Catching up with Suzanne Yoon: Founding Kinzie Capital, backing digital innovation and controlling her destiny

The Chicago PE firm Yoon founded has invested in Chelsea Lighting and Colony Display.

Every spring, the editorial teams at PE Hub and Buyouts profile 10 outstanding women in private equity. Over the years, we’ve featured 60 women dealmakers. This summer, we’re catching up with some of them to see where they are now.

When we featured Suzanne Yoon back in 2016, she was the managing director of transaction development at Versa Capital. The next year, Yoon went on to found Kinzie Capital Partners, a Chicago-based PE firm that invests in lower-mid-market companies in the manufactured products, business services and consumer industries. In 2020, Kinzie invested in Chelsea Lighting, and in 2019, Kinzie acquired Colony Display.

While the volume of women in private equity is increasing slowly but surely, the number who are firm founders is still low. We asked Yoon to outline the path she took and share her advice for others who may want to follow in her footsteps.

How did you become interested in private equity? 

It was Pretty Woman and Wall Street. Those were my first two exposures, having come from an immigrant family. I’m a product of 1980s and 1990s movies, so the first time I heard about the concept of private equity was in Pretty Woman. Richard Gere’s character, looking back, that’s what he did. Then I also grew up and had friends whose fathers were CEOs. I was always interested in my own financial independence. And I knew if I went to Wall Street or banking, that was a path. So, in a lot of ways, I kind of fell into private equity, and I was exposed to and fell in love with the buy side of private equity when I started working at ABN AMRO Bank.

Who were your mentors? 

Private equity is an apprentice business. I have since had many great mentors and executives who have had an enormous impact on my career and who I am today. Some of them are actually on my board and work with me today. My entire advisory board has been amazing for me, including Norm Bobins, Chris McGowan, Linda Myers, Marc Simon, Rebecca Balyasny, and then even Peter Schwab. He is my partner today, but I used to work for Peter 20 years ago at EY. He has always inspired me because he’s been able to build world-class teams several times in his career, and we are really fortunate to have him every day at the firm.

What inspired you to start your own PE firm?

I always had a desire to control my own destiny, and I saw an opportunity, particularly for lower-mid-market companies in the Midwest, to bring technology advancement and digital innovation to help them continue to grow. And then I found the right partners, my co-founder David Namkung, and his company that he also founded, Clarity Partners, to support my investment thesis.

Hollie Haynes (Luminate Capital), Adele Oliva (1315 Capital) and Tiffany Kosch (CenterGate Capital): they were three women that I saw start firms before I did in the buyout and growth space, and I really respect all of them. Just seeing them start their own firms made me feel a little more emboldened too.

What is your investment thesis?

David and I decided that, because we’re a bunch of nerds, it would be great to be able to showcase our investment thesis in a simple formula. We put the formula together, brainstormed it and wrote it out. We actually had a friend with a PhD in mathematics validate that we wrote it correctly. He made one small tweak, and then we trademarked it. Our investment thesis is around bringing value creation to our companies with a focus on operational excellence, but bringing digital and technology to those companies. The formula is: accelerated value creation is a function of capital, plus operational excellence, compounded by technology.

What investment are you most proud of? 

For us to date, it was our first platform investment: Colony Display. It was a big milestone for our team, and it has done exceptionally well. We had the benefit of partnering with a young but innovative and hungry management team, which aligns well with our culture. It allowed us to showcase our investment thesis and our culture, and how that really translated into returns. Colony has a lot of momentum and is poised for continued, sustainable growth. They’ve consolidated locations into a larger facility, have done an excellent job integrating an add-on acquisition last year, and have overcome the various disruptions and labor shortages of the last couple of years.

How does technology help lower-mid-market companies unlock value?

Technology is at the heart of our value creation strategy. Today, operational excellence requires technology innovation, and we have a strategic partnership with a management consulting and technology consulting firm that gives our portfolio companies access to technology support and implementation that they normally would not have access to. We are primarily focused on investing in and utilizing technology to reduce risk. That includes everything from cybersecurity implementation and training to IT infrastructure and employee tracking. The second is to eliminate inefficiencies. We’re using things like data analytics, reporting, artificial intelligence, and we are looking and assessing enterprise systems, systems integration, and process automation. The last is digital innovation. That includes making sure companies are able to scale by putting in things like cloud-based systems, expanding their digital presence and enhancing the branding website and social media.

How do you characterize Kinzie’s company culture? 

Our six key tenants are: collaboration, connection, diligence, diversity, innovation and integrity. Our culture centers around people: our employees, the community, our partners, all of our relationships, and how we work together, respectively, is something that is core at Kinzie. We also have a dedicated position in fostering culture at our organization, a head of culture and engagement, and she helps manage our community engagement program, employee wellness program, and helps us achieve our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. It creates more of a welcoming environment where people want to be in the office, and I hope that continues.

How has the role of women in private equity evolved?

The one great thing is there are more female founders; there were none 20 years ago. Even though it is a smaller group of women, at least there are more. We still have a long way to go, but I think private equity is starting to recognize that gender diversity on a board is accretive to returns. If anything has improved, it’s the actual dialogue around what we do to attract and retain more women to the deal world. I think it’s becoming more sincere than it was. I also think culture is important, not just for women but for everyone. Having things like maternity leave policies that didn’t exist at most private equity firms a decade ago is really important.

What’s your advice for those who want to start their own firms? 

Starting a firm is a family affair, not just for you, but for all the people that come work with you: your partners, your team. Everybody is all hands on deck. You become accountable for a lot of things, including all of your people: your team, your partners, and your entire family. There is an enormous amount of risk involved, especially if you are walking away from a very stable or substantial high paying job. It takes courage to jump off a cliff, and that’s how I felt when I started Kinzie. But you have to have confidence in your abilities and decisions.