Ellen Carnahan: Work at equity firm fulfills extrovert’s love of numbers
Published: May 29, 2006 / Author: Interviewer: Palmer
Because Ellen Carnahan had always been “very good” in math, she assumed it would be her college major.
“I love numbers, but I’m also a very extroverted person,” Carnahan says. “When I looked at typical careers for a math major, I was worried. They didn’t seem social enough.”
One prevalent job was programming computers. The other was getting a PhD. She didn’t think either would earn the salary needed to fulfill her dream of living in a big city after graduation.
Her solution? Majoring in accounting, specializing in auditing, “the A-career track with a Big 8 starting salary of $13,333–big money in those days,” she says.
Despite being promoted to senior auditor a year earlier than the norm, after two years into an auditing job with Price Waterhouse in Chicago Carnahan concluded she had “the most boring job I could imagine,” she says.
Working for a Chicago-based railroad car leasing and operations company sounded more intriguing. The only job open, though, was treasury analyst, evaluating the company’s cash flow and cash flow investment possibilities.
“Even though I really had my heart set on a business planning job, which would involve future thinking, I interviewed for treasury analyst,” Carnahan recalls.
After the call, her interviewer told her another job had just opened up–as a financial planner for one of the company’s three subsidiaries. Would she be interested?
“It was pure luck,” says Carnahan, who accepted the offer, which changed her career path markedly.
Carnahan spent the next three years immersed in financial forecasting not only on the job but also in night school at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where she majored in econometrics.
Today Carnahan, now 50, is managing director and co-leader of the investment team at William Blair Capital Partners LLC in Chicago.
Q. At what point in your working life did what you’re doing now become your goal?
A. After graduating from the University of Chicago I joined SPSS, a Chicago-based statistical software company. I worked directly for the co-founder, who had started the company from nothing.
It was such a fun environment in which to work. I had such a sense of accomplishment. Being on the team of a highgrowth software company made me want to get into private equity. In private equity you can help growth companies every day.
Q. What did you learn there?
A. One of my jobs was being in charge of marketing. We had to sell Microsoft on letting us carry their graphics. We had to develop direct marketing campaigns which would sell the software and convince our prospects to buy on the phone.
Everybody should have to convince someone to do something at some point in their career. It’s very important to know how to sell. The older you get, you’re always selling your ideas or your services.
I also learned how to manage people. I learned to respect the management talent it takes to get A work out of B or C workers.
Q. What’s a typical workweek like for you?
A. At SPSS I was part of a young team managing a growth company in a high-growth market. At Blair, I’m on the other side of the table. I’ve got the capital and am looking at growth companies in which to invest.
I work about 50 hours weekly and travel about three days a week … but I don’t find it draining because I’m always around good people.
It’s a lot of fun to build a growth company with limited capital, to watch management teams recruit talent. I feel like a parent watching their kids do something well on their own.
Q. What’s the toughest thing about your job?
A. It’s difficult to lose money. You can’t throw good money after bad. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and wind the company down, if you can’t find a buyer. That doesn’t happen often. But it does happen. It’s going to happen. It takes a lot out of you. That’s why it’s called a “risk” business.
Q. How has your personal life fared, as you’ve moved up the ladder?
A. I used to go to bars with one of my girl friends. One night I told her, “This is getting boring. We’ve met these people a million times.” She said we should try an ad in The Chicago Reader. We did and agreed to go out on a double date.
So, I put an ad in The Reader: “Seeking naturally curious person, energetic, likes to golf.”
Bill Daniels, a former civil-rights litigator and a DePaul law instructor, responded. I knew the first time that I went out with him that I would marry him. We’ve been married for 11 years.
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Step by step
2005-present: Co-leader of investment team and managing director, William Blair Capital Partners LLC, Chicago
1993-present: Principal, William Blair & Co. LLC
1990-2005: Managing director, William Blair Capital Partners
1988-89: Director of research, William Blair Capital Partners
1988: MBA, University of Chicago
1985-87: Vice president, marketing and planning, SPSS Inc., Chicago
1984-86: Assistant to the president, SPSS Inc.
1979-82: Manager of financial planning, RailBox and Railgon subsidiaries, Trailer Train Inc., Chicago
1977-79: Senior auditor, general audit staff, Price Waterhouse LLC, Chicago
1977: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Notre Dame
1976: Summer intern, Coopers & Lybrand, Indianapolis
1975-77: Statistics tutor to Notre Dame football players
1975: Temporary keypunch operator, Graybar Lighting, Evansville, Ind.
1974: Administrative assistant, Potter and Brumfield, Evansville
1973: Counter waitress, Burger Chef, Evansville