Longtime ConnectWise executive Craig Fulton, who last year left the company after 16 years, has now joined Evergreen Services Group, one of the top private equity-backed organizations that has been acquiring MSPs over the last few years.
Fulton’s official title at Evergreen is “Advisor.” Just what does that mean? Why did he leave ConnectWise after such a long career there, what has he been doing in the interim, and why did he ultimately land at Evergreen? ChannelE2E caught up with Fulton, and here’s what he told us.
Leaving ConnectWise, Restoring an Impala, Buying a Farmhouse
Fulton said that he’s been pretty open about why he left ConnectWise after such a long career there. Nothing to do with ConnectWise, but he was battling some depression. He opted to take the leap from the company that he’d called home and take some needed time off. He drove his kids to school. He restored an old Chevy Impala from scratch. When he heard that Rob Rae, who also was taking some time off after leaving Datto, was planning on taking his oldest child on college tours, Fulton thought, hey, I’m going to do that, too.
Fulton also bought an old Amish farm in Pennsylvania where some of his family is from, and he’s been restoring that with plans to take his kids there for regular visits.
How Does He Feel About Private Equity?
As a ConnectWise executive with M&A-curious MSP friends, Fulton always advised caution. He told his MSP owner friends to ask a lot of questions before they agreed to a private equity acquisition. Here are a few of the questions he advised MSPs to ask the private equity firm and themselves:
- What is the integration going to be like?
- What is the expectation the MSP owner?
- What will it be like for an MSP owner – an entrepreneur – to report to someone inside another company?
- What will this mean for the culture of my business?
- How much control am I going to have?
“Obviously there’s a financial reward here and then the freedom that’s going to be gained with selling is absolutely incredible,” Fulton said. “But, I say, what’s the long term plan? Do you have a playbook? What changes are you going to expect, if any, within 60 days or half a year. What’s the long term objective?”
Not all MSPs may be thinking through all those things, according to Fulton.
Talking about one of his MSP friends, Fulton said, “You like being the one who helps your customers. I know you like providing for people in your community, giving them jobs, watching them meet their goals, and all that. You need to think about that, and how that’s your value statement in life. Is all that going to change when you sell your business?”
Fulton had watched the first wave of MSPs get acquired by private equity companies. The traditional PE playbook was used – standardize and build efficiencies into the business. Then the owner leaves after an earn out period. “Then these businesses really struggle because the owner WAS the business and the incentive that you put on that owner changed the whole makeup of that business…Then the private equity firms left holding the company are wondering how do we fix this.”
PE firms have improved on this process in subsequent waves, Fulton said. But Fulton's experience with Evergreen has been entirely different.
From Private Equity Skeptic to Believer
Of course Fulton is now working for private equity firm Evergreen Services Group. It’s a move he made after watching many of his MSP friends decide that Evergreen was the firm they wanted to sell their businesses to. Fulton said these MSPs were pleased with the integration process. As Fulton considered the next chapter of his professional life, one of his MSP friends whose business had been acquired by Evergreen recommended that Fulton talk to Evergreen.
Fulton said that Evergreen has purposely taken a Berkshire Hathaway approach to investing – but instead of big companies, they are doing it with small MSPs. Fulton shared the whole origin story of Evergreen, but that’s a story for another day
Evergreen’s philosophy and tagline is “A Permanent Home for Your Business and Our Leaders.” The firm takes a buy-and-hold approach. So far they have acquired more than 60 companies and “are truly committed to being the home for the businesses,” Fulton said.
The Future of Managed Services
When I spoke with Fulton, he had just come from Evergreen’s Summit meeting, and he said more than half the content was about people leadership – finding bright spots and scaling them.
Fulton told ChannelE2E that he believes private equity is the next stage in MSP evolution. It started with technically inclined people helping one client, then adding another client. At some point these small MSPs began joining one of many peer groups to better understand how to improve their businesses. After a while, many MSP owners realized that they were not going to be young forever, and they needed a plan for where to take the business next. Evergreen is one of several private equity-backed organizations acquiring MSPs.
“It’s a revolution in managed services,” Fulton said.