CEO Ken Moelis, 59, co-founded investment bank Moelis & Company just as the U.S. economy tanked, and took it public in 2014 with a $163 million IPO. As his company finished celebrating its tenth year in business, he reflected on his transition from banker to entrepreneur, his efforts to hire and retain more women in banking, and his succession planning strategy.
What did you learn by starting a financial business in the middle of a financial crisis?
There are a thousand decisions, and people waste an inordinate amount of time trying to make the right ones. The thing we did during the crisis was make the best decision we could with 90 percent of the information, and then reassess it quickly so if it was wrong, we could change it. At some point, 90 percent of the information is the best you're going to do. Make a decision.
What were the scariest early moments?
It was terrifying for everybody, but if you were starting a business, it was probably worse. The Monday that Lehman Brothers went down, we were meeting with a large institution that was going to make a big investment with us. I just looked at the woman from the institution and said, "Look, you're not going to do this right now. Why don't we just give it up?" She goes, "Yeah. You're right. We're not doing this." So we left the room. But we stayed friendly.
Prior to founding your firm, you spent your career taking other companies public. What was it like to go through it yourself?
I thought about going public from day one. And I loved the whole process. I think it's made us a better company. Once you're public, good enough is not good enough. If you're good, you're expected to be great the next quarter. If you're great, then you have to be even greater. I find it inherently motivating.
You've said your company is good at hiring women but not as good at retaining them. What are you doing to change that?
God, anything and everything. The operations roles in the firm are very female. But it's a very difficult problem in banking, where your schedule is so subject to no-notice travel for clients. We try hard to find solutions, such as flexible hours and work-at-home arrangements, but we're just not as successful as I'd like to be.
How do you think about succession? You've said you don't want to be running your company when you're 65.
If you're hiring right, you'll have the most ambitious group of people in the world. They want to win. They want to succeed. The ultimate success to many of them is becoming CEO, so I think it's important that I tell people I'm not going to stay in that job forever. With most of the firms in banking that get into trouble, it's because they became stiff and didn't change. I don't know when this will happen, but I want somebody to come in and say, "Yeah, this is all the stuff Ken screwed up."