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An Interview with Sally Anne Hughes, M&A Entrepreneur

Sally Anne Hughes, MBA, CBI founded Hughes Klaiber in 2008. Hughes Klaiber is a mergers and acquisitions advisory firm based in New York City providing trusted advice to help entrepreneurs navigate the complex process to sell or buy a business. Sally Anne and her team bring a high level of experience and expertise, to help clients confidently navigate an important personal and financial transaction. Her career prior to founding Hughes Klaiber included ten years at Citigroup. She received an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida. After many years living in New York City, she and her husband now live in New Jersey with their two daughters.

  1. Tell us about your pre-M&A career and how it led you to doing this work?

I started my career in Florida with several advertising agencies. I loved learning about clients’ businesses and felt that business school was the logical next step. After receiving an MBA, I was hired by Citibank in New York City.  I worked there for ten years,  but really wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and to work with other entrepreneurs. Almost everyone in my family owns a business – we joke it’s only because we can’t work for anyone else. I considered a few different options, but ultimately went to work for a small business brokerage firm in New York City. I stayed there for a few years, and then started Hughes Klaiber in the summer of 2008.  Great timing! But I learned how to close deals in a tough environment, and that helps even today.

  1. What personal characteristics and strengths have supported your success in this industry?

Patience! I think I’m a pretty good listener, and I have a willingness to figure out what I don’t know. I also have a strong background in sales, marketing and finance, and they’re all important in this role.

  1. What is your greatest M&A accomplishment?

Helping business owners transition to new phases in their lives is a privilege and honor. I stay in touch with our clients, and many have become friends. It’s so rewarding to know that they’re in a good place after an exit. One of our clients recently sent me an email to say thank you again for helping him sell his business in 2019. To me, that feedback is more important and rewarding than the size or complexity of the deal.

  1. With regard to the majority of your engagements, do you work as a team or do you handle things on your own?

We’re a team of four. My colleague Julie Flakstad was a former client who has now worked with Hughes Klaiber for eight years. Chris Hupp had a career in consumer products before joining our team; and our multi-tasking analyst, Jake Beerli, graduated from the University of North Carolina two years ago.

  1. Do you just do M&A or do you provide other services – valuations, consulting, etc.?

Most of our work is sell-side M&A. We also do some buy-side work and select exit strategy consulting for clients who are looking to exit in the future.

  1. What is the biggest mistake you have made when working on a deal?

Early on, I took on some deals where the seller was not really ready to sell, or where the business had issues that should have been fixed before the business went on the market. In hindsight, I think it’s a common rookie mistake. I learned the hard way, unfortunately, by working on a few deals that did not close. We are much more careful now. Our biggest asset is our time, and it’s important to spend it wisely.

  1. What are the three most important qualities that you think a good M&A advisor needs to have?

#1 Resilience – the ability to overcome challenges, to pick things up, to push forward and find a solution that will work.  #2 Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s a seller, a buyer, a lawyer, or anyone else involved in the deal. #3 Ability to juggle – we’re constantly working on multiple priorities and many different aspects of business, from giving a new business webinar, writing a CIM, coaching clients, or negotiating net working capital.

  1. What is your most interesting deal that you are working on today?

We’re currently working with several consumer products businesses that are fortunate to be flourishing despite COVID. We just signed an engagement letter with a supplement and vitamin company that has grown significantly during the past two years, and earlier this year we sold a home fragrance brand that had grown as consumers were at home buying candles.

  1. How long have you been an M&A Source member and what do you get out of your membership?

Around ten years, (I think!) I joined IBBA in 2007, then once I earned my CBI and started working on larger deals, I joined M&A Source. It has consistently been a source of education and contacts. There are members I met years ago – like Jim Afinowich – whom I know I can still call for advice.

  1. As a seasoned M&A advisor, what changes and trends do you see on the horizon that will impact on M&A?

It’s been so amazing to see more women join this industry over the past several years, and also to see more women participating in all aspects of deals, not only as M&A advisors, but also as sellers, attorneys and buyers. Fifteen years ago, we literally never ran across women in buy-side roles. Now we see more women in private equity, in venture capital, as search funders, and in corporate development roles. I hope this is a trend that will continue.

  1. What advice would you give to new people entering the profession?

This is an amazing career! I feel so fortunate to have this role, and to work with my colleagues and clients. It’s creative, interesting, varied, challenging and rewarding. It’s also provided me with some flexibility while my children are young (they’re nine and ten) that I would not have had if I had continued my corporate banking career. The biggest challenge (by far!) is forgoing a regular or semi-regular paycheck and banking on deals closing. It can be nerve wracking at first, but you learn to manage it. I know that doing right by our clients and providing quality service will result in successful transactions.

  1. The M&A Industry has typically been comprised of men. Are there any special challenges or advantage that you experience as a woman in what may still be considered a “man’s world”. If so, how have/do you overcome the challenges and leverage the advantages to get deals done?

Even though the percentage of women in M&A is lower than in other industries, I wouldn’t consider this a “man’s world.”  I hope that women who may be considering entering this profession don’t think of it that way. Women can be very successful in this role.

But as far as challenges or advantages that I experience as a woman, we do work with many female entrepreneur clients. About half our clients at Hughes Klaiber have been women, which is high when you consider the percentage of overall businesses owned by women. I was a member of the Women Presidents Organization (WPO) for many years, and have built a strong, diverse and supportive network of female entrepreneurs and female business advisors.

But at the end of the day, I think most entrepreneurs hire an advisor whom they feel will be successful selling their business, and whom they think they will like working with. Maybe that person is a woman, or maybe not.

  1. Please tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with your M&A career?

I’m originally from England but I grew up on a sailing boat in the Mediterranean. I went to school in Gibraltar. Currently, my kids are swimmers and we spend a lot of time at the pool.  And I still love sailing and travelling, although of course that has been on hold due to COVID. As a business owner and a parent with kids home from school this past year, it’s been somewhat challenging to do anything other than manage work responsibilities and stay on top of kids’ schoolwork! But we did recently add a new member to our family — a Golden Retriever named Bandit. He has added to the general mayhem at home, but nothing beats happy kids playing with a happy puppy!

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