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Founders: What to Look for When Seeking a Partner


As a founder, you’ve been with your company since Day 1. You’ve survived the grueling early years, assumed myriad risks, and grown your business to profitability.

Whitney Krutulis, Sterling Partners

When it comes time to find an investor or buyer, don’t underestimate the value of your knowledge and experience.

In fact, many investors prefer to work with founder-led businesses. As you evaluate potential investors or successors, it’s important to cast a critical eye.

Sterling Partners is a private equity firm based in Chicago with a 30-year history of partnering with founders of businesses. Sterling focuses on healthcare services and business services (as part of its middle market growth strategy) and education (as part of its Education Opportunity Fund). We spoke with the firm’s Director of Business Development, Whitney Krutulis, to find out which considerations founders should have top-of-mind when evaluating potential partners.


1. Seek a partner who appreciates entrepreneurship.

Align yourself with investors who appreciate just how much hard work and vision is necessary to conceive and grow a successful business.

“Because Sterling was founded by entrepreneurs, we have a unique appreciation for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into starting and operating a business,” says Krutulis. “Our entrepreneurial roots have very much influenced our culture, the types of people we look to partner with, and our general approach to investing.”

For example, Sterling Partners recently invested in DBi Services, a global leader in infrastructure services and maintenance founded in 1978 by brothers Paul and Neal DeAngelo.

While Sterling was drawn to DBi for its 38-year growth story, DBi will look to Sterling to enable the company to invest in more resources, build upon its position as a market leader, offer additional career development and job stability to employees, and further support its customers in the U.S. and abroad.

“Having a like-minded partner who shares your entrepreneurial spirit and outlook is key for a harmonious relationship,” says Krutulis.

2. Find a partner who is interested in your company’s history and evolution.

As a founder, you are your business’ best storyteller.

Seek to partner with buyers or investors who are interested in hearing about all aspects of your company’s growth, not just revenue growth. No matter if the business has been around for 5 or 35 years, it’s important that your new buyer or investor shows an interest in how your company has developed over time. After all, you and your partner will write the next chapter of the story together.

“For founders, their business is their baby, and they often have their hand in several, if not all, aspects of the business,” says Krutulis. “We look for founders who want to continue on with the business, allowing the company to maintain the original vision, and whose thoughts around growth strategies align with ours.”

3. Look for a partner with a broad network.

As a founder, you may be protective over your employees, and that’s understandable. Seek out a partner who understands your team dynamics, but who also can bring an outside perspective and a broad network of relationships to fill important roles.

“We have discussions with founders early on in the sale process to understand where they believe the gaps are within the management ranks and what they would like their board of directors to look like,” says Krutulis. Sterling Partners has a specific program to build independent executive boards for each of its portfolio companies. “The specific talent needs vary with every business.”

Your investor/buyer should also help you think to the future. “We want to build a team for where the business will be in three, five, seven years, rather than where it is at the time of the deal closing,” says Krutulis.

Finding a new CEO to carry on their legacy was one of the major initiatives the founders of DBi Services needed help with from a potential partner. Sterling worked with founders Paul and Neal DeAngelo to find and interview candidates who not only could do the job, but who understood from a cultural perspective what the brothers had built and whose vision for growth aligned with the company’s mission.

Together, Sterling and the DeAngelo brothers found that unique combination in Roger Zino, an experienced, energetic chief executive with a proven track record of success. “I am positive that Roger and our team will be tremendously successful in dramatically increasing the size of DBi by investing in our people which will provide continued career opportunities for current and new employees, as well as investing in leading processes and technologies to strengthen our strong customer relationships,” says DBi Founder Paul DeAngelo.


If you’re a founder who has put everything on the line to make your business successful, it’s critical that you choose to transact with a partner who understands and respects that sacrifice. Seek out those who will honor the business’ legacy in the transition or investment process — and if you can’t get a good read on them, ask to speak with a founder/owner they’ve worked with in the past.



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