A searcher on the trail of the perfect acquisition

By Jenny Clare

Ten years ago, Leo (Wang) Yao, MBA 22, and his wife, Tingting Wu, took a hike while visiting Alaska. As the trail grew tougher and the switchbacks steeper, they held to their commitment to complete the nearly three-mile Mt. Healy trail in Denali National Park.

Leo thought of that climb many times during his Evening & Weekend MBA studies especially as he launched his own enterprise. “Entrepreneurship is a lot like that trail,” Leo said. “Sometimes, the path disappears, and you stumble. You have to work hard, and you need a good support network. To remind myself that I can reach my goals, I named my search fund Mt. Healy.”

Different from a private equity fund, a search fund is run by a searcher with the goal of acquiring one company, preserving its legacy, and growing it for the long-term. Sometimes called “entrepreneurship through acquisition,” search funds are a good approach for entrepreneurs who prefer to run a company rather than develop one from the ground up.

“In my previous job at Qualcomm, I had a great experience building a new global business unit of 20 or so people. I came to Berkeley Haas to scale up that experience, with the goal of pursuing entrepreneurship,” Leo said. “I stumbled on to the search fund model and found great instruction, mentorship, and networking here.”

Leo credits the elective class, Search Funds, taught by Jan Simons, co-founder and managing director of Vonzeo Capital, for teaching the “entire life cycle” of a successful search fund.

“Jan encouraged me to find a search fund internship. That was brilliant. During my internship, Blue Ono Capital had a deal on the line, so I got to see the entire process, from due diligence to financial modeling and negotiations.” After Blue Ono acquired EverOps, Leo continued as chief of staff to the CEO, who became one of his mentors.

While at EverOps, Leo also leveraged the lessons in leadership he gained at Berkeley Haas. In many ways, he said, the soft skills classes were most impactful for him. For example, he credited Leading People for advancing his understanding of the role of manager as coach, helping advance employees’ career growth. He implemented a more useful performance review process at EverOps, focused on providing constructive, actionable feedback, and he created a mission and values proposition for the company.

“It is important for employees to know what the company values are and to understand their role in making that real,” Leo said. “I plan to create a values and mission proposition for Mt. Healy this summer. That may be a good project for the interns I plan to hire this summer.”

Other mentors include Mahesh Rajasekharan, MBA 09, and Jeff Oldenburg, MBA 18. “They both demonstrate the magic of Beyond Yourself,” said Leo. “Mahesh is a real search fund pioneer and has a background similar to mine. Jeff had just started his fund when I was a first year. We were on a conference call together and kept in touch. I feel like I saw his journey at every step.”

Leo’s Berkeley Haas mentors now number among Mt. Healy’s investors. “Asking people like Jeff, Mahesh, and Jan to invest was a very brave move for me,” Leo admitted. “I had long lacked confidence. Maybe that is why Confidence Without Attitude means so much to me. Classmates and others here were genuinely curious about what I was doing, and they understood the value of my skills. They gave me the confidence to take this leap of faith.”

With the backing of a dozen “greatly admired and sophisticated investors,” Mt. Healy has embarked on its first search. The goal is finding a tech-enabled service or enterprise software company. Leo follows a typical sales process: researching companies, making cold calls, developing a pipeline, making connections, following up on leads, building relationships.

As most salespeople know, there is a lot of rejection. Leo puts a positive spin on that. “Getting any response is a benefit. If it is ‘no,’ you can stop wasting time and move on. One connection may fall through but lead to another, creating a ripple effect. After all, it only takes one ‘yes’ to get started. And in the meantime, I am confident that the right acquisition will be at the end of the trail.”

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Posted on August 7, 2023
Jenny Clare
Jenny is Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She hopes these blog posts provide you with useful insights into the Berkeley MBA experience and answer questions you may have about the MBA in general.