July/August 2012

Beyond Traditional Restructuring… Gavin/Solmonese Join Forces to Fulfill a Shared Vision

Last April, the commercial finance industry learned that the venerable turnaround firm of NHB Advisors had been acquired by a newly formed corporate consulting firm bearing the name Gavin/Solmonese. While acquisitions of turnaround firms either in whole or in part have made industry headlines regularly this year — indeed, Deloitte acquired CRG Partners and CVC Capital Partners took a majority stake in AlixPartners — this announcement was a bit unique.

As it can sometimes happen, a chance meeting can be the first of a series of events that significantly impacts what comes later. In this case, attendance at a political fundraiser set Gavin/Solmonese’s formation in motion. Ted Gavin, principal at NHB Advisors and his wife were introduced to the work of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and as Gavin explains, it was quite by accident. “We happened to be in Minneapolis in 2008 and were invited to an HRC Twin Cities fundraising event endorsing then Senator-to-be Franken. Being strangers in town, Amy and I were readily embraced by people of like advocacy, like goals and passions.”

In the months that followed, the Gavins became heavily involved with HRC, an advocacy group that works for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT) rights, and has been at the forefront of the passage of legislation of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the 2010 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In time, Gavin met Joe Solmonese, the then president of HRC at a fundraising event in Washington D.C.

Solmonese recalls, “Ted and Amy became very involved with HRC and volunteered their time generously, and we, along with my then-partner, now husband, had the opportunity to be together and work together in that context. Right off the bat, we knew we had some shared values and we formed a great friendship. It was of that friendship that we started having some conversations about the state of the world and the economy and we came to see that we had some shared interests.”

That was in 2009. For both Gavin and Solmonese, the conversations stepped up in January 2012, when the two began thinking about creating an opportunity to work together. The question became: how would the two achieve that goal?

Gavin explains, “In approaching this, the two equity shareholders at NHB Advisors were Tom Hays and me. Tom and I had very open and honest conversations. I knew NHB could be more than it was and to make that happen was going to take a leap of faith. And I knew I wanted very much to work with Joe. So the challenge was, ‘how do we do that?’ And it was very important to me that Tom would get what he wanted out of this as well. I’ve worked with him for 15 years and at this point, he’s like family.”

Gavin continues that the ultimate solution would lie in he and Solmonese forming a firm that would acquire the “whole egg” as he puts it. “We all had several far reaching conversations in which we determined that rather than trying to split the egg or change the egg, Joe and I would acquire the egg. As a result, Tom still leads the CRO practice … he’s doing what he likes doing the most. He’s mastered that, having been at it for some 30 to 40 years. Today, he’s developing younger chief restructuring officers and he’s the best person around to do that. Our skills are complementary and in no way overlap.”

On the corporate turnaround side, NHB Advisors retains its name and continues to provide its traditional turnaround capacities with Hays in the lead. The firm’s creditors’ and secured lenders’ rights representation, bankruptcy and fiduciary services and litigation consulting and expert witness testimony practices will continue to be led by Gavin, who states, “The NHB name is an immediately recognizable brand. We’ve been in some huge landmark cases and there’s a good deal of equity to that name, a lot of history with regard to the successes … so by all means, we’re going keep it. We’ve introduced the Gavin/Solmonese name because there needs to be a brand differentiation between the work we do with healthy versus distressed companies.”

Enter Solmonese, who at the beginning of June of this year left his post at HRC and today heads the corporate public affairs strategies practice for the new firm. One could wonder where the advocacy of LGBT rights and the complex often thorny issues that surround those rights intersect with the interests of healthy organizations. Solmonese says, “Certainly our mission was straightforward as an advocacy organization fighting for LGBT equality, but one of the strategies we put in place — and I think it was quite brilliant although many people may not know about it — was to use institutional settings to accomplish the change we set out to accomplish. If we couldn’t change the laws, we could go into schools, hospitals, religious organizations and, of course, corporate America. Out of all of those settings, we found ourselves working with corporations the most to have them lead the way on these efforts.

“And this is where Ted and I came together, not in forming the company but in our shared ideal. Corporate America has had such a significant impact on shaping policy and American culture as a thought leader. All of the change that’s happening within Corporate America and all of the potential change that corporations have the potential to make are the things that call to me and where I find myself my passion as an advocate. Ted and I, through our very different careers, came to see the potential that this holds to maximize the capacity for change in Corporate America.”

Gavin adds, “In the end, it’s all about improving outcomes. From the NHB Advisors side, if you look at our creditors’ rights practice for example, these are healthy companies impacted by external distress – be it a borrower’s or a customer’s — and we’re out to improve those outcomes and save jobs in their shops, just as we’re out to save jobs in a distressed companies. On the flip side, you could have a company that’s healthy and wants to understand how to move the needle of public sentiment and Joe has a lot to offer those companies. That too is an improving outcome … maybe for the employees, maybe for the shareholders and stakeholders, maybe for its branding strategy.”

For Solmonese, it’s the joining together of both efforts that makes the new company stand out in the marketplace. He notes, “It’s a new approach, it’s not that the elements are particularly new. On one hand, there are companies that as they look to come out of a period of hardship, financial or otherwise, that seek to improve their standing within their community or region, their shareholders and their workforce. Then there are the Fortune 100 companies that seek to be trailblazers on important issues. They are constantly looking for the next idea or the next new effort they can take on to outpace their competition. It’s great to speak with a CEO about the fact that his or her company is ahead of the law when it comes to creating an equitable workplace or any number of things and then asking them to testify before Congress to the fact the their company is actually ahead of public opinion and even the law in some cases. That’s very gratifying for a CEO … to be seen as a thought leader and to have the opportunity to influence public policy that way.”

Gavin more than agrees. “I’m terribly excited. There aren’t many firms in our market that combine this type of healthy company work. If you want to match the paradigm, you have to go up to the larger consulting firms and while they are great, it’s quite expensive to engage them. We can accomplish the same thing with our team on the ground tomorrow at a much lower rate, which in turn means much more impact at a greater value. And the great thing is we’re more than a fleet of M.B.A.s; we get this done with a team of people we’ve built our company with. We’re all time-tested, we’re all experienced and we trust one another. So I am excited about what comes next.”

Solmonese shares his partner’s excitement. He sums it up neatly: “At the end of the day, whether it’s having companies survive the economic downturn or getting corporations to provide a greater degree of equity for some segment of its workforce, or having that corporation take that practice and influence the external public policy conversation, it all comes back to the bottom line … and for us, that’s about helping corporations to be better, to do better and to be more profitable as a result.”

Stuart P. Papavassiliou is senior editor of ABF Journal.