by Tony Moore
Take a look at Access Holdings, a private equity firm founded in 2013 by Kevin McAllister ’98, and you’ll see a firm that quickly becomes a leader in each industry it enters—and it’s truly a wide range of industries.
To a private equity novice, funeral homes, pet cremation, collegiate sports marketing and student transportation may seem unrelated. But these unique industries represent the extensive breadth of Access Holdings’ portfolio of essential services, exemplifying a firm focused on essential industries—and growth. And as McAllister says, a landscape as nuanced as private equity just might need something like a liberal-arts education as a solid foundation.
Private equity firms generally buy controlling stakes in companies not traded publicly on exchanges with the goal of growing them. Today, the industry collectively manages over $6 trillion worldwide. It’s a sector full of nuance, and it can be difficult to grasp to the uninitiated.
“At Dickinson, I didn't really understand the landscape of consulting versus private equity versus investment banking,” says McAllister, a managing partner at his firm. “The liberal arts education fundamentally teaches you how to learn quickly, do the research and ask reasonable questions, all of which ultimately helps you in any environment you end up in.”
McAllister says he benefited the most from Dickinson’s emphasis on critical thinking, strong communication and active inquiry, which he calls “a true liberal arts grounding.”
“In addition to critical thinking and broad problem-solving skills learned at Dickinson, my economics major gave me a series of frameworks against which to ask more quantitative questions,” he says. “At Access we are highly thematic in our approach to investing, and this approach is very much supported by the skills learned at Dickinson and refined during business school.”
McAllister says at Dickinson he was a “work-study kid,” one who came from a public high school in New Hampshire not fully ready for the academic fastballs college threw at him.
“When I got to Dickinson, I was offered as much exposure and opportunity as I could consume. Every professor was available and engaged, and I'd never had more opportunity,” he says. He capitalized on that opportunity by studying abroad at Cambridge University, interning in London for a summer while taking a class at London School of Economics and spending a semester studying and interning in Washington, D.C.
He says the environment at Dickinson “was really powerful for me” and encourages students to dive in with both feet.
“As a college student, it's great to be exposed and informed early. Taking on internships is a great way to gain exposure,” says McAllister, who today has several Dickinson students and alumni working with him. “The Dickinson students today are far more knowledgeable about their career alternatives and the universe of opportunities in front of them than I was at their age.”
After Dickinson, McAllister went to work for the strategy group at Chicago’s AT Kearney, a firm he said offered a “tremendous first job,” with “great mentors and a firm that invested in their people.” After AT Kearney, Accenture and a brief entrepreneurial stint, McAllister went to the University of Chicago to earn an MBA. From there he worked in mergers and aquisitions (M&A) with JPMorgan Chase for a summer and landed an internship at a private equity firm—American Capital—that eventually became his first job after business school.
The firm went from $1 billion of assets under management in 2003 to $22 billion dollars just five years later, growing from 50 employees to 750 employees in the stretch.
“When you’re part of an organization that grows rapidly, you’re given opportunities that you might not have otherwise,” says McAllister, noting that the American Capital team was good at “buying businesses that bankers were selling.” “This experience gave me lots of transactional reps but also taught me that I didn’t want to buy businesses that other people were trying to sell; I was resolved to identify businesses that I actually wanted to work with. I believed that good businesses could be identified with research and have even more conviction now that good markets and business models are knowable.”
Cut to 2013, and McAllister’s desire to buy and build businesses led to him found Access Holdings, which has gone on to make more than 90 platform and add-on acquisitions since 2016.
“The diverse exposure offered at Dickinson gave me broad perspective and empathy to understand the other party’s position,” he says, noting that different perspectives and experiences lead different groups to solve the same problem in unique ways. “Thinking differently is OK—part of the journey is understanding why someone thinks the way they do. Engaging and listening allows everyone to understand their partners, and being able to reflect on situations using quantitative and qualitative information and to be intellectually honest is foundational to our growth as a firm.”
McAllister started Access with $10 million of capital commitments, and today Access manages over $1.3 billion. But the path to success is always filled with challenges.
“Along the journey, we’ve heard the word ‘no’ often—from investors, from employees we’ve wanted to hire, and from potential owners and partners,” McAllister says. "We had to be persistent and take an honest look at why we heard no. It’s made us a better firm and continues to strengthen our partnerships today. Now, we get fewer no’s, and we’ve worked hard to deliver on our commitments to all stakeholders.”
What emerged as a business ethos is a win-win approach, something that McAllister credits Dickinson for cultivating in him.
“At Dickinson, it was always about understanding every side of the issue and developing the best solution for all parties," he says. “This approach really resonates with me and the team at Access, and I believe it’s the most effective way to build enduring partnerships. Our business today is a collection of trusted relationships. We succeed together if we are aligned in our responsibilities and actions and work relentlessly to fulfill our commitments.
McAllister met his future wife, Julie Martin ’96, in Carlisle at her five-year Dickinson reunion after being introduced by mutual friends. Martin was a two-sport athlete all four years at Dickinson, playing field hockey and lacrosse, and the record holder was recently inducted into the Dickinson Athletics Hall of Fame for her success on the lacrosse field as a three time All-American.
It was Martin’s roots that brought them to Maryland, where McAllister founded his company and the couple is raising their four daughters.
“I got very lucky and have more than just my education for which to thank Dickinson—Julie is an amazing friend, wife and mother,” McAllister says. “We’ve made Baltimore our home, and part of living in any community is being an engaged and supporting member. We both learned this lesson at Dickinson.”
Now Martin is a preschool teacher and on the preschool board, and together they are active in the redevelopment of the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore, focusing on building and expanding quality workforce housing for the Baltimore community.
“Dickinson has had a major influence on my life—it catalyzed my marriage and my career—and my family and business are because of my decision to choose Dickinson,” McAllister says. “Dickinson is a remarkable community and a transformative force in my life!”
Published August 4, 2021