Kerry Moynihan, WG’91, managing director of ZRG Partners, came to Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives in Philadelphia with thoughts of transitioning from the executive search field to the music business. An English literature major in college, he wanted to round out his knowledge with a formal business education. However, in the middle of his first year at Wharton, his career in the executive search field started taking off.
“I worked on a high-level search for a private equity fund with offices around the world. I ended up working on 11 projects for that fund. I gained a lot of credibility, which led to more work for private equity funds and portfolio companies,” said Kerry, who has worked in a wide range of industries, ranging from sneakers to semiconductors.
Soon after graduation, he and his wife moved to Washington, DC and he joined Korn/Ferry to open a new office outside of the city in the Tysons Corner technology hub. “At that time, the economy was fueled by venture capital. My professional experiences and Wharton education gave me an understanding of how investors thought, which added a lot of value in executive searches. Our revenues tripled and the firm went public,” he said.
A Correlation Between Governance and Value
In 2001, he joined search firm Christian & Timbers to help diversify its practice. In addition to gaining more experience, Kerry also discovered a new passion: boards.
“I was elected to the board of Christian & Timbers, which was a very valuable learning opportunity,” he said. “I saw firsthand how the board, under the leadership of the president, brought the firm back from a near-collapse caused by the technology crash and the subsequent ouster of the founder/CEO.”
Around that same time, Kerry was asked to lead several board searches for private equity firms, which sought to balance the skill sets of board members with the needs of portfolio companies. “Funds were increasingly bringing in operating partners to help manage the business as well as outside directors who served as honest brokers, balancing financial engineering experience with operating chops, real P&L skills,” he said.
Kerry enjoyed working on board searches, and increased his focus on this area. “I like helping companies govern themselves better by holding themselves to a higher standard, both operationally and ethically. There is an inherent moral hazard when what the CEO says goes without any inquiry.”
He worked on some high-profile board searches for companies like E-Trade Financial. “I was hired during a turbulent time in the company to do a search for one board member, but ended up doing five,” he said. “We changed the dynamic of the board and people became more engaged. There was clearly a positive correlation between governance and value. The stock tripled.”
From Board Searches to Board Service
As Kerry continued his work in the board search area, he founded Desmond Partners and later joined ZRG Partners, where he currently is managing director. Along the way, he began serving on boards himself — starting at not-for-profits, including one that gave him the chance to reconnect with a former EMBA classmate.
Kerry happily accepted the opportunity to serve with Hugh Dugan, WG’91, on the board of trustees for SOS Children’s Villages USA, a private nonprofit that provides homes for abused and neglected children. He also served as treasurer of the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, the only privately-funded park in the U.S. National Park Service.
“I learned a lot about the importance of asking basic questions. You can’t be afraid to say you don’t know all the answers when it comes to board governance,” Kerry said. “Boards need people who aren’t hung up on their own egos and can ask questions like: ‘How will you make money with this business model?’”
Today, he continues to work with private equity funds on searches for senior management and boards of directors. He also helps bring together management teams and capital – what he calls bankable, backable leadership. In addition, he serves on the advisory board for several smaller enterprises.
Kerry’s passion for boards is something he frequently shares with the Wharton alumni community. Speaking at alumni club events in Washington, DC and more recently at the East Coast Reunion on the Philadelphia campus, he encourages alumni to consider sharing their experience and perspectives by serving on boards. “You can extend your understanding of your own business because you gain different perspectives — and you meet very interesting people,” he said.
In addition to talking about the benefits of board service, Kerry often shares pitfalls to avoid when joining a board and steps alumni can take to properly position themselves for board work. “You don’t begin by playing center field for the Yankees. You need to start with community service or not-for-profit boards and then maybe a private company before you can move up to larger public companies,” he said. “There is a learning curve involved, but it’s worth the time and effort required because of the tremendous benefits.”
Posted: February 15, 2017