Career Development in M&A

Traditionally, corporate development professionals come from banking roles. And while nothing is wrong with that, it is always fascinating to hear other ways that professionals start M&A careers. Sharing his career development in M&A is Caleb Shafer, Corporate Development Associate at RS Group plc.

Career Development in M&A

16 May
Caleb Shafer
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Career Development in M&A

Career Development in M&A

“Corporate development is about having a strategic view of where you are today and where you want to go, identifying what those gaps are, and being proactive about it.” - Caleb Shafer

Just had an interview with Caleb Shafer, Corporate Development Associate at RS Group plc. Caleb went straight to an M&A role after graduating from college and in this interview, he shares his career development in M&A.

special guests

Caleb Shafer
Corporate Development Associate at RS Group plc

Hosted by

Kison Patel

Episode Transcript

How did you start?

I'm a recent graduate of Texas A&M University and I got a degree in engineering - industrial distribution. It's a 60 - 40 mix of engineering and business. I started out in an integration management office role and now I'm in corporate development.

I've always loved the idea of M&A, I had never really ever practiced it though until I engaged in the sale of a landscaping company I started. Obviously, it’s a very different scale that I work at now, but it gave me a little bit of a sense of what the sell-side is like.

But what actually got me into it that funneled into this career path was some additional initiative I took during an internship I had in 2020. 

Transition to a full-time role

My internship actually didn't start out as an M&A-focused internship. I started out as a developer of value-added solutions for the company that I worked for. And part of our investment plan that we submitted was doing a voice of customer project.

So I was essentially asked to crunch some customer data to produce X insights but I realized that the same data could be used to produce additional insights, which would tell us what customer verticals we should be developing new value-added solutions for, and perhaps which customer verticals would be most impactful to our top-line if we were to make an acquisition benefiting those customers. 

So I produced that additional insight that came to mind and the director liked it. He passed it up to his VP of corp dev, and then the VP of Corp dev reached out directly to me. He asked me if I wanted to source some M&A targets for him. So, definitely a backdoor way into M&A and I’ve loved it ever since. 

Starting out with sourcing gave me a different view of the strategy that's considered when you build up your pipeline. Now I know how to digest a P&L, and understand the strategic rationale behind why we're doing any sort of data crunching on the companies we're looking at. 

Towards the end of my internship, thanks to some internal networking and a great culture, one of the VPs of Corp Dev at the group level reached out and told me he is standing up an IMO team and offered me a full-time position. It looks great on paper. And I was super excited. I wanted to get into some higher-level strategic views or strategic perspective roles. And out of all the other roles that I interviewed for this checked all the boxes for me.

And when I started this IMO role, it felt like a treadmill that was on its max setting. And I just jumped on and I tried to keep up with a sprint from like a dead stop. That's what it felt like. I came out of college at a very different pace, in a very different working environment. 

I was used to taking ownership of projects and becoming the leader in whatever sort of group setting I was in, having to understand this cross-functional nature of these projects and then trying to apply that to it to a corporate level was just drastically different.

Lessons Learned

A lot of things went well. I scaled up extremely quickly. I began to interface with executives on a totally different level than I was used to before. I had done presentations, I had done these interviews where I'd understand needs, and then tailor my presentations or my findings or analysis accordingly. 

But then to actually work with them on a daily basis, executing these tasks was very different, it created a different dynamic that I wasn't used to before. So I had to learn very quickly what executive presence and executive communication really are. And I think today I'm still improving with that. 

I learned how important confidence is, especially as a junior associate, a junior sort of contributor to the IMO team, and corporate development as a whole. I had to become very comfortable with keeping senior executives accountable for what the master integration plan says. That was a huge transition for me. That was something I think I'm just now starting to get used to.


From my perspective Kison, I was 25 years old, I've just graduated college and I'm talking with people that have worked longer for one company than I've been alive. Because of that, I became too hyper-aware of this difference. So it was very hard for me to boss people around and ask for deadlines that has already passed. 

It was very hard for me to be assertive and it took me a long time before I learned that it's not a “me versus them”. It's crucial to understand that you're on the same team working towards the same goal. That’s one of my biggest pieces of advice to junior contributors and people new to corporate development. They need that confidence to be able to stand up and make people stick to the plan.

At the end of the day, corporate development is about having a strategic view of where you are today and where you want to go, identifying what those gaps are, and being proactive about it.

And I think that applies both to the personal level, as well as the corporate level, or even a business functional level. And so just seeking to gain a competitive advantage and do better than the competitors, rather than just keeping up. 

How's M&A different from your other roles?

We need to understand first what my other roles were. I did a lot of sales roles, I've been in a number of leadership roles, but primarily dealing with sales management. So going into M&A helped me in areas that were similar. 

I was able to use that sales management perspective and apply it to our M&A processes, which actually led to this Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt project that I'm doing. And we're driving efficiencies, forming KPIs that haven't been formulated since. 

I've been dealing with a lot of startups, whether they be my own or those that I'm interning for in the talent incubator program at Texas A&M, so it's this cohort of just 30 students out of 1100 in our major, now we were selected to do some like business case consulting type projects four.   

At the end of the day those companies are paying for a deliverable, but you're in this cocoon where if you fail, it's okay, you're a student and now you don't really have that safety net. 

I got to travel now which is pretty cool. It used to be my dream but now that I started traveling, I don't know what the hype is all about. I actually don't really want to pack. Hotels aren't all that pleasant. 

You're working long hours. You probably get lunch later than you usually do it, or maybe dinner later and you get back to the hotel at eight or nine, and then where do you wind down?

Transition to corporate development

In my opinion, I'm quite creative and I need a sandbox to play with. And I didn't feel I was getting that with IMO. That's nothing against the organization or the team. I think it's just purely a reflection of what the function is.

And it was that I felt it was very convergent. It was all about execution. I felt like I was like a task chopper. And I just needed more room to be creative. 

I'll admit, I did have some opportunities to do that where some line items on the integration plan had some interdependencies with some other line items on a different integration plan. 

At the end of the day, my manager noticed it, probably before I did honestly. She gave me a few opportunities to have to present what it's like how to source targets, what it's like to make a profile, where to look, and things like that. 

She saw how I kind of came alive during this team presentation that I gave and sort of asked very, insightful and thought-provoking questions that helped me to recognize that I wasn't a good fit for IMO and IMO wasn't really a good fit for me either. 

So I was in a secondment at the time - an internal temporary reassignment. So my temporary reassignment after I graduated since I was already working within the company, wasn't the IMO team.

So because of the nature of this contract and they were able to just essentially transfer or change my secondment into the pre-close side of Corp dev after realizing that we weren't a good fit for one another. 

Skill Required for Corp Development

It comes down to gray zone leadership. It’s all about becoming aware of the people processes and systems that are at play with whatever you're doing at work because when you become more aware of those things, you gain an advantage in detecting the underlying problems within any of those things that may be. Alternatively, you're able to answer questions you anticipate stakeholders having. So there's a bit of empathy involved there. 

Let's say we're dealing with an analyst here who's been asked to make a profile on a target. I would suggest to that person to also do competitive analysis as part of that target profile while you're at it and then make a profile on a competitor that you think is actually better than the target that you were asked to make a profile on. 

It all comes down to anticipating needs and then taking initiative when you recognize what those needs are.

  • You've got to understand who your key stakeholders are. 
  • What are their needs? 
  • What are their pain points? 
  • What do they wish they didn't have to do every day? 

Aligning your interests with theirs enables you to know what to execute first and how to prioritize your time. What is absolutely imperative is coming out with whatever this need you anticipating with enthusiasm and excitement. Go and champion projects and be proactive about putting plans together. When you volunteer yourself like that, it's hard for people to say no. 

And at the end of the day, you're making a material difference, moving a KPI in the right direction. People value that, they appreciate that, and they want to reward that behavior if you're working for the right company. 

Some of the feedback that I've gotten is how influential my enthusiasm has been. That's just kind of who I am. Some people have different personality traits. Enthusiasm is one that I exhibit a lot. So whenever I come at things with that enthusiasm, they find that energy sort of recharging and invigorating, so I try to add that. 

Everyone has different strengths, recognize what your strengths are and find ways to add your strengths to the gray area of tasks between people's boundaries, between people's ownership and divisions. That stuff where no one owns, it's like no man's land. 

You see that something's like creating an inefficiency. Something needs to be optimized. There's a communication breakdown. There's not enough collaboration. Two people are working on strategic initiatives, but they're not coordinating together recognizing that and then pulling them together to formulate something cohesive and aligned. 

And then bring your own creativity, whatever your strengths are. And then whatever your strengths are, you need to be decisive and you need to take initiative on those decisions that you think need to be made. 


I think motivation is something that's learned and I would also argue that it can be taught.

I learned motivation when I started my first landscaping company, the experience and understanding that the scale of the company, the reach, and the success of that company was limited to my ambition and my strategic thinking, my plans, and such. 

While at a very small scale, yes, there's this single city landscaping company. I was 16 years old, starting out with my grandpa's equipment. I realized that I could create my own opportunities. And that's why I think entrepreneurship is a very impactful sort of component for someone to have in their background.

So understand that first, anything is possible. Shoot your shot and just create your own opportunities. That's what I think it comes down to it, at least for me when I learned motivation. 

And then the reason why I think you can teach motivation is that you can transform a culture and be a performance-driven culture. 

Some people just don't think like that. They don't know to use data, use metrics, to make business decisions. But you certainly can do that when you understand how to manipulate financial statements. So if you can teach someone, their margins are down, find out what that switch causing the margin to drop, then find out how to switch it back or switch it to the entire other direction and actually improve margin.

Once they find out that that can be done and then they experience the result and the reward that comes from driving true change,  that's what creates a business culture. And so in that way, when you're performance-driven, that's what real motivation is. 

Enabling Junior Talents

You've got to break down barriers for them. You've got to help them understand and sort of integrate the fact that it's okay to pass feedback back to you, bottom-up. 

It's important that these senior leaders who have a junior person on their team also help those junior leaders understand that they have the capability, they have the leash to play with to drive some chage if they want to use it.   

And then work with that junior leader to understand what's going on in their head, and where they see pitfalls, and if they're facing obstacles, work with them to break those obstacles down. 

Those can be communication. Sometimes information is siloed. Sometimes it's just getting the okay for him to start a project. If you're going to say no to that, then you should be looking at the mirror when you wonder why your junior members aren't going above and beyond.

Top-down leadership does have its place. There are some things where there's some initiatives, some key drivers of change that the top leaders do need to own, they do need to champion and then sort of proliferating throughout whoever reports to them throughout whatever their function is. 

But there is an element of bottom-up leadership that I think is actually crucial because, let's say some VP says, Hey, we need to increase our services offering. How do we do that? 

Well, I've got this idea of how we do that, so I'm going to hand that down to my managers. 

And certainly, they can then tell their junior contributors to execute on this process that they've been given.

But these were junior contributors who are living and breathing that process. So provide the space for those junior contributors to pass the feedback back up to identify what’s working and what were some missteps and inefficiencies. 

Senior leaders could collaborate with those junior contributors on delivering the vision and then the junior contributor brainstorming with that leader on how to actually execute. That may actually take out a step there and eliminate some waste. 

Creating Communication Platforms

Working remotely, working from home is extremely value add, and that it usually provides people with more time to actually execute to live out the process, and then to make collaboration at some times more efficient. 

Because at any moment you can say you have a couple of ideas and you’d like to share it. So touching on your point about informal meetings, that's been key for me, it’s knowing that I can reach it out to the VP of Corp dev and then maybe a manager, whoever it may be. 

At the end of the day, it's just roping in whoever these key stakeholders are into an informal meeting and sharing your findings, how it affects them and get some feedback on the presentation how to improve.

So when it comes to format, I think there's a need to be a mix of online meetings, as well as in person. Some of the most effective meetings and some of the meetings I would add where I actually learned the most were those meetings that I had in person. 

You just get so much more out of it that just kind of slips through the cracks when you're talking online. So if you have the opportunity to come together, and bounce some ideas off of one another with a whiteboard on the wall, then I think you're going to maximize the impact that you can get from whatever it is you're discussing. 

Advice for Aspiring M&A professionals

You've got to be intimately aware of the people, processes, and systems at play. I find that the Lean Six Sigma approach really helps to refine those three things pretty well.

And in addition to that, whatever your target database is, you need to get intimately aware of that too. 

Be a gray zone leader, seek to strengthen the organization and not grandstanding for your own personal gain. 

That means making heroes out of the individuals around you and growing the influence of those other people in the process, giving them a hand in a project. The phrase, “a rising tide lift all boats”  that's what you want to do when you're part of an organization, when you're part of a team. 

It's not us versus them, everyone's on the same team. You want to focus on understanding and supporting the priorities of your line managers, whoever those may be, and try to align your interests, your priorities, and choose opportunities that will make a material difference.

Be empathic with who those stakeholder managers are and tune in to strategic executive initiatives and see how you can use your strengths to sort of become a leader and an owner. 

Know that anything is possible. Create your own opportunities and then just shoot your shot.

Any question is going to be a no, as long as you haven't asked it, it could end up being a no still, but if you at least ask it, at least shoot your shot. It's only then that you give yourself a chance of showing how much value you can add to an organization.  

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