We believe in People First. So, as Part I of a series that will help you get to know the people at our firm, it is our pleasure to introduce the first person at Alpine, our founder, Graham Weaver. Nineteen years ago, Graham started Alpine Investors in his dorm room at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Around the table of a local pizza joint in SF, he assembled a team of founding partners, and Alpine took flight. Here’s a window into how Graham built the firm and created an outstanding people-first culture from the very beginning.
Why did you start Alpine?
I started Alpine for two reasons. First, I love the private equity business, but I didn’t like the Wall Street culture I experienced firsthand early in my career, so I wanted to build a firm where I loved coming to work every day, and where the people who joined Alpine would love coming to work too. I also wanted to build a firm that was really focused on building enduring, purpose driven companies, instead of just “doing deals,” which seemed to be the prevailing Wall Street mentality.
To that end, the most important thing I did, and we continue to do, is hire people who share a common set of core values. For the first 15 years, nearly the whole team came from outside of finance because I figured it was easier to teach people the private equity business than it was to change core values. It takes tremendous focus and energy to build a firm which retains great people and I’ve found the key to success is enabling and empowering people to develop and grow their careers while at Alpine, so ideally they can spend their entire careers with us.
The second reason I started Alpine was to win. If I’m going to spend my entire life doing something, I want to be the best in the world. I’ve always had that drive, and I want to be around people who share a similar intensity to win. For Alpine, we quantify winning as achieving 3x on every fund. This goal is difficult to achieve, but we are excited to see that every Alpine fund has seen improved performance from the last, and we are well on our way to hitting our goal.
What challenges do you face?
Business is competitive and it continues to get more competitive every year. We have three potential tailwinds to offset the headwind of competition: improving our team, our processes and our strategy. We’ve institutionalized practices that ensure that we’re consistently improving on all three levers at a rapid rate.
What has given you the most fulfillment in your career?
Without question it’s working with exceptional people. I’m a big believer that you become the people you spend the most time with. At Alpine, we have the wonderful luxury of choosing these amazing people and I’m very grateful for that. We get to pick the companies, managers, executives, Alpine team members and investors with whom we work. Nothing is more important than the investments you make in people, and we continue to get better and better at attracting and inspiring the best and brightest.
What keeps you motivated through the ups and downs of running a business?
I feel lucky to work with smart, humble, and driven individuals. It is really amazing how simple and wonderful life becomes when you surround yourself with exceptional people who share common values. For example, for a decade I served on a board with Mike Duran, Matt McKissock, and other executives at McKissock. We had good times and bad, at one point we even walked away from an offer to sell McKissock four months before Lehman declared bankruptcy — and we felt pretty stupid at the time! Ultimately, McKissock was a great outcome and huge success. Through the ups and downs, we always had such a high degree of respect for one another, and complete trust in each other’s capabilities. It was a great partnership, and we genuinely enjoyed each other, which made all the time we spent together never really feel like work.
What qualities do you particularly value in people you work with?
I really value people who have a white hot intensity for what they do, and an innate drive to be exceptional. I am wired this way and it gives me so much energy to be with others who are similarly wired.
I also find humility endearing. One of my professors and mentors, Irv Grousbeck is a great example. He has been the co-founder or lead board member of two multi-billion dollar businesses, and one of the most influential professors in the history of Stanford Business School. Yet, when you spend time with Irv, he has a way of making you feel like the most important person in the world. The conversation is about you, not him. He is an exceptionally good listener and genuinely has an interest in his colleagues and students.
Integrity is incredibly important. To me, it means that you will do what you say whether it’s convenient or not, and that you do the right thing, even if nobody is watching.
Who has had the biggest influence in your life and/or work?
This question is really difficult. I’m a voracious reader. I try to pick up traits and ideas from entrepreneurs, investors, leaders, authors, teachers and even spiritual gurus. Of them all, I think Irv Grousbeck, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Sam Walton have had the biggest influence on me. Each of these people have shaped me not just by their ideas, but by who they are as human beings. They used the power of focus and inspired leadership to build and support purpose-driven companies and that’s been a huge source of inspiration.
Where have you failed, and what did you learn?
I started Alpine when I was 28. I was long on ambition, and short on experience. I made a number of mistakes in our first fund, and working through it was painful and very humbling.
Through it, we learned the important lesson that we didn’t have to make all the mistakes ourselves, and we could learn from standing on the shoulders of giants. We recognized the need to develop a faster and more efficient way to improve, so we adopted the principles of Lean Manufacturing. Every quarter, we identify 1-3 key elements of our business that need improving and we assign a team to dig in and develop a solution. We look internally and externally for best practices; there are no sacred cows. In the past five years alone, we have completed 70 continuous improvement projects on processes ranging from hiring CEOs first and purchasing companies second, to developing a CEO-in-Training program, to completely revamping our sourcing function. These adjustments and improvements fuel our success and have a lasting impact on Alpine.
What are your quirks?
Oh my… How long do I have to answer this? I am obsessive about sleep. Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” When I’m well rested, I feel like there is literally nothing I can’t do. Back in college, so many people saw lack of sleep as a badge of honor, while I tried to get 9-10 hours a night. It makes a huge difference, which is why I am still a little obsessive/compulsive when it comes to sleep. I also work out daily, and often years pass in which I don’t miss a single day. With respect to how I spend my time, I get extremely anxious when I feel like it’s being wasted, to the point of being phobic. When I’m sitting through a presentation with a longwinded speaker, I can’t help but think about all the productive things I could be doing, and sometimes I literally start sweating.