Going the distance for small business

December 15, 2011
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When Kristi Miller talks about First West Capital’s successful first year, she does so in metaphors about running. The co-founder, vice-president and long-distance runner, who has logged four marathons and is training for her fifth, knows that growing a business is not a sprint, but rather "an endurance sport.” While the market has responded enthusiastically to First West Capital’s investment philosophy and style, the best is still yet to come, and  Kristi understands the need to “to pace ourselves because we're in it for the long haul.”

It’s a fitting statement for someone who has already completed a dozen equity, more than 60 subordinated debt and over 500 senior debt transactions during her 15 years in the finance industry. Before co-founding First West Capital, Kristi served as an investment manager at a large Vancouver capital company, where she developed and managed a diverse portfolio of subordinated debt-financed clients. Prior to that, she managed a portfolio of commercial clients at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). She also served as an investment officer for the Small Enterprise Equity Fund of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in St. Petersburg, Russia and she is past president of the Association of Women in Finance (AWF), vice chair of the Vancouver International Marathon Society and former chair of the B.C. Provincial Child Care Council.

Running the Road to Success

Kristi is clearly going the distance, and she’s used her forward momentum to propel First West Capital’s inaugural year, which she describes as "intense and incredibly rewarding," having helped craft  12 deals since the company’s launch in October 2010. “We’ve already committed more than $16 million,” she shares. “We exceeded our targets for the year and hit our year end goals in June. It’s a very proactive culture focused on growing quickly, but in a smart way.”

She’s not only committed to the success of First West Capital, but also to working smarter for its roster of clients, companies that operate mainly in the service, manufacturing and technology sectors. Her approach involves being more creative than traditional banks can afford to be. “We can create customized solutions to meet the needs of our borrowers,” Kristi explains. “We provide a layer of creative and customized debt that reflects the specific circumstances of each client ”

It’s not only the financing structure that’s creative, but also First West Capital’s management structure – an equal collaboration between Kristi and co-founder Robert Napoli. “It’s unique to have a team-based approach,” she says. “Rob and I are really interchangeable. With any of our deals, we could both write them; which of us ends up doing it depends on who the entrepreneur finds a fit with. I’m an MBA and he’s a CA, which brings a complementary nature to our relationship. Clients can meet us both and decide who they want to work with.”

Leader of the Pack

As a woman working in an industry still dominated by men, Kristi is used to carving her own unique path. Plus, with 12 years in specialized subordinated debt financing, she’s got the connections to keep her one step ahead. “I’ve spent my entire life in capital. Vancouver is a small finance community, but I see that as an opportunity to distinguish myself,” she says. “I have great contacts and I leverage these relationships to find optimal solutions for our clients. We’re agile, and with our highly efficient  adjudication model and local decision-making, we can deliver quickly. Plus, almost all  of our deals get approved; no one gets declined at the eleventh hour.”

There’s no finish line in sight for Kristi in this marathon, but she does see First West Capital turning its first corner. “We’re at an interesting transition point. We’ve proven our basic business case and now it’s an endurance sport. We hired an analyst, and we’ve opened a downtown Vancouver office in addition to the one in Langley. We’re also exploring the Alberta market. All of our current clients are B.C.-based, but we would like to grow to become a national player.”

They say that slow and steady wins the race, but in Kristi’s case it’s pacing and cadence that keep her at the front of the pack—and front and centre in her clients’ minds. “Almost half of our clients clients come back for follow-on rounds – an extraordinarily high number for this kind of financing,” she explains. “We build strong relationships and really try to grow with our investees.”

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