reminders and to do lists, which keeps us updated even when we aren’t necessarily communicating. To-do lists can sometimes be lost or forgotten, so physically scheduling time on the calendar for follow-up activities ensures they get done. We don’t only use technology with work, but it also keeps us organized at home. We try to automate just about everything we can. We have shared calendars with our husbands and group texts with caregivers. Facetime with my son at bedtime and before school is a given. We love what we do, and we are lucky to have found a structure that works for both of us and our families.

What advice would you give to your younger self starting out in this field?

Blake: Always be fearless and never be afraid to ask for what you want. I received great advice from a friend in the field when I really needed it, and every woman should hear it. I was a new mother and had just committed to return to work full-time. She sat me down and simply said, “Just go do it and be unapologetic.”

Stephanie: My advice is a reminder that not every day is easy, but it’s the difficult times that make you stronger and help you appreciate the good times. You’ll end up where you are supposed to be if you work hard, stay positive, and treat others well!

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