Leading Through Challenging Situations – Susan Black-Beth
From heading a family business, running franchising models, running a private equity firm, and being a mother to two, is there anything Susan Black-Beth can’t do? Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Susan’s relationship with business started at an early age and has been formative to her leadership style.
In this episode, Susan shares the value of having a robust and reliable network, how to overcome unforeseen challenges, her serendipitous relationship with COVID-19, and the importance of resiliency, authenticity, and vulnerability. With years of experience in multiple spheres of entrepreneurship, Susan explains how all these skills unexpectedly came together to help her through a life-changing family crisis. Finally, bringing this all together, we hear how a shift in perspective can help improve our outlook and allow us to lead ourselves and those who depend on us.
Key Points From This Episode:
- Susan’s experience with an entrepreneurial family.
- Susan and her sisters experience buying and building carwashes.
- Why Susan felt called to move away from the safety of the family business.
- How Susan overcame her limiting and self-doubting internal dialogue.
- Susan’s seven-year journey in private equity.
- The life lessons Susan has learned while overcoming challenges.
- What Susan learned about leadership from the most challenging days of COVID.
- Susan’s experiences with her son’s heart transplant journey.
- Susan’s relationship with resiliency and leadership.
- Most importantly, the power of gratitude and how it has helped Susan succeed.
[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builders podcast. Helping middle market professionals connect, grow, and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.
[00:00:21] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Branch Out podcast. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today we welcome Susan Black-Beth, a serial entrepreneur, investor, motivational speaker, and the chief operating officer for Avante Capital Partners. Susan shares a very personal and challenging story, the perspective it helped her gain and advice for how we can show up as the best versions of ourselves and lead through challenging situations. I hope you all enjoy.
[00:00:51] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.
[00:00:59] AD: Susan, welcome to the Branch Out Podcast. I’m excited about our conversation today.
[00:01:02] SBB: Me too. Thanks so much for having me.
[00:01:04] AD: So, why don’t we just start with having you share a little bit about yourself in your background and your journey? But before we jump in, this is not scripted, I didn’t tell you this. I want to actually bring this up a little bit. I want to talk to our listeners about how you and I know each other. And I only highlight this because of the power of networking and kind of staying in touch and knowing people. Susan and I actually crossed paths one time, years and years ago, on a deal. When I was in investment banking, we were shopping around a fairly sizable T Mobile dealer. And Susan and I met and I was on the sell side and we were showing the client, and we were in a management meeting. It’s funny, we crossed paths then.
And then years later, I saw some of your content on LinkedIn and was kind of really intrigued by you and your story and your journey and what you were doing, and reached back out and kind of restart that conversation. That led us to where we’re sitting here today. The reason I want to highlight that is, for listeners, understanding the value of having a network but also just keeping track of whom you know, and finding touch points, and finding ways to reengage previous people you’ve met within your network, can be a real value driver. And again, it leads us a little bit to where we’re at here today. So, share a little bit of your story, and then let’s take the conversation from there.
[00:02:12] SBB: Yeah. Well, it pulls up way before that meeting with the T Mobile group, that’s for sure. But my parents are the founders of the nation’s largest self-serve carwash chain. And so, I grew up in an entrepreneurial household. My mom was six months pregnant with me, three months pregnant with me, putting the roof on the very first carwash they ever built in 1976. So, literally, until I ultimately left in December of 2014, there was not a day of my life that the family business wasn’t a part of very active part of it. So, I started working when I was four years old. I worked every day after school, generally, in some capacity, every summer in the family business, and ultimately went to college, went to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. And I was 19. I was a sophomore, and my mom pulled my sister and me into a meeting. I have a sister who’s six years older than I am. And she said, “You know what, dad and I’ve been talking and we think it would be really great if the two of you bought a superwash and went into business together. My sister –
[00:03:18] AD: You’re 19 at the time?
[00:03:18] SBB: I was 19 at the time. I was a sophomore in college. My sister’s a practicing CPA. Let me just say she was less than excited about going into business with her 19-year-old sister, at that point in time, who had other things than running a business on her mind. But it was an unwritten rule of my parents that every member of their executive team, ultimately had to have an active ownership interest in at least one location, right?
So, I’ll share another of their kind of unwritten rules was, that we had to leave and go work somewhere else before we could come back into the family business. And so, my sister graduated and got her CPA, and she went and worked in the public accounting field for a good period of time before she came back into the family business. I knew I was going to the big city, which for me is Chicago, and I went to the big city and got another job working with a conference production company, and ultimately came back into the family business when my mom and dad decided to franchise the business. So, that was really the kind of the first realm of my true business experience was converting a licensing system, licensing business model into a franchise system.
[00:04:29] AD: But it’s crazy, that being a child in a family like that, that the value, the learning, everything your whole life must have been around entrepreneurship as a child growing up and that, when you look back at that time, what were your thoughts then? And how do you feel about kind of that experience now?
[00:04:43] SBB: Yeah, so back then, I was thinking what in the heck? Why would I want to own a business that’s three hours away from where I’m going to college, right? Ultimately, I ended up missing a lot of really good parties because I was up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which is where we owned our first facility, and we had to run a full turnaround on that business. Ultimately, the licensee who had it before us, his son ended up getting leukemia. And so, the company had an opportunity to help their family by buying that store back. And then my sister and I bought it. So, we ran a full turnaround on that business. It went on to have its best year business ever in its 13th year, which is not often what business cycles look like, that your best year is 13 years after you got started. But we had that store, ran the turnaround, and then we built a new store about 12 miles away.
So, I remember saying to my sister, at one point, when we redid the first store, I will never buy another rehab again. And it just comes with too much baggage. And then we built a brand-new store from the ground up. At the grand opening, somebody came in with a trailer and ripped the metal ribbing around your roof off. It’s called your mansard. They ripped it off and I looked at my sister and I was like I will never build new again. Well, any of the operators or entrepreneurs who may be listening know that those are kind of two major options to develop in your business. You either got to buy or make it better, or you got to build them. So ultimately, she and I were multi-unit franchisees together for about eight years, until my husband and I decided to start our family, and then I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and now I would never trade it.
[00:06:18] AD: That’s great. So, where did it go from there?
[00:06:21] SBB: Yeah. So, from there, I went back. I went work somewhere else after college. I still had my individual stores with my sister. And my dad approached me and said, “Hey, we want to franchise the business. But I want you to come back. I want you to lead it.” I said, “Dad, I don’t know anything about franchising. And really, that’s where I found my work family, which is in the franchise world. It’s where the depth of my experience is and it is where the people I choose to vacation with are at. It is where some of my best confidants are at and 20 years of concentrated franchise business model experience is amongst the very best of my, certainly of my career. But I would say of my life as well. I spent, let’s see, I went back to superwash when I was 23-ish, and I left when I was 37. So, after about 14 years, I was back in the family business working alongside my mom, my dad, my sister, and my dad’s younger brother. We just had some really great and amazing experiences.
But ultimately, I just didn’t feel like I was getting up every morning and using every ounce of my God-given talent to make a positive difference in somebody else’s life. And that’s what I had been taught to do my entire life. And so, I started thinking, look, I don’t want to be 50 looking back saying, “Oh, gee, I wish I would have.” Right? So, I started considering, like, what else would I do? And very frankly, Alex, a big question in my female mind was, “Is anybody going to want me?” All of the accolades and all of the awards and all of the pats on the back, that I’ve been very blessed to earn and to receive had all come under the safety of the family business umbrella. So, in my mind, I had never really had to elbow my way up a ladder or beat somebody out for the next job. I just hadn’t had that experience, and so I really questioned, what’s going to happen if I go out into the real world, and I’m not as good as everybody thinks I am. So, that was a major block for me. I had my two young children at the time and I didn’t know what was to be in it presented itself, which was pretty awesome.
[00:08:27] AD: I want to hear about it in a second. But tell me a little more about that and share a little more about the internal dialogue that sounds like might have been holding you back a little bit there. How did you process that? And how did you overcome it ultimately?
[00:08:37] SBB: Yeah, so I worked with a business coach for I don’t know, maybe six months or eight months. I remember very distinctly the day that I said, “What if nobody wants me?” And I finally emoted that.
[00:08:51] AD: You said it out loud. Saw the internal dialogue, and made it real, right?
[00:08:54] SBB: Right. I made it real, and I said it to somebody else, which meant I couldn’t go back. That’s really what I was thinking at that point. And ultimately, I had a business coach who helped me talk through that, and helped me understand that just because I had worked in a different environment, it didn’t mean that the on-the-job skills were any less valuable than somebody who came through a certain file and rank, right? So, that really helped. I struggled for about three and a half years, to be very honest about when to go, where to go, should I go. The fear of breaking away from the family business, and hurting the people I love the most in this world by leaving really, really weighed on me for a long time.
And then ultimately, here’s exactly how it went down. I was at a fireside chat with a friend of mine through the International Franchise Association. He was going to become the next chairman of the organization. We were literally by a fire and I said, “Man, why are you doing this?” I said, “Every one of my friends who’s ever been the chairman of this association has spent the next year of their life rebuilding their business” because it’s a very, very involved association, which I love. And he said, “Well, I’m going to launch this private equity fund.” Without even thinking, I said, “Man, what do I got to do to be a part of it?”
So, we started a real loose conversation that was probably in June-ish. We started a loose conversation back and forth every couple of weeks, just touching on some things. And then, through another company that I had started, I had the opportunity to see a deal that came my way, that I got a little excited about. I sent it off to my friend and I said, “Hey when you have your private equity fund, is this the type of deal you’d look at?” We chased that deal together with the intention that I would be the CEO of that business, and he will be the money. And ultimately, we went to a management presentation together, and he called me a couple of weeks later, and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “You know what, you don’t know me well enough to understand what I’m going to say next. I think the business is going to do fine. I really do. I’m just not passionate enough about it, that it’s what I want to do with the next five to seven years of my life. I really feel like I’m being called to do more.” I’ve already run an individual company, essentially, right? And he said, “Well, good, because I want you to come to join the fund.” I said, “Well, good. I have no idea what that means. I have no idea what that means.”
That was on a Thursday. We talked for about two, two, and a half hours that night. Halloween was on Friday. My husband and I had kind of kicked around some thoughts about it. I recovered from Halloween on Saturday. Let me just call a spade a spade, Alex. I recovered from Halloween on Saturday. And then on Sunday, both of my young children played ice hockey. I wrote my own job description at an ice hockey rink on Sunday night. I sent it off to my friend Monday morning. I drove back to the family business headquarters. I’ve always worked from home. I’ve worked from home since 2000. So, I drove back to the company headquarters. I trained the new franchisee at 10 o’clock. I went to lunch with my family at noon and called them into a meeting at two o’clock to tell him I thought I was leaving.
[00:11:50] AD: Wow.
[00:11:51] SBB: So, what had been such an internal struggle for three and a half years when the stars aligned, and the opportunity presented itself that I knew that I was waiting on, I didn’t know what it looked like, I just knew that when I saw it, I know it, and it was figured out in about four days.
[00:12:06] AD: It’s funny how that happens, right? The things we agonize over for so long can seem to solve themselves seemingly overnight once the right series of dynamics come together.
[00:12:14] SBB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that conversation and that four days ended up laying out the next seven years of my career.
[00:12:22] AD: All right, so seven more years. Walk us through that part.
[00:12:25] SBB: Yeah, so seven more years. In January of 2015, we held our first organizational meeting at our private equity shop to be a small private equity fund focused primarily on investing in franchise businesses or multi-unit location businesses. And we got started. We had a great initial team. I don’t know if you’ve ever done startup private equity, but you just basically need to spend a lot of time letting people know you’re in business, and what you’re looking for while you’re trying to figure out exactly the type of deal dynamics that are going to make sense for your fund.
So, I got to have the opportunity to ultimately be the chief operating officer of that fund to really build the culture, and define, what I called our defining characteristics. That was really, really important to me. We were a small team. I think we were maybe seven or eight at our peak size. But we typically kind of hung around that four or five number, so a very small shop. But it was really important to me on our defining characteristics, to be a good partner to our partners, no matter who the partner was in the sentence, right? Be a good partner to our partners. Number two, was, look, our industry is full of sharp elbows, but there will be none at our table.
[00:13:32] AD: I like that.
[00:13:34] SBB: And that was really, really critical to me, and it was critical to the culture. And even though I don’t work with most of the guys I worked with during that time, I’m close to all of them still. We stay in touch. I count them amongst friends, and it was a great, great ride. We ended up doing six different deals. Over the course of about five and a half years of that time, I had the opportunity to continue to kind of do my operator area, which was so fun to get to work alongside some management teams, who I also consider very, very good friends at this point in time. Some amazing teams, and clearly leading through COVID was a challenge. I don’t know that anybody felt ready for it, but I watched people level up in ways I didn’t know were possible.
[00:14:19] AD: So, I want to pick your brain in that one for a minute. A challenge that I don’t think anyone was ready for, I think is a really good way of saying it. I assume that many times throughout your career, you’ve seen challenges that you were faced with that you probably at the time, hit you, you didn’t feel ready for. I think like most of us, that’s probably a relatively common feeling from time to time. I guess, what are your life lessons around that? How are you looking at both COVID and more broadly speaking overcoming some of those challenges that maybe we don’t feel ready to tackle?
[00:14:47] SBB: Yeah, I think, for me, if you remember that Eminem song where he’s he says success is my only option, failure is not. That is really how I’ve approached most of my life, both personally and professionally. And so, I feel the same way about situations like COVID, where you just didn’t feel prepared for it. You have no other option, figure it out, right? Don’t come at me with your grievances, come at me with the way that we’re going to make it so people can continue to have jobs and can continue to feed their families. In some cases, there were a lot of jobs that were lost, literally overnight. We watched businesses that had certain kinds of differentiating propositions to the consumer overnight, that became their greatest liability.
[00:15:37] AD: You were in the multi-unit franchise business, which to me sounds a lot like restaurants might have been somewhere in there or businesses like that, that were the ones that most definitely were hurt during all of this, the whole – so any, maybe not specific companies, but any experience, anything that you learned kind of sitting front row to that?
[00:15:56] SBB: Yeah. I did, I really learned the different bonuses to the business model, right? The franchise business model during those really challenging times had its pros and cons, and the primary company owned had its pros and cons. I had two restaurant groups in each field. I had two that were primarily franchisee-owned, and I had two that were primarily company owned. And so, you really see the way that those different business models play out in situations like that. But it’s bringing a sense of calm, even if you’re screaming inside.
[00:16:27] AD: That’s hard. That’s leadership, though.
[00:16:29] SBB: It is leadership. Even when you go home at night and say to your family, your husband, your wife, your partner, I’m scared about what’s coming tomorrow. You got to fake it till you make it. Because you’ve got sometimes tens, hundreds, thousands of people counting on you to figure it out. But it’s also a time in my opinion, where we really, to the extent that there were any egos involved, you really had to check it at the door and be willing to speak to whoever would listen or share ideas with you. Because none of us had exactly the right answer. We were picking and choosing as we went with what we thought was best at the time. And I often say, “Look, I’m here to make decisions that are best for the most, and I make the best decision that I can at the time with the facts that I have.” But those facts constantly change, and it was never more frequent change than during COVID. I mean, all the way down to PPP, right? It was changing at midnight.
[00:17:30] AD: Daily, right? Or weekly, right? Do you ever have the fear that you’re going to make the wrong decision?
[00:17:34] SBB: Of course, especially where people are impacted, especially where people are impacted. It was the first time for me having grown up as an operator, right? I mean, I’ve started four companies in my life. I’ve worked in the family business, all of those things where you’re sitting there going, okay, at the end of the day, somebody’s going to tell their spouse that they don’t have a job anymore. It was the first time in my career that I wasn’t the person looking somebody directly in the eye reporting that news. So, as an operator, that was really, really hard for me to wear my investor hat, and to wear my board member hat, and not my operator hat, because I think my natural default is that I default to being an operator. I think that’s where my natural heart kind of lies.
[00:18:24] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a connection builders podcast.
[00:18:31] AD: Let me ask you then some of the overcoming the challenge, overcoming that you’re not ready for and I like the Eminem reference, and actually a very – I listened to a lot of Eminem.
[00:18:39] SSB: I didn’t knowyou to beat me out or what was that?
[00:18:43] AD: It’s funny because anyone who and everyone I assume has heard Eminem in one way or the other, well, controversial at times if you really listen to a lot of his music, a lot of rap in frankly, many different genres music, but specifically, Eminem’s music has a lot of self-empowerment built into it. A lot of my back’s against a wall, there’s nothing else I can do, but fight my way out of it, type mentality, and I think that that is what you’re describing. I think oftentimes, that is where we, as humans tend to perform pretty well, and those that can say, “Hey, I’m a dog backed in the corner, the only thing I can do is fight”, and that you still have to handle yourself like a mature adult, and you still have to show up. But the idea being, the thought is that when you are in that position where you really don’t have another option, where you really kind of have to do what you have to do, I think it requires a different level of character, but it also provides an opportunity for the next level of growth by pushing through that and making your way through those challenges. I think many of us are faced with those from time to time in our life, and it’s really about the mentality behind it, where you can say, “I’m in the corner, I’m down, I’m going to crouch down, I’m going to hide, I give up, I can’t do this, I want out”, versus, “I’m here, but I’m getting out. I’m going. I’m going to figure this out. I have to do this. I will figure it out.” Right?
[00:19:53] SBB: Yeah, unequivocally. I mean, and that really is like, I said, I watched leaders level up in ways I didn’t know was possible because I’m certainly still learning every day in my own leadership style, and how I can only kind of prophesize how I think I would have led an operating team through that time. But one of the things that I think maybe is the differentiator on COVID, Alex, for me, versus other challenges that may just kind of come up along the way, is it was not only professional, but it was also personal. People were scared for their lives, for their health, not just for their finances, right? So, in managing teams, yes, you could, A, deliver the very logical matter of fact, “Okay, follow me, we’re charging this hill.” You said that but you’ve got somebody who has a sick 76-year-old mom, at home with them, and they don’t know how to keep this out of their house so that they don’t lose mom before they should. And they may want to storm the hill with you. But when that fear is there, on a personal level, I just don’t know that any of us were really – there’s no textbook that could have taught us how to be prepared for that. You just had to have it in your character.
[00:21:02] AD: If you could go back in to call it March 11th, and tell yourself one piece of advice, what would it have been?
[00:21:09] SBB: Don’t have self-service salad bars in your restaurants. But hindsight 2020, as they say, right? That’s actually a really great question that I don’t know that I’ve done a post-mortem on. I feel like our team came together. We hit the ground running alongside of our management teams, cash preservation, obviously, is where everybody went. I watched the franchise community come together, just spectacularly. That’s one of the things you know about franchising, when you’re in it for even a minute we’re a very sharing group of people. I’ve watched direct competitors sit down, certainly not exchange trade secrets by any means, but talk and try and really be there to support the franchisees.
So, I watched the franchise community come together. I mean, I have a very, very dear friend. I refer to her as one of the sisters, I got to choose who very much felt like it was her responsibility to understand every minute of PPP, and to be able to express to her franchisees and give them guidance on how to best protect their businesses. So, she was written copy at two o’clock in the morning, right? And that’s just again, not something that most of us were prepared for. But I’ll tell you the next step on my journey that I’m assuming we’re going to get to, made the business stuff look pretty irrelevant.
[00:22:26] AD: I was just going to ask you as hard as COVID was and think you’ve had some bigger challenges at times. Do you want to share a little bit on that?
[00:22:31] SBB: Yeah, absolutely. So, in November of 2020, my then 12-year-old son who is now 14, it didn’t feel good one Friday, and he’s supposed to go to hockey practice. And I said, “Are you really going to practice because I don’t want to drive to the hockey rink if you’re not going to practice.” He said, “I am, I’m good. Let’s go to practice. But my left eye has just been a little bit blurry.” I said, “Okay, we go to practice.” I look at him. I’m like, “You can’t go in there. You do not feel well. We just need to go home.” We go home, and he starts throwing up on the way home, and throws up throughout the whole night. One part of the story that I sometimes don’t have the option to tell, but here I will tell it, is I loved craft beer. I love craft beer. And there was a craft beer that I drink that night called something like, What’s the worst that could happen. What could possibly go wrong. What could possibly go wrong is the name of the beer. What could possibly go wrong. Triple IPA.
I was home by myself. My husband was out at my parent’s for hunting season. My other son was staying at a friend’s. I have this beer. Brandon’s throwing up. We get through the night. The next day he feels okay. We move his bedroom furniture around. My other son and I take our new puppy to training. I come home. Brandon’s doing okay. I’m in the kitchen. My two sons are upstairs. And the next thing I hear is Brandon screaming. And so, I run up the stairs probably in 20 or 30 seconds, not even 30. I get upstairs and Brandon is on the ground clutching his chest screaming that it feels like somebody has stabbed him in the chest with a knife. “It feels like somebody’s stabbing me in the chest with a knife. You have to call an ambulance. You have to call an ambulance.”
[00:24:02] AD: That’s terrifying. And the hair in the back of my neck standing up just hearing your story. I can’t imagine the feelings you’re having out of this.
[00:24:07] SBB: Well, and I’m sitting there like Brandon, I mean, he’s a totally healthy 12-year-old kid, no preexisting conditions. He plays ice hockey. He had just played four games in a tournament two weekends before. He’s the catcher on the travel baseball team, and he weighs 88 pounds. You just wouldn’t have guessed. And so ultimately, we get through that whole experience. I get him to a children’s emergency room. Now remember, COVID was raging at this time. This was pre-vaccine. This is pre-anything, height of concern.
[00:24:33] AD: It wasn’t an easy thing.
[00:24:35] SBB: It was not an easy thing, and I knew that I didn’t want to take into a general population ER. So, I found a children’s ER nearby and I took him there. And they said we’re seeing on his EKG that there’s a problem. We want to echo his heart. I said, “Okay.” So, he’s talking to me. He kept consciousness the whole time. And ultimately, they echoed his heart and they came in and said to me, “We found a very large mass in your son’s heart. We don’t know what it is. And he is in heart failure right now and we need to get you to a heart hospital.” I said, “Wait a minute, what I just heard you say is that my son’s in heart failure.” And they’re like, “That is what we were saying to us.” I said, “But he’s stable.” And they said, “He is, right now. But this change on a dime. If that would happen, we do not have the resources here to help him. So, you need to choose which of these two hospitals you’re going to go to. One was Advocate Christ in Oakland, Illinois, and the other one was Lurie Children’s in downtown Chicago.”
Ultimately, we chose to go to Advocate Christ. There was an ambulance there to get us in 40 minutes, and I held it together the entire time. They turned on the lights of the ambulance, there were four people in the back with my son, and as soon as they turned on the siren, Alex, I lost it. Because it was that moment as a parent, that it all connected for me that I have a kid who is sick enough, that there are four people monitoring him in the back, and they are going lights and sirens to the next place because he is that sick, and it just hit me. To this day, if I hear an ambulance, it’s like PTSD for me. If I hear an ambulance, and so on and so forth. It’s amazing how those things stick with us.
This is a very long and detailed story. So, I’ll give the short nuggets of it. It ended up being Brandon had to have open heart surgery, emergency open heart surgery, the next day. They removed a peach pit-sized clot from the ascending aorta in his heart. They thought they were good. They thought they were done. They started looking around and found out that Brandon’s left coronary artery, which most of us know as the widow-maker was 100% blocked and had been for 36 hours. What had happened to Brandon is he had had a massive heart attack.
[00:26:38] AD: Wow.
[00:26:39] SBB: Completely out of the blue. That’s why he was screaming. It feels like somebody’s stabbing me in the chest with a knife. Because it did, he was having a heart attack. And ultimately, you don’t clear the left coronary artery of a 12-year-old because they are so very, very tiny, like a millimeter in size. The doctors that were there engineered a tool to help clear out his left coronary artery. Anyway, Brandon was still in severe heart failure for many days. Ultimately, three months later, we were able to do an MRI and find out that the heart attack had destroyed the entire bottom left portion of his heart, and his really only option for living a productive quality of life was to have a heart transplant.
So, Brandon ended up being admitted to the hospital at the end of March 2021 and received the gift of a new heart 12 days later, which was unbelievable during COVID. Organs were in very, very short supply because people weren’t out driving, right? They weren’t out doing things that kids do, and so on and so forth. But 12 days later, he received the gift of a new heart and didn’t really excellent through the whole procedure and we got released 14-ish days later. We are out in the world. He’s out at Navy Pier. We stayed in the city to be close to his hospital. We had to change hospitals, so we went to Lurie Children’s where we had a great experience as well. And we go in on Tuesday.
Five days later, five days since he’d been released, we go in for his first checkup, and they come in and they say, “Susan, we found another clot on the echo.” And Brandon is sitting right across from me, and I just watched him just fold into himself, and I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. It was almost like when I heard he was in heart failure the first time. In five days, he had built a clot half the size of the first one. So now, we have to choose to open him up tonight while he is on blood thinners, at the worst time to reopen somebody post-transplant because there’s so much blood going into the area to help it heal. Or do you wait three days and let the blood thinners burn off, control the bleeding that you can, but you risk with every beat of his heart that it breaks loose and goes to his brain and kills him?
So, when people talk to me about risk mitigation, which is I’m very, very grateful to my time in private equity for a sharpened ability to measure and mitigate risk because I definitely needed it in this situation. All I think to myself is did you have to decide with your kid’s life hanging in the balance? Because that’s what my husband and I did. And ultimately, we ended up waiting the three days. He went in and had surgery and they told us we have four units of blood, and four units of plasma hung and ready for him. You need to know that there’s a chance of catastrophic bleeding on the table for him. And they came back, three and a half hours later, it was super short, and I said, “How much blood did you use?” And they said, “We didn’t use a single drop.” The risk was that he would bleed out on the table and the outcome was that he didn’t use the drop of it.
So, through all of that, running businesses through COVID is still, I still take the weight of that very, very, very seriously. But at the same time when I was – there were about seven different times that death was the more logical outcome for my son than what we got. Which is him being here with us. He is back playing baseball. He is catching for the baseball team. He is 14 now, a freshman in high school, and took his date to homecoming last weekend. I mean, it’s truly a miracle story, but I knew after all of that it was really six very, very intense months about nine by the time we got him back to school, I needed to take some time away from the direct investing world to put my family back together.
[00:30:07] AD: So, at first, I just want to acknowledge, thank you for sharing that, and acknowledge the challenges that you’ve gone through. And for anyone listening, I’m like, I can feel my – the hair in the back of my neck and the tension just like hearing your story, and I can’t imagine you living through it in your family, and everything that that came with that and the emotional ups and downs through all of that. I guess what I really want to ask you about is two things. I want to talk a little bit about what happened through all of that and where it led you personally and what you learn from that. But really, my first question is resiliency. Resiliency through it, because I have to imagine there were some really challenging times, but it was also going back to leadership, this was probably a place where you and your husband, and you had to lead the family and lead your children through all of this while you are also terrified. Right? What do you think about that?
[00:30:52] SBB: Yeah, terrified is a great word. Brandon certainly was scared, right? Scared beyond scared. So, not only did I have kind of the 12-year-old attitude, that comes with 12-year-old boys, but I had a scared 12-year-old. So, just trying to help him through the whole process too, was certainly challenging and I cannot forget his older brother. I mean, we had an older son at home and when we were in the hospital in December of 2020, following that first surgery, I had a 14, 15-year-old at home, his freshman year of high school, remote learning in his bedroom by himself when his little brothers in the hospital and his mom and dad are trying to figure it all out.
One thing I do want to digress to form a leadership slash Big Brother position is it was his brother who was with him when he had his heart attack. If you remember, I was downstairs and it took about 20 seconds for me to get upstairs. I looked at Andrew and I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “I don’t know.” I find out later from grandma, that in that 20 seconds, Andrew had already dialed 911 into his phone.
[00:31:55] AD: Wow. Really?
[00:31:58] SBB: And he didn’t ever hit send because I got there. But he knew his little brother was in trouble and he was ready. I can’t credit him enough for his thoughtfulness and foresight and for being a big brother.
The leadership, you know, was just figure it out. Just figure it out. We had no other choice. We’ve literally figured out every day with the facts that were given to us. And blessedly, we were given the chance to keep figuring it out for six months were put. We had the opportunity to be at some of the very best institutions that we needed at that moment. We needed the emergency room that we went to when we needed it. It was there for us. And those doctors and nurses performed their jobs perfectly. And when we went to the next place, there were three or four surgeons that were involved, plus a heart failure doctor who performed their jobs perfectly, right?
I mean, the one doctor had just worked a 24-hour shift and was in the shower with shampoo in his hair. And his wife said the hospital was calling and he took the call and he was the guy who ultimately came back to the hospital in cleared Brandon’s left coronary artery, something that most people will never do. Most surgeons will never do. And then when we went to Lurie, again, we were blessed with this gift that I’m so, so sorry for this other family that it’s a really hard time. You’re so grateful, but your empathy for this other family. You know you could be the family on the other side, just as easily, right?
So, every day, we just kind of tried to figure it out. I will tell you, my husband and I experienced my son being sick, our son being sick, very, very differently and that was part of what we had to put the wheels back on with. It’s just how did you experience it. I was in a hospital 14 hours a day around really sick kids, including our own, and he was trying to balance work, our other son, the house, life, getting to the hospital, and staying involved. So, we both experienced it, but in very different ways. I think that, just a powerful belief that there is a reason that Brandon lived through that heart attack in the first place. Because the surgeons came out of that first surgery and said, “We have no idea how he’s still alive. If he’s anything other than 12. He’s not here.” That heart attack kills 99% of the people that have it.
So, just a belief, right? Certainly, very low points. The day that they found the second clot was the lowest point of the entire thing because we knew too much. The first time we didn’t know anything. So, it was like, “I’m sorry, did you say he’s in heart failure? I’m sorry, did you say he has to have emergency surgery?” And so, we were always just trying to catch up. We weren’t in on the – but by then we knew too much. So, from here forward, I think it’s just we took the time to try and really focus on our family. I took the time. I stepped away from the private equity shop and with the great support of my partner. I’m so grateful for all of my colleagues there who did nothing but support me explicitly saying, “You do you. Don’t worry about this. You do you, and your family and get Brandon well and get him out of there.” And that’s what I did with their support. But I knew I needed to step away. So, I stepped away and took a break and started – most people wouldn’t refer to starting their own advisory firm as taking a break. But I started my fourth business, which was my advisory firm.
[00:35:12] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle market professionals.
[00:35:19] AD: So again, I really appreciate you sharing that in kind of going back to some of the original reason I reached out is because I watched some of your journey through all this or what you had shared and social media. And it’s heartfelt, but it’s also, it speaks a lot to you and your character and your leadership of kind of pushing through the endurance through all of this. You say, taking a break, stepping away, talk us through that just a little bit. What did that mean to you? What did you learn? How has it affected you as a person? How do you come out the other end a better person? I ask that in the context, for anyone listening, who’s gone through any kind of a challenge, and hopefully, no one listening has gone through the magnitude of challenges you’ve gone through. But we all go through challenges. And challenge, oftentimes, we only know the hardest challenge we’ve even been through, right? You’d probably have had a lot of really hard life experiences until that happened. So, everyone has gone through something challenging. You looking back at all of this, what do you do to come out the other end better?
[00:36:11] SBB: Yeah, I think it is truly just being willing to find the silver linings along the way. And I really feel that way. I feel that way about COVID. People are like, “Oh, COVID was the worst two and a half years of my life.” Was it really? We had more time with our families. We had more time with our neighbors. We had more time to be present if you chose to take it. And for me, on the private equity side, for about three years, I traveled for – I was getting on an airplane nearly every week. I was spending 100-plus nights a year in a hotel. I didn’t know how to break that cycle. COVID broke it for me. And when Brandon woke up from his medical coma after his first surgery, he said, I’m grateful for COVID because my mom was home.
Now, that hit differently. I’m grateful to COVID too that I was home. But wow, they were really noticing that I wasn’t home. And I try and find the silver linings in as many situations as I can. The negative always presents itself. It’s really easy to find the stuff to bellyache about. It’s not hard. It’s harder to look for the positive outcomes that can come from a multitude of situations.
[00:37:25] AD: I think what you said, is so important there. I do believe that generally speaking, the world’s a relatively negative place, and not that it’s a negative to be here. But if you look around, you talk to people, you watch the news and just find something positive, that isn’t the one positive spin they put, in the end, to make you not feel so bad about the news stories. But I mean, the world will present you with all sorts of challenges and negative things to think about in any way possible. What I hear you saying and what I’m a true believer in as well as that, ultimately, it is gratitude that helps fuel that ability to push through. It’s being grateful for what you have, finding the positive, finding the benefit. And that doesn’t mean you have to discount the challenge. That doesn’t mean that you have to sit there and say, well, everything’s great, nothing’s wrong. Everything in life is perfect. It doesn’t diminish the challenge that you’re going through the struggles you’re having. But I can assure you that if you say, “Well, this is really hard, and everything sucks, is a lot different than this is really hard. But I’m grateful for …” Right? That small mindset shift makes such an impact in helping to endure and push through and show up a better person, going through the struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis.
[00:38:36] SBB: I think, first of all, an excellent summary. So true, gratitude in all things and gratitude for not, for this size of the challenge. But gratitude for the fact I very frankly, I needed a break from PE. It is a very, very challenging field and it is 24/7, 365 in that world and I needed a beat. I wish Brandon didn’t have to get so sick for the outcome for me to be able to see that. But I did need the break, I would tell you that I hope that something that the teams I’ve worked with over the course of my now 41, however, or whatever of working if you take it all the way back to four, is that I think they would tell you that I try to be very authentic, and I try to be really vulnerable. I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I’m having a bad day, you may know it and you may not. But if I feel like it’s something relevant to what we’re working on, you will likely not. I’m not going to ever say anything to try and bring somebody else down with me. But if I’m having a challenging day, you’ll probably know, especially if it’s going to impact the work that we’re doing together.
So, I think those two things just became even more prevalent in my life during this. The other thing I absolutely cannot say and express my thanks enough for, is we had a true army show up around us. I mean, just an army. I mean there are 4,000 people on Brandon’s Facebook page, where I was just writing updates for myself as much as anything, just because I’m a writer and just express. 4,000 people, people, I don’t know, we’ll never meet around the world, praying for my son and praying for my family and sending good thoughts our way, and taking time for their fourth-grade class to send cards from Arizona.
I mean, people don’t have to take that time. Yes, they can say, “Oh, my gosh. We’re so sorry for you.” But then do nothing. But the number of people that send private messages or just a comment on Facebook or on LinkedIn, when I posted the video of the ambulance showing up with Brandon’s heart, there were 60,000 views of that video. If that made one person rethink their decision as to whether to be an organ donor or not, then there’s purpose in what we’re sharing, right? Because it’s going to help somebody else. So, I can’t think and say enough about our army. I mean, we had friends show up and decorate our Christmas tree, right? So that when we got home on December 22nd or 23rd, whatever it was, we had a Christmas tree ready to go for a 12-year-old. I mean, just unbelievable.
[00:41:05] AD: What a journey you’ve been through. So, just for the last couple of minutes here, can you just give us a kind of a quick synopsis of where you’re at today, just so our listeners are fully in the loop here as well?
[00:41:18] SBB: You bet. I don’t want them thinking that I’m just hanging out eating bonbons on my couch. Although that does sound like a good idea. So, as I referenced, I took some time and started my own advisory firm, called Team Up Advisory Services, with the intention of doing some leadership coaching doing some M&A deals, to just helping to support people through really challenging times, which is, one of the things I think I’ve learned is it is lonely at the top. It really is lonely at the top. One of the things, I don’t know how well I did it, hopefully well enough for them. But one of the things I always wanted my management teams to know about our portfolio companies was they were never alone. Even if I was a board member of theirs, it didn’t matter. You can call me and just talk to me as CEO to a friend, right? You can bounce ideas off of me. You can use me as a measuring stick for whether something is should be a go or no go. I am happy to be that for people, so they never felt like they didn’t have anybody. And they were on this very small island all by themselves trying to make really big, really hard decisions.
So, I thought maybe through my advisory practice, I could be that for other people on a broader scale. I’ve gotten to do some really cool stuff. I’ve gotten to do some leadership coaching, fingers are crossed, I have been the intermediary on a deal that is supposed to close on Friday.
[00:42:37] AD: There you go. Knock on wood.
[00:42:41] SBB: Yes, knock on plastic, knock on everything nearby. So that’s my first experience getting to be in the middle of the transaction. I’d been on the buy side. I’ve been around the sell side, but I’d never been in the middle of it. I don’t need to ever do that, again. God bless our bankers because it’s a very tough place to be. Somebody is seemingly always angry at you. I don’t know. I’ve been very, very fortunate. Both parties are friends of mine and so it’s been very collegial, which has been awesome, which just makes it certain that I should never do it in an environment that is not collegial.
So, gotten to do some really cool things. But my first client actually asked me to come in house with them and to work with their team full time. After Labor Day of 2022, I just started as the full-time Chief Operating Officer of Avante Capital Partners in Los Angeles. And so, I’m finishing up some of my advisory projects, and will have the opportunity to continue to do professional speaking, which was another of the companies I started. I’ll continue to do some other very small projects for folks. But I am very excited to be in-house with a team committed to amazing returns and showing amazing returns to their LPs, being great partners, to their sponsors and their fellow GPs, but also to a team that is incredibly diverse and very, very smart, and I just love it.
[00:44:01] AD: Maybe a teaser for a potential future episode, the power of diversity. For our listeners, Susan and I spent the 20, 30 minutes before we started recording here. We should have hit record because we had a great dialogue and changed all that.
[00:44:16] SBB: We should’ve recorded, right, Alex?
[00:44:18] AD: Hey, it’s an opportunity for the future, right? We’ll find the silver lining.
[00:44:23] SBB: We will find it, but I’ll tell you that was a huge part of why I decided to, because I mean having my own advisory business. I got to pick and choose every single person I wanted to work with, and every single deal I did or didn’t want to do. So, I really set my own pace, my own schedule, all of that kind of stuff, which is really valuable to me at this stage in my life. I mean, Brandon is well, but it doesn’t mean we don’t go to a lot of doctor’s appointments. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have a lot of checkups and things going on. So, that flexibility was really important to me. But when I went back and looked at my organizational docs or my document that I kind of said, “Why am I doing this?” It was because I wanted to use my voice to speak on behalf of others whose voices aren’t nearly as loud as they should be.
So, I know that I was doing that, one or two people at a time through my advisory business. But by going in-house with the Avante team, specifically, it may not have been the case that any other asset management group I would have gone to, but at Avante, it is, that I can now amplify that voice. That it’s maybe 100 or 200 at the time, or maybe it’s 1,000 or 2,000 at a time. At this stage in my career, like I’ve kind of done the things. I mean, there are very few resumes that look like mine. Entrepreneur, founder, operator, private equity, investor, motivational speaker. Now, I’m doing the credit side of life. There are just not very many resumes that look like mine. And so, what’s it really for? Well, it’s also for bringing other people along on that journey.
[00:45:47] AD: I love that, bringing other people along on the journey. Susan, through our whole conversation both beforehand and before we record it when we talked before and especially during our recording here today, it’s become clear that you care how you show up, you care how you lead others, and you are stepping outside of just your own personal prism and in trying to look and say, “How are my actions affecting those around me?” And even the smallest element of just finding the silver lining, just simply doing that goes an incredibly long way. So, I guess first, I want to just thank you as an individual for your ability to do that, and to stay focused on that. But also, thank you for just doing that to everyone around you, and continuing to lead like that, because it is what makes the workplace in the world a better place. So again, I want to – hats off to you.
[00:46:30] SBB: You’re very kind. Thank you. I don’t know any other way to show up.
[00:46:33] AD: Oh, keep doing it. Keep inspiring others. Susan, I really appreciate you coming on here. I appreciate you sharing your story. It was a heartfelt story. A heavier topic than what we typically have on here. But I’m glad to hear and understand it, and I think there are many really good lessons that we pulled out through all of this. So again, I appreciate you coming on here and sharing your experience and your wisdom with us.
[00:46:55] SBB: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a great talking with you, Alex. You do a great job at this.
[00:46:59] AD: Oh, thank you. And for our listeners, how can they get in touch with you?
[00:47:01] SBB: Well, they can always track me down at my new email address, which is [email protected] and always LinkedIn is also a great place to find me. I’m under Susan Black-Beth on LinkedIn and just know that that video is there. And if you really want to shiver up your spine, go find the video of my son’s new heart arriving at the hospital because it is a showstopper.
[00:47:30] AD: Well, we’ll make sure everything is linked in the show notes below and encourage everybody to reach out here and again. Susan, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today.
[00:47:38] SBB: My pleasure. Take good care.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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