Meet James Cassel, Chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co.

by Jerome Knyszewski
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James Cassel, co-founder & chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., talks about how to take a company from good to great

James Cassel is a co-founder and the chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co. As an investment banker and attorney, he uses his extensive experience in deal-making to guide his clients to secure deals that advances their goals in the best way possible.

Focused on “representing middle-market companies,” James Cassel has “successfully negotiated, structured, and executed a broad spectrum of transactions.” These transactions include “mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, corporate and transactional financings, and public offerings for clients nationwide and worldwide.” Through his experience, he has also developed a “keen understanding of the issues faced and alternatives available for distressed companies.” This understanding has helped him complete negotiations with creditors, guide debtors through bankruptcy proceedings, and plan for financial restructuring.

Besides making deals, James Cassel also holds frequent lectures on issues regarding middle-market investment banking. His banking expertise has earned him national recognition, as well.

Before Cassel Salpeter & Co., James Cassel was also the co-founder and chairman of Capitalink, an investment banking firm. This firm was acquired by Ladenburg Thalmann & Co., a member of the New York Stock Exchange. James also served as the vice chairman, senior managing director, and head of investment banking at the firm.

James Cassel also sat on the board and served as president of the South Florida Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth.

Check out more interviews with successful deal-makers here.  

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

James Cassel: I was a securities lawyer for 17 years but really didn’t have anything close to a work/life balance. Like most securities attorneys I thought we did all of the work while the investment bankers were making all the money. I had a client who encouraged me to become an investment banker and join his firm because I was good at making deals, so I finally did it. Although I have better work/life balance, today, I still continue to be deeply absorbed by my work. I’m not complaining. I love the career I’ve chosen, but I’ve had to work very hard to carve out the success I and my firm enjoy today.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

James Cassel: I grew up comfortably, but there were times in my professional career in both law and the financial industry when things looked bad. As a budding securities attorney, I found myself working very hard for a six month stretch without getting paid. I was getting seriously worried, when a friend who knew of my situation called informing me that I had won $5000 in a raffle. I thought it was a joke, but he showed up at my home 10:30 at night with the check. I used that to pay my next mortgage payment.

I then joined a new law firm. After 17 years of law practice, I walked away from that career as a corporate/securities attorney, and as managing partner of the firm’s largest office during my best year and entered investment banking. Little over a year later, things went south with a business partner, and I had to face a decision: Do I turn back and practice law, or do I start an investment bank? To a certain extent, in both cases it would be a restart.

I think it’s important to note that I expected to succeed either way. This is not about being arrogant, but about believing you will succeed and having that confidence. It’s fundamental to succeeding, and a key to taking a business from good to great. You really do have to believe. I thought, I’m going to be successful at whatever I decide, but by creating an investment bank at the end of my career, I’ll also have a quality business to sell. So, I found new partners and started the investment bank Cassel Salpeter & Co.

About six months after kicking off my first investment banking firm, I did consider giving up when things were not going well. But by then realized there was a niche opportunity in the market issuing “fairness opinions.” Here, after substantial analyses we might determine that a transaction is fair from a financial point of view — and that saved our firm. That was 25 years ago, and we were rescued by a lawyer who sent us one deal that turned out to be the difference between making it or not making it. I never forget what he did for me.

There is also a lesson here in going from good to great in how this all played out, because before you can even get to good, never mind great, you have to survive. That lawyer decided to trust our services even though we didn’t have the track record that other firms had. Some might say we weren’t entitled to the opportunity, but we seized it and performed at a very high level and went on to prosper. We still do business 25 years later.

I started the first investment banking business from scratch when I was writing checks without receiving them. In both of my early starts the money was going out the door and not coming in as fast. When things got difficult what most kept me going was that I could not afford to fail. I had a wife and four children, and lots of bills and knew I could and had to make it work. There was no alternative.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

James Cassel: I wouldn’t say this was a mistake, but when I quit practicing law and started in the investment banking business, I found myself with my new partner rising on a lift preparing to ski with clients. When we got to the top of the mountain, my new partner turned to me and said, “It’s all downhill from here.” I guess technically he was right.

What I’m trying to say is that depending on the sort of investment banking work we are doing, there can be significant impacts on the people behind the deals. Quite often we are selling what amounts to a person’s baby, and quite often it’s a baby in deep trouble. This can be traumatic for many business owners for whom their company can be an extension of their personality. Having a sense of humor and real compassion and feel for the players in a deal goes a long way.

Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

James Cassel: First read the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. He describes this much better than I could ever do.

• To take a company from good to great you have to have the right people in the right positions to begin with. We run a small company. As with any company, having the right people in each role is critical. You can take someone with an outgoing personality and put them in the back room drafting documents and end up setting them up for failure instead of putting them in a position where they can flourish.

• You have to have leadership that is openminded and collaborative, and at the same time, has a real vision and determination to achieve greatness and make the tough decisions. This starts with bringing in people to your team that may not necessarily have the same ideas or background as you and being open to doing things in new ways that you may not have previously experienced. If it’s getting you more efficiently to your ultimate goal, and you can incorporate your contributions as well, you have to be open to that.

• You have to be willing to innovate and part of this is being willing to take calculated risks and think outside the box.

• You have to be willing to make mistakes, acknowledge them, and change direction. I’ve hired wrongly, for example, and I’ve learned to correct that quickly. You do no favor to the employee, or the company by extending the relationship.

• And you have to be willing to help others and extend yourself to others in your industry, while taking a long-term view about business relationships.

Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

James Cassel: When I think of purpose driven businesses, I see this as an internal and external dynamic that ends up promoting the overall health of a company, as well as the environment it comes into contact with.

Look at a company like TOMS shoes which does good by not only selling a product, but by donating a substantial amount of that product to people in need. What they do helps the company internally in terms of morale because they feel good about their mission, but it also helps the company externally, because they are right to get their message out regarding their efforts to help others. That not only helps build brand loyalty, but it can lead to other companies following suit.

As the company itself says, “TOMS has always stood for a better tomorrow–one where humanity thrives. To us, that means no matter who you are or where you live, you feel physically safe, mentally healthy, and have equal access to opportunity. Every TOMS purchase enables us to invest in local partners around the world who are working to create positive change in these three areas.”

You can also look at a company like Apple, which now has great momentum with its watch. But that watch is not just telling time, it connects to one’s health care stats. They are developing a product that’s far beyond something designed just to make its creators money. They are developing a product that can actually do good.

As an investment banker engaged in health care industry M&A, I look at companies that are working on COVID-19 vaccines and therapies and it can be argued that they are purpose driven businesses. Sure, they are looking to earn a profit, but you can bet that they are also motivated to do great things for our society. The folks I work with in the health care industry are also mission and purpose driven.

At the end of the day, when you are a purpose driven business you are building momentum to make the world a better place and that’s definitely a part of going from good to great, because another aspect of a great company, is that everyone on board is motivated and feels their work has meaning and is part of something larger. Greatness isn’t just about a bottom line, but it’s how you feel inside about your company and your work. That builds camaraderie and helps create energy to achieve your mission and goals as a company. When you have satisfied employees, they end up more innovative, harder working, and they help your company grow, which is just better for everybody.

All that said, it’s important to note, that before you can be a truly purpose driven company, you have to have a quality product and a viable economic model. You can’t skimp on that.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

James Cassel: I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all when it comes to conversions. I think you have to tailor your pitch, your products and services to particular sets of consumers and customers. I think listening to your customers and clients and understanding what their needs and wants are is the important thing.

You get that feedback by asking your clients and customers for it. You can do so directly, one-on-one, or using digital communications platforms and social media. My father used to tell me there’s a reason God gave us one mouth and two ears: we should listen twice as much as we should talk.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

James Cassel: What’s behind the image of a great brand really comes down to consistent customer service, standing behind your products with good warranties, and ensuring they are of top quality. It’s about not cutting corners, listening to your customers and being responsive, and providing good value. And, ideally, you do want to go that extra mile by giving back and there’s no reason a business shouldn’t let its customers know that they are giving back. Customers want to know they are supporting a company with a vision that’s larger than the bottom line, especially now.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

James Cassel: James Cassel may be reached via email at jcassel@casselsalpeter.com or via LinkedIn. His website is: www.casselsalpeter.com

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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