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Varsity Brands Founder On The Big Business Of Cheerleading

Jeff Webb has guided Varsity Brands from a startup cheerleading operation out of his apartment to a primetime special on NBC and an eventual $2.5 billion sale. He talks with us about the growth of the company and knowing when it was time to step down as CEO.

So what was the reason for the big sale earlier this year? Why was Bain the right pick for the company?

We had a private equity sponsor in Charlesbank Capital Partners and they’ve been in the company number of years. And we’re just to the point where the market was such and we wanted to continue to expand that the timing just, it just lined up. And it was very, very good investment for them. They got a great return and of the various private equity suitors that came during our process, Bain, they just, they really stepped up. When we did the Charlesbank transaction, which was in 2014, Bain had been a finalist if you will and they didn’t win it. But they kept up with the company. And, you know, we would talk occasionally. And they pretty much said they weren’t going to miss it again.

So they stepped up, they really committed to our whole concept [of] being the extracurricular activity [company] to schools, they really believed, they want to do something that’s, you know, that’s great for the school of this country. And they also just think it’s a great business and it’s a sustainable model.

What does a CEO have to know about when it’s time to leave and when it’s time to step down?   

It got to a point in my life where it was like, “Okay. What do I want to do? Do we have great people that can run the various parts of the business? And can I put myself in a position where I can really do what I like to do and what I love to do?” So when I really looked at myself in the mirror at that point it was like, you know what, [what I love is] varsity spirit. It’s going out to the camps, it’s still going to the competitions, it’s going to the sales meeting and helping the reps. I’ve told my children as they’re growing up, I always say to them, “Do what you’re passionate about. Do what you really love.” And so, you know, I guess I stepped back and took my own advice.”

What would you say are some of the important lessons you’ve learned in leadership in your 40-plus years with Varsity?

I didn’t really think about this when I started. It wasn’t the plan, but you develop professionally and you’re able to reflect if you will. To me, I’ve kind of always broken it down like, first of all, here’s the vision. And as an entrepreneur, most really kind of long-term successful entrepreneurs…if they’re honest they’ll tell you where things ended up is not where they thought there was going to be when they started, very few. It’s like, you have an idea, you have a concept, you get started, and then you’ve got your antenna up and you’re looking through things that add value to your concept and your vision.

But it’s having that vision and staying true to it, and attracting people that share that same vision, really, really share it. So it’s the vision and then it’s the team that’s committed to that vision and that mission. And then finally, it’s creating a culture that constantly reinforces that and reinvigorates it. So that means having people that put the team before their own individual goals that perform, who are committed to performing at a very high level all the time.

And then the final thing for me is you hear people talk about “getting in there.” When I speak to business groups, I talk about the fact the organizational work is done at the point of customer contact. And if you’re going to be the leader, forget about being a manager and the process…If you’re going to be a leader, you have to set the example. Be there where your company or your organization is interacting with the customer, with the users. Demonstrate where the value is, get your hands dirty, you know, do the menial things, be on the team, be just a member of the team, have kind of an egalitarian approach at that point. And what that does is it sets the standard, and it sets the tone for the culture. And when people see a leader willing to really get their hands dirty, but getting in there and being a part of it,  it helps create the kind of sustainable culture that most companies would love to have.

Read more: Remedy Partners CEO On Thriving In The Weeds Of Healthcare


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