A private equity hunter steps out of the game

  • Gull will miss the deal ‘hunt,’ ‘high caliber’ people
  • Succeeded by Jeffrey Akers
  • Reflects on ever-evolving market

Ask dealmakers who are leaving the business what they’ll miss most, and they’ll sometimes tell you that it’s the thrill of the hunt.

It’s an apt metaphor for the kind of business that pits intelligent, aggressive people against each other for limited assets.

Jason Gull, the head of secondaries at Adams Street Partners, recently told me he was happy to be leaving the industry, retiring after some 20 years in the private equity secondaries business. He plans to spend more time with family, making up for all those hours on planes and in hotels instead of at home.

Gull, 46, is young enough to still get some prime fathering time in — he has two kids in college and two in high school. He is moving the family to Park City, Utah, from the Chicago area and plans to fill his life with outdoor activities.

When I asked what he’ll miss about private equity, he, like other dealmakers I’ve talked with as they were ending their careers, talked about the hunt.

“There is a charge and excitement about the hunt and the deal and reinventing yourself,” Gull says. Chasing deals and interacting with the kind of “high-caliber” people the industry attracts are what he’ll miss most.

What did he mean by “reinventing” himself?

“That soul-stretching experience, and the humility required, and the strategy and forward thinking and thought process around, ‘what’s happening with the market and where’s it going and how do we best position ourselves for the future,’” Gull says.

This is what he says is a key for successful organizations — including Adams Street: Always question how things are done. “You have to often say, ‘we’ve been doing this in the past; we have to do it in a different way,’” he says. “You have to throw ego out the window to be able to do that. There’s a certain humility in reinventing yourself.”

Building a team — and AUM

Gull, who will transition out of the firm through year’s end, is being succeeded by Jeffrey Akers, who has been at Adams Street since 2006.

Adams Street has been making secondary investments since 1986. But when Gull joined in 2004, he was the firm’s first full-time employee dedicated to secondaries. Prior to Adams Street he worked at secondary shop Landmark Partners.

Under his leadership, Adams Street’s secondary group grew to 13, with a little more than $5 billion of secondary assets under management.

Over that time the secondary market evolved from a refuge of underperforming funds to its important role today as a liquidity tool for LPs. “The quality of deals is much higher than it used to be 18 years ago,” he says. “There’s a need for more precision, greater specialization or higher industry knowledge.”

This is also part of what he meant by reinvention. Something that surprised him over his career was “how quickly markets evolve and grow, and how important it is that organizations reinvent themselves often, and prospectively. And that’s a challenge.”

Emerging dealmakers need mentors

Gull advises young dealmakers-in-training to find mentors, people they’d like to emulate. “What do they do, what sets them apart, what makes them different? Make sure you identify who your mentors are and work for them,” he said.

Mentoring relationships, he said, don’t just happen. Emerging dealmakers must work hard to find and secure those connections. “Networking is critically important,” he said.

Early in his career Gull found his own mentor: Robert Shanfield, a partner at Landmark. “I worked most closely with him in the early days, learned a lot, and appreciated that he took the time to mentor me,” Gull said.

One of Gull’s sons attends the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has been talking about potential careers. Would Gull be happy if his son pursued PE? “I’d be thrilled if he were interested and found opportunity in this industry,” Gull said. “It’s a great training ground.”

And not just good training for a career in finance. “Analysis, building business models, strategy, teams, what works, what doesn’t: You’re exposed to so many different things. … It’s a great training ground for lots of broadly applicable skill sets and challenges,” he said.

Is this really it for him or does he expect to feel the itch for the hunt again? He said he could see himself pursuing something entrepreneurial and related to investments down the line. But he’s not thinking that far ahead.

“It’s tough to have a life that’s fully in balance,” he said. “And after almost 20 years being in the business, the opportunity to reallocate my time to those priorities that matter most — family, church, service opportunities, personal development — [I’m] truly grateful I have the opportunity to be able to make that choice.”

Action Item: Learn more about Adams Street’s secondary program here: www.adamsstreetpartners.com/dedicated-strategies/secondary/

Photo of Jason Gull courtesy of Adams Street.