Career Profile: Mike Thonis

Charlesbank Capital Partners

Mike Thonis
Mike Thonis is the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer for Charlesbank. He manages operations and is a founder of Charlesbank, an investment company that serves university clients. The information for this profile is from an interview conducted on April 5, 2011.

Click on a topic below, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Current Job Description * Educational Background and Career Path * Key Decision Points in Career Path * Favorite Part of Job * Challenges in Job * Balance * Myths and Misconceptions * Advice

Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, month, or quarter.
I am a Founding Managing Director of Charlesbank, one of 5 people who started the company. While I am an investment manager, I don't do very much work investing anymore. My work involves running operations of the company. I do bookkeeping, accounting, negotiating leases, IT, legal, and fundraising to get new clients. I manage these operations so investment people can spend their days investing.

The clients of Charlesbank are mainly university endowments. Charlesbank takes the endowment money and invests in middle market companies (small companies and businesses typically started by an entrepreneur that are not publicly traded). These companies get money from Charlesbank to help them grow. These investments then help grow the endowments for university clients.

I work 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM every weekday and try not to work in the 'evenings' or weekends. People work very hard in this field because it is a very labor intensive field. I typically travel, read legal documents, email, negotiate with parties, organize, and crunch numbers. Also, I oversee the processing of quarterly statements, which is time consuming. These statements are issued every 90 days to all clients. This work can be very repetitive. Personally, I like this and see it as a challenge to get better and better at it every time. Most of this job is about task completion and getting better about completing routine tasks. The job is more like a business job than anything else.

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.
I hold a B.S. in geology from Syracuse University, a M.S. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Harvard University. I completed these degrees back to back. After completing my MBA, I held a job at Bain & Company, a strategy consulting firm in Boston, doing investing work. Doing this job made me realize I wanted to work as an investment manager rather than a consultant.

Shortly after making the decision to work as an investment manager, I was offered a job working for the Harvard Endowment fund. After working there for 20+ years, I was asked to help create and found Charlesbank, a spin-out of the Harvard Endowment group specializing in private equity.

I feel I was led through my career path by accepting offers as they arose and trusting my instincts. I let the job market tell me serendipitously what my career path ought to be. That said, you need to work hard. Finding a job through serendipity does not involve standing back and waiting to be handed something. It's a matter of working hard and using your gut instincts to make wise decisions. Maybe the harder you work the luckier you get.

What were key decision points or factors that were important in deciding your career path? Were there any specific challenges or difficult moments that arose while making your decision?
When I was young, I wanted to be an earth scientist and envisioned myself working in academia. At MIT, I entered as a PhD in geology. Once there, I was always organizing rocks, relabeling chemicals, arranging and organizing field trips, putting together field guides, etc. Within months of beginning my PhD, I decided to change my degree track to a Masters Degree and then go on to get an MBA. Administrative work was always my passion, not teaching. When I was initially deciding to get my MBA, I vaguely thought I might find a way to combine earth science with finance, but never seriously. I chose to work in the investment field instead of on geology jobs as summer work during my MBA, and never really had a job working in the geosciences.

One of the most difficult moments I had in my career path was telling friends and family about my decision to pursue a career in finance instead of as an earth science professor. My mother was a teacher and my father had a very high regard for science. Telling them was difficult and I'm not sure they approved of the decision. However, I had to do what was right for me and I've never regretted that decision.

What do you like best about your work?
My job gives me an adrenaline rush. I love working as hard as possible. I love managing and I also love the investment side of the work and watching investments grow.

Competition is stiff in investing, even for universities, and systematic careful investing is necessary. This takes hard work, thought, and analysis. It is very rewarding when investments are profitable.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
It is most challenging working with other people. I've found that people are either courteous or rude. I try to be courteous because it makes others and myself happier. Rudeness is not a good strategy for long-term success. It gets a lot of play on TV and media, but not a good strategy to get far in life.

Many geoscientists entering the workforce are interested in balancing their personal and professional life. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences about balance in your life and what challenges you have maintaining balance.

I have found balance between personal interests, family time, and work. I am lucky to be a person who requires less than 6 hours of sleep a night which makes it easier to continue with all my interests.

I try very hard to leave work at work. This gives me time to spend with my family at home. Weekends are very important to me. I spend weekends hiking with my family, on geology field trips, reading geology journals, and being outside as much as possible in general. I feel I have balance in my life between work and family as well as between earth science interests and financial interests.

Also, I serve on the Boards of Trustees of the Boston Museum of Science, the New England Conservatory, and Syracuse University. I consider these to be a mix of personal and professional interests.

Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?
Private equity is not the same as hedge funds. There have been misunderstandings about the private equity world during the financial crisis. Hedge funds are like a different species from private equity on the phylogenetic tree of investment strategies. Hedge funds are more liquid investments that give investors more control over higher risk. Private equity are not liquid investments and are meant for a multi-year time frame. Investors control risk with careful operational controls. It's important to make this distinction because the kind of investing that Charlesbank does for universities relies on low risk, long term investing to give universities stability and security.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?
If you're passionate about geoscience, you should pursue your career in geoscience. If you're having doubts, don't be afraid to change course. Life is very fluid. Finish what you start, but don't be afraid to change course. Some advice I would give people just starting to look for work would be that doing what is not obvious and changing course from expectations and previous dreams is not such a terrible, terrifying thing.

Also, it is important to understand why people have different views and to be sensitive to different starting positions.

I also believe that everyone can do more than they think. I remember feeling like I couldn't possibly take on more work in my 20s and dreading taking on anything new. Ten years later, I felt I was doing double the work. Maybe it's about efficiency or overcoming a learning curve but it gets easier to do more work. Don't be afraid to take on more. I believe everyone can take on more.

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