Institutional Executive to Growth Entrepreneur John Coffin Interview on Capital Club Radio
Here is a glimpse of what John shared in the interview:
“I actually got into banking totally by mistake or kismet…through that process, that six month training class, decided I loved business and I loved banking.”
“… learned a lot about life in the Boy Scouts. About challenges and overcoming obstacles and pushing yourself further than maybe you’d think you were capable of.”
“… that’s something that our generation can learn from the millennials, their willingness to try different things and not be so locked into one career.”
Please join Michael Flock of FLOCK Specialty Finance as he interviews “growth” entrepreneur, John Coffin.
John is the Co-Founder of Practical Growth Advisors (PGA) which is a consulting and advisory firm focused on serving privately held companies and helping them grow faster with confidence. John discusses his transformation from successful institutional executive to small business advisor and creative entrepreneur. He shares his great range of valuable experiences, both personal and professional, and how he’s leveraging these to help guide middle market companies towards achieving their growth goals today.
Prior to founding PGA, John was the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Atlantic Capital Bank. He oversaw the Bank’s Regional Corporate Banking, Financial Institutions and Capital Markets divisions. Atlantic Capital is the largest startup bank in US history with an initial capital raise of $125MM. After opening in May of 2007, Atlantic Capital quickly grew to become a $2.9 billion bank, primarily by executing the core strategy of serving the finance and banking needs of growing, privately-held companies. John earned a BA degree in English from Dartmouth College and received a MBA from Columbia University Graduate School of Business. John was an Eagle Scout and is currently a Merit Badge Counselor for the Boy Scouts of America. He is active in various civic activities and resides with his wife and three children in Atlanta, GA.
Connect with John: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnccoffin
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00:06 Broadcasting live from the Pro Business Channel studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for
Capital Club Radio. Brought to you by FLOCK Specialty Finance. Please welcome your host,
Chairman and CEO, Michael Flock.
00:25 Michael Flock: Good afternoon. Ordinarily on Capital Club Radio, we have entrepreneurs
who’ve never worked in large institutions. Today we have an unusual example of a successful
executive with lots of institutional, large banking experience. But he’s left that world. He’s chose,
not to retire, but to become an entrepreneur. It’s an interesting journey with John Coffin. John is
founder and president of Practical Growth Advisors, formerly Executive Vice President and cofounder
of Atlantic Capital Bank. Practical Growth Advisors is a consulting and advisory firm that
is focused on serving private companies, helping them grow faster, with confidence. Prior to
Practical Growth Advisors, John was part of the founding of Atlantic Capital Bank, the largest
startup bank in US history. With an initial capital raise of a $125 million, wow, it opened in May of
2007, and John became Executive Vice President. The bank grew to $2.9 billion as a publicly traded
bank, with a market cap of over $450 million. Prior to Atlantic Capital Bank, he spent 10 years at
Wachovia Bank, in capital markets, commercial, and corporate banking divisions. Before
Wachovia, he worked in Manufacturers Hanover Trust, Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank.
John earned a BA from Dartmouth, an MBA from Columbia University. Today he lives in Atlanta
with his family, and oh, by the way, he was also an Eagle Scout. That’s a big accomplishment too.
02:09 John Coffin: Thanks Michael, I appreciate that warm introduction, and great to be here with
you in the studio.
02:15 MF: Yeah, and I have to advise our listeners that I’m going to make a confession, that it was
actually John Coffin, when he was at Atlantic Capital Bank, he had a show called Founder’s Club, I
think, and he interviewed me. So I’m stealing this idea from John, he was a wonderful host and had
plenty of stories and very interesting guests. So thank you for giving me this idea for doing these
02:40 JC: Absolutely, my pleasure and thanks for having me today. 02:44 MF: Yeah, and I think today, we’ve got a real opportunity to hear how, again, a very
successful large institutional executive now becomes an entrepreneur, and what he’s leveraged and
leveraging from those experiences of the past, both personal and professional, and how he’s gonna
help middle market companies today. Alright John, let’s go to your resume, let’s get personal for a
second. If you look at your resume and background, it’s quite traditional, almost a straight line. I
mean, Eagle Scout. Phillips Exeter, one of the best prep schools in the United States. Dartmouth,
Ivy League. Columbia, Manufacturers Hanover, Chase, Chemical. Wow. Did you always wanted to
be a banker, growing up? What motivated you? You have a terrific background in banking. Well,
how did that happen?
03:36 JC: I actually kinda got into banking totally by mistake or kismet, I guess. I was an English
major in college and really took one accounting class, and didn’t do particularly well in my
economics classes. And so when I was looking for a job, Manny Hanny and some of the big banks
were the only ones that had a six month training program where they’d actually teach you how to do
something. And so I got a job with them, and really through that process, that six month training
class, decided I loved business and I loved banking. And so that was really the genesis of a 30 year
banking career that spanned large corporations, capital markets, and then privately held companies.
04:24 MF: Okay. So that’s interesting. So being an English major really didn’t have any impact then
on your future direction or… No, no. [chuckle]
04:33 JC: Yeah, I knew… My dad was an executive in New York for many years, and I always
knew I was gonna be interested in getting involved in business, but didn’t really have a particular
path until I landed at Manufacturers Hanover. 04:46 MF: And was there anything in becoming an Eagle Scout that had anything to do with this
04:52 JC: I think that… I’d encourage every boy, and now girls, because they’ve combined Boy
Scouts into kind of a gender neutral type of scenario, to get involved, because it’s just a fantastic
way to be with your friends, to be outdoors. And for me, some of the central tenets of being
prepared and learning skills and competencies through merit badges in Boy Scouts, it gives you a
lot of confidence. And that was a real blessing to me as a kid. And I can canoe, and know how to
rappel down buildings, but I can also… Also learned a lot about life in Boy Scouts. About
challenges, and overcoming obstacles and pushing yourself further than maybe you’d think you
were capable of. That type of thing.
05:44 MF: And so, along the way in your early years of your career, were there any surprises?
Were there any difficult moments that you used those lessons from Eagle Scouts?
05:57 JC: Well, in my first 10 years at… In New York, I went through two mergers, so I worked for
Manufacturers Hanover, Chemical and Chase, and had the same telephone number for eight years at
those three banks. So I got used to transition, change. And with those, with change always came
opportunity, and so that’s something that I really benefited from in New York. My wife and I moved
down to Atlanta in 1996 to be with Wachovia and, subsequently, went through the first Union and
SouthTrust mergers here as well. So I think banking went through an incredible change over the last
25-30 years, that now other industries are going through. Consolidation, rapid change, having to be
nimble and… Those were things that, through these mergers, I really learned along the way and I got
a lot out of.
07:01 MF: Well, yeah, it’s amazing you were able to keep the same phone number through all those
mergers, ’cause usually not just your phone number changes, a lot of other things, like your job and
your role. Did that change and was it…
07:13 JC: Yeah, particularly at Wachovia, I had nine different leadership jobs in the 10 years that I
was there. I came down initially to help them build out their capital markets business, and then ran
different lines of business, both geographically and within business services and consumer services
segment, and then flipped over, around 2003, to the local market here in Atlanta. And I really found
my passion, because I went from dealing with larger, billion dollar-plus companies, into more of the
local market, working and serving privately held companies, and that’s really become where I’ve…
Where my passion has been the last nearly 20 years now.
07:58 MF: Serving the middle market. That’s your passion. How did that happen? Why? What’s wrong with billion dollar companies?
08:07 JC: Well, I was… A couple things, one of the issues with the merger was, at the time I was
running the corporate and investment banking, vertical and the Business Services Group, and doing
it out of Atlanta. The executive team came to me and said, “You need to move to Charlotte,” and at
the time, personally, I was more focused on being here in Atlanta and raising my family here and so
I decided not to do that. And that’s when I transitioned into the… What, at the time, was called the
08:42 JC: And that’s kind of one of those things, again, where you just have to be flexible and kind
of figure out what your objectives are and then, how does it fit in with your career aspirations. For
me, I was betting on the city of Atlanta instead of Wachovia Bank and, in hindsight, that ended up
being a pretty good bet, because of the turmoil that Wachovia went through, becoming… In the ’09-
’10 time frame, and then having to sell to Wells Fargo. So Atlanta is, to me, the best business city in
the country, and… So I’m really jazzed up about being here. I’ve been kind of planting my roots here
for the last 22 years.
09:24 MF: A transplanted Yankee.
09:26 JC: That’s right. I think I’m actually, officially, a damn Yankee, which means a Yankee that
doesn’t go back.
09:34 MF: Well that makes two of us. I’m the same thing, I grew up in Connecticut and my wife
grew up in Atlanta, so we’re in Atlanta.
09:41 JC: That’s right. But I am a Braves fan, unless they’re playing the New York Yankees.
09:45 MF: Right?
09:48 MF: Yeah, there’s some things that never change.
09:49 JC: That’s exactly right.
09:50 MF: That’s right. Well, let’s talk about your first startup, which was really an institutional… I
mean, it was such a large startup. And why did you… What motivated you to do that? ‘Cause
Wachovia was a good bank, you were getting promoted frequently, you spent almost 10 years there.
Why did you decide to leave and do a banking startup?
10:12 JC: Yeah, when I approach strategic decisions, I really look at the market. And to me,
Atlanta was this incredible market, over 4,000 privately held companies in the $10-250 million
dollar revenue size range. And at the time, that market was controlled by the three big guys,
Wachovia, B of A and SunTrust. And myself and the four initial partners really felt like we could do
a better job serving that midmarket company with experienced bankers, great technology and
fantastic customer service, and we felt like… Not to disparage the competition, but that we could do
a better job at that.
10:55 MF: Because you could focus on that segment, whereas in the larger banks, they focus on the large customers and the middle market gets…
11:01 JC: That’s right, it gets a little bit lost…
11:04 MF: Ignored.
11:04 JC: Lost or ignored, would be our experience. I always think that with focus comes
excellence, and that was something that was really important to us, so we narrowed the scope of
what our real focus was gonna be and from the initial opening in May of ’07 ’till this past year, we
grew dramatically to nearly a $3 billion bank, and it was with public market capitalization, and we
did a good job on behalf of our original shareholders, which was obviously a key objective.
11:41 MF: Yeah. Well… So you told me, I think when we first met, it was… When you started
Atlantic Capital Bank with your partners, it was just basically you and a couple other guys and a pot
of coffee. Tell us more!
11:58 JC: So I… We did quite a bit of planning the winter and spring of ’06, but we all started
together in some free space in Buckhead, and we had a coffee pot, and it was four guys and an idea,
and Sonny Deriso, Doug Williams and Kurt Schreiner were the initial partners and we just really
got it going from there. I was… I resigned from Wachovia, so I was unemployed for a day and
worked from home for a day and my wonderful wife, Mary, said that that was enough.
14:44 MF: So picking people, picking capital are probably, in my mind, two of the most important
decisions, activities necessary for building a company. So you started with picking the people. What
was your criteria? What were you looking for? Were there any common experiences or values that
you used in your mind to select the team that you built up?
15:05 JC: Sure. First of all, we were looking for experienced bankers who had really great
capability. And so that was an absolute necessity. So we… I recruited people from lots of different
institutions who were, effectively, best in class. We also wanted to find people who had that
entrepreneurial spirit, who were willing, as mid-career bankers, to take the risk with joining a new
bank. And that was very courageous on their part, and so that’s something that I never want to
underestimate, because the people’s willingness to come on board and walk into a little bit of
unknown and chaos from a fairly stable situation was very humbling to myself and our partners day
16:00 MF: Well, I think it also is risky, in and of itself, to hire people from traditional banks to do a
startup, ’cause we all… I started at IBM. You take certain infrastructure, that… The weekly
paycheck, you take that for granted. So was it difficult to find people that really wanted to take a
16:22 JC: Well… I mean certainly it wasn’t some folks’ cup of tea, obviously. But the initial team of
client-facing bankers and officers that we had were really very unique people and a good mix of
great traditional bank skill, but also somebody who’s ready to do something different. And I think
that’s something that our generation can learn from the millennials, I think, and their willingness to
try different things and not be so kind of locked into their, to one career. My father worked for one
company for his entire… Nearly his entire life, and I just don’t think that’s the environment today
that people can expect.
17:12 MF: Right, right. So picking people was your job. Now, your partners did the picking of the
capital sources. Was… You said it was private equity. I think selection of investors and capital
sources is also very important. What was their criteria? Was it just the capacity? Was it the cost of
the capital? Or was it the culture and the values of those institutions from which they got the
capital? All of the above?
17:36 JC: All of the above. But for us, the partnership was absolutely critical. Our lead investor, who owned 29% of the bank, was BankCap Partners, out of Dallas. And they were just… Through
what was a difficult environment, through the downturn, very stalwart partners throughout.
Goldman Sachs, before they were a bank holding company, was a little bit less than 9% investor, as
was another firm out of… Stone Point Capital, out of Connecticut. So we had three great partners on
the institutional side who were, for the most part, rather hands off, but that were interested parties to
our success, is how I’d categorize them.
18:26 MF: So any other interesting highlights though throughout your journey Atlantic Capital
Bank? I know at the end, near the end of your journey, there was a merger, recently, with First
Security of Chattanooga.
18:39 JC: Right. And that was a great… It was really an acquisition on behalf of Atlantic Capital.
That was what, eight and a half years in, it got us to the public market. First Security was a Nasdaq- traded bank that had underperformed and then was beginning to turn around. We bought them and
effectively stepped into their shoes as the… Stepped into their shoes as a public company, and that
was… Atlantic Capital’s obviously traded as ACBI on the Nasdaq. So for me personally, it was an
exciting time and a really good thing, I think, for our shareholders. Over the last couple of years,
running a… Helping to run a public bank is different than running a private bank. And so, I recently
made the decision to go back again to the start, from an entrepreneurial perspective, and start
Practical Growth Advisors. But I’m still a huge cheerleader for Atlantic Capital and wish them
every success. So it’s a… It was a great personal experience for me to grow something, really, from
an idea to a firm that was worth north of $400 million. It was just a really neat experience.
20:08 MF: Right. Well that was a pretty big startup, with a base of $125 million at the beginning, and…
20:12 JC: We were the largest US startup in the banking space and we’re very proud of that. And I
don’t think that’s… I think that record still stands, so we’re pretty cool.
20:28 MF: So did you achieve there what you said, originally the reason you guys wanted to do
that was that you felt that the middle market was almost, maybe ignored is too strong, but it
certainly wasn’t the focus of the larger institutions. And you said, “We need focus, which generates
excellence, which generates confidence.” So that’s my link now to the discussion on Practical
Growth Advisors, because you say you want to grow these middle market companies with
confidence. Could you… I mean, it’ll sound nice…
21:02 MF: Could you put some substance back around these… And what does that really mean?
21:06 JC: Sure. One of the things that I observed with working and serving business owners, is
they all have a very, in their minds, a very specific path towards what they want their company to
grow to, whether it’s revenue size, or value, or whatever their outcome is. And every business
owner, whether they’ve been running their business for 40 years, when you say, “Are you an
entrepreneur?” They say, “Darn right I’m an entrepreneur.” So even if they’ve built a multi hundred
million dollar company, they fondly remember those times at the beginning.
21:45 JC: This growing with confidence is really focused on primarily helping companies create a
road map for growth, a quantitative roadmap for growth. A forecast that’s based on history, but
really allows them to build their company with a lot more quantitative focus than sometimes the
business owners have. And typically, in companies under $250 million of revenue, there is not a
broad executive team, and so we’re helping to either strengthen their team on a project basis, or help
them really look into their businesses to see where they can… Where the barriers to growth are, or
where the opportunities for growth are, and exploit them. And we start that with a very deta than a few weeks or less than a month, and come up with some very specific things that can be…
Where we can be of use. Sometimes it’s working on line of service profitability, sales issues that
might exist, capital issues. Right now we’re working on an equity raise for a company, a couple of
junior capital assignments, as well as a couple bank assignments. So a lot of times, the work that we
initially do in this rapid assessment kind of ends up turning into additional projects, and many of
them are around the capital element of things, because that’s the… What, typically, what companies
need to grow. 24:04 MF: Right. And how difficult is it to get middle market entrepreneurs to adopt some of these
new processes and disciplines that may not come naturally to them? So many of them, maybe like
you, started up with a pot of coffee. Now, they didn’t have $125 million, they had a lot less than
that, but they may not had either had even the same education. How do you get them to adopt a
much more disciplined… Again, you called it a focus on quantitative issues. Have you had obstacles
at all to do that?
24:37 JC: Clearly, companies have embedded cultures. Executives and owners have their way of
doing things. And so what we find is the forecast and the goal becomes a driving issue, and so some
of the gradual changes or, in some instances, transformative changes that we suggest are typically
adopted exclusively… We work with the business owner to make sure that they’re in line with this.
And what we found is they get really excited about it, because not only are they able to
communicate verbally and with their own passion to their team, but also to kind of work through
lead measures and key performance indicators to help their people really grasp what the mission is
and get on board. And so, the change element of it is… And data management and process and all
that stuff is, it’s gradual at times, but it works. And once you start the snowball going down the hill,
it built up momentum significantly. 25:53 MF: Right. So Atlantic Capital Bank, you were serving middle market companies, and you
must have seen that a lot of the same types of customers you’re working with now, so that’s where
you got the background and experience to do this. But give our listeners some examples of those
middle market companies trying to grow that failed, and why did they fail, and then, if there’s a
story too on some wild successes, I think that would be interesting also.
26:19 JC: Sure. Boy, there’s… Thankfully, at Atlantic Capital, we had such a great credit culture
that we didn’t see too many companies fail. The tragedy, to me, of the long, long downturn was that
we had one or two companies that either… Really, that lasted for three years but couldn’t last for that
fourth year. When it really was kind of getting difficult in the ’09 to kind of coming out in ’12, and
that was really the issue. Very fine companies, decent business models, but they were just… The
downturn in the lower level of revenue just really kinda hurt them in the end. To me, having access
to capital for your ideas and for your company is really so critical, in the good times and the bad
times. And that’s one of the things that we clearly are focusing on with Practical Growth Advisors.
So from a failure perspective, I think sometimes the spiral happens and it’s just, it’s hard to kind
27:36 JC: On the upside, we have… Even right now, we’re working with a company that is looking
to double their revenue next year into the mid-$150 million revenue size range, so a lot of growth.
I’m also working with a startup company here locally, out of Atlanta Tech Village, that is disrupting
a $240 billion industry. So growth happens, I guess is what I would say, and great ideas, great
teams, good execution are really critical to private company success. And it takes different forms and different business models, but it’s possible. And I think that that’s one of the things that has really changed over the last 24 months is, business owner psychology has become more positive. People have a forward posture now about what they can accomplish and they’re willing to take risks again. And so that’s one of the things that I think has been so critical for what’s… Our GDP was 4.1% up last quarter. It’s just remarkable, because people got their mojo back.
28:53 MF: Right, so… But part of that mojo, then, is due to the economic environment.
28:58 JC: Right, sure.
28:58 MF: So that’s part of it, but… We read recently in the Wall Street Journal that many PE funds
now are not just providing equity capital, but also that they’re doing loans. How might that affect
what you do?
29:13 JC: Right. It’s fantastic, because when we’re working on behalf of midsize companies, more
competition is good. So what seems to be happening is that banks have their levels of risk appetite,
and you have great junior capital providers who are typically unsecured or secondarily secured,
they’re providing a critical function and earning a better rate of return. And then you have,
obviously, equity and quasi-equity type of participants as well. And as everybody… As a lot of these
private companies are awash with capital and people investing in them, you see all the lines
blurring. And I think that ultimately, for borrowers, for companies that are looking to grow, that’s a
really positive thing, is… Because you have options, you have… If you’re going through
hypergrowth… 10 years ago, you might have had to have given up equity. That may not be the case
today because of some of these alternate capital providers.
30:23 MF: And speaking of growth, and hyperactivity, many of our listeners are debt buyers and
the FinTech market has taken off and it’s very disruptive. Lots of opportunities, lots of risks. What’s
your outlook on that market, particularly as it relates to the availability of capital, both for
consumers as well as businesses?
30:45 JC: Clearly another key competitor, and we love to see Atlanta be, really, the global capital
of FinTech, so excited about all the things that are going on there. And we really… I think the future
is very bright, particularly in the consumer space, where they’re disintermediating the traditional
banks, and I think that’s a very effective model.
31:14 MF: So do you think, then, that the traditional banks for the basic consumer loans are going
31:20 JC: I think they’re going to, for non-mortgage-related stuff. Companies like Kabbage here
locally and others are… And some of the folks that, obviously, you work with, Michael or… I think
there’s a lot of opportunity there, because banks are under a lot of regulatory stress, particularly as it
relates to subprime and near-prime borrowers, and I don’t think that’s gonna change.
31:50 MF: Well, John, I’ve got lots more questions, but I think we’re gonna have to have a second
meeting on Capital Club Radio in a year from now to follow you. But just my own view, then I’m
gonna ask you to summarize your comments, when I think back when you were an Eagle Scout, and
you just were saying it’s about focus and excellence and developing skills, and that’s what gives you
the confidence and the discipline and the teamwork, that’s… Those are the same themes, I’ve been listening to you here in the last half hour, the same themes you’re talking about in developing your middle market customers in your new company, Practical Growth Advisors. So it’s… I love connecting the dots in people’s lives and their careers, and when you go back to when you were an Eagle Scout, these are the skills, experiences, processes that you learned there. You developed them more in the banking world, not just with institutions, but obviously you applied it with your startup,
Atlantic Capital, $125 million, big startup. And now you got a chance to do it again, as even another
entrepreneur, maybe not with $125 million, but you’re gonna help others. And so it’s a different…
Different but similar purpose.
33:00 JC: Absolutely, and I’m really excited about… And my partner, Emmett Moore, who I went
to school with way, way, way back when. When we started this, we really felt like there was this
great opportunity to help great private companies grow with confidence, and that’s what we’re
focused on. And yes, this is a culmination of my career to a certain extent, but we both feel like
we’ve got a lot of insight and perspective and experience that we can apply and help business
owners to grow a little bit faster. So looking forward to it. Thank you for having me, this has been a
lot of fun and congratulations on all of your great success at FLOCK Financial.
33:44 MF: Well, thank you, John. And we’re gonna have to get together again in a year, because
there’s still a lot more to talk about and you’ll have even more, I think, achievements on that Eagle
Scout uniform to talk about in another year, and we look forward to seeing you again.
33:58 JC: Thank you.
33:58 MF: Thank you, John. Okay.
34:01 S1: Thank for joining Michael Flock and his guests on the Capital Club Radio Show. For
more information on future interviews, please visit us at flockfinance.com. This program is brought
to you by FLOCK Specialty Finance, where clients are provided knowledge and insights to help
them grow their business in complex and risky markets. FLOCK is more than a transaction
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