Thomas Courtney, WG’90, President of WCNY from 1995 to 1999, and Chairman from 1999 to 2003, shares his memories of leading WCNY “like a startup.” Today, Tom lives in Southern California and manages The Courtney Group, a private equity and investment banking group that provides services to middle market companies in consumer, chemical, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing and technology industries. The firm provides senior-level people, responsive attention and Wall Street experience, with an entrepreneurial West Coast spirit and a focus on companies with revenues from $10 million to $500 million.
How did you get involved in WCNY?
I had joined and created the Club’s career development program in 1992, because I was doing a job search and thought I could organize the Club’s resources to help me and benefit everyone else as well. I found it fulfilling helping people in their job searches. Also, in 1995, I got involved in organizing the fifth reunion for my MBA class. We had over 250 classmates attend, up from an average of 50 in prior years. Shortly after this, I was asked to become the Club President.
At the time, the Club’s liabilities exceeded its assets by about $100,000. Hans Albeck, WG’74; Dana Michael, W’82; Allen Levinson, W’77, WG’78; Faith Rosenfeld, WG’78; Rick Wien, W’79; Jim Anchin, W’65, WG’66; Sharon Fordham, WG’77; Walter Tomenson, WG’74; Ruth Colp-Haber, WG’85; Larry Lipoff, W’82; Lorrie King, WG’91; Sean Sovak, WG’93; and Karen Friedel Candreva, W’89, helped put together a plan to raise funds (mostly by writing checks ourselves) and reinvigorate the Club. We held focus groups to determine what alumni wanted and then tried to offer those things. It worked. In two years, we paid off the debts, expanded membership and our board, and created a compelling series of programs and events that drew ever larger participation.
In those days before email, I had my computer set up with software to send announcements by fax. It was like leading a startup. I know it was like a startup, because at the same time, I was launching a startup investment bank and private equity firm, The Courtney Group.
Nigel Edelshain, WG’93, had formed an entrepreneurial club with other recently graduated alumni in New York City. Some people in the Club thought it was a threat to the Club. But I thought it was great and did everything I could to encourage him. I thought the entrepreneurial club would appeal to a lot of Wharton alumni and asked Nigel to offer the events he was planning for all Wharton alumni. In 1999, I got Nigel to take over for me as President of the Club. I love Nigel. He did an excellent job leading the Club and recruiting Kenny Beck. Kenny did an amazing job leading the Club, and now, it’s Kenny’s turn to pass the baton.
What were some of the Club initiatives at the time?
In my first year as President of WCNY, we organized a black-tie party for about 130 people at a loft on 14th Street, Manhattan Penthouse. We had a band, and we had a lot of fun. I liked it so much that, when I got married a few years later, I had my wedding reception there. In fact, it was a lot of the same people at both events. We hoped the event would continue to grow and could be the foundation for bringing back the Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner.
I hoped that leading WCNY might also help me get new clients. It didn’t. But many of the amazing people on the board and in the Club, became close friends and supported me in many other ways.
You get out of the Club what you put into it. I put a lot into the Club and got a lot out of my involvement — lifelong learning, but also lifelong friends. I was active in the Club until 2003, when I moved from New York City to Newport Beach, California.
A Wharton initiative beyond the club began in 1998. Two young alumni, Praveen Jeyarajah, WG’95, and Amarish Mehta, W’95, asked for my ideas about forming an affinity group for people in private equity and venture capital. We met in the grill at the Penn Club and mapped out the plan on a couple of napkins. That group has done well and has helped younger people starting out in their careers, as well as experienced people on finding deals and investors, and senior alumni seeking to give back. It has been a pleasure to see the Wharton Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (www.wpen.org) endure and become a compelling organization in its own right.
What do you value about the Club?
WCNY continues the premise of lifelong learning. At one event, we had an economist from the New York Federal Reserve sharing information on the direction of the economy. I still recall the description of how the economy in New York City is driven primarily by the FIRE sectors — finance, investment and real estate. There are so many movers and shakers in New York City. WCNY helped me and many other people meet them, hear their stories, and get insights and inspiration.