Prior to launching Align Business Advisory Services in 2010, Dena Jalbert, Founder and CEO, worked for a variety of companies in various financial leadership roles. She spent time with the Big Four accounting firms, where she gained experience in forensic accounting, transaction advisory services and mergers & acquisitions. She also worked for the Tribune Media Company, where she worked closely with the Publisher doing acquisitions of smaller local publications. Her last position with a private equity group, doing acquisition work for HVAC companies, is where Jalbert identified a significant opportunity to apply her skills and knowledge to a different market segment.
Identifying an Opportunity
“That role was when the light bulb went on,” she said. “For smaller businesses, those in the lower-middle market segment, there weren’t a lot of firms available to assist with mergers and acquisitions. The lower-middle market businesses didn’t have the budgets to hire large firms. They also didn’t have the knowledge needed to navigate M&As on their own. Some were using business brokers instead and that wasn’t the best solution. I saw it as an opportunity and, even though I was scared to step out on my own, I’m very self-motivated and I knew what I was capable of doing.”
Jalbert founded Align Business Advisory Services as a way to serve the lower-middle market segment. As an M&A and business advisory services company, Align is a trusted resource for companies looking to grow and for those that need support managing that growth. Jalbert’s motivation was two-fold.
“As a woman in finance, the opportunities were pretty sparse,” she said. “When given a seat at the table, it was always subject to something else. I wanted to help others and I was excited to do it my way. I was also excited to create a place where I’d want to work.”
Align offers a whole suite of services from business strategy to finance and operational consulting to augmenting businesses that need external thought leadership. They also work with companies that want to initiate those things internally in order to eventually take on investors and properly exit.
According to Jalbert, what sets Align apart from the competition is who they work with and the experience and diversity of team members. “Even though the businesses we work with are smaller, we don’t send out ‘junior’ level employees, like many of the larger firms. We always bring a high level of service and we’re very hands on with our clients. Every employee has a lot of operational experience, and, by design, we’re very diverse in terms of our personal and professional backgrounds and ethnicity. We also don’t market broadly. We understand the lower-middle market very well. That’s where we add the most value and that’s what we target.”
From Startup to Second Stage
Jalbert shared that some early challenges with growing the business were sales related. Her prior experience didn’t include external selling to other businesses. Nevertheless, like most great entrepreneurs, Jalbert embraced the challenge and saw it as an opportunity to add to her skill set.
“I sought out as much info as I could on the subject,” she said. “I read books, had meetings with people in the industry and really became a student of it. I learned by doing. Along the way, growing the business was tough. One day things were great and the next day the sky was falling. I learned to just stay cool. If something bad happened, I’d re-focus on move on.”
Much of Align’s growth can be attributed to Jalbert’s exceptional leadership and vision, confidence and strategy of becoming an expert in her field. Through public speaking events, industry-related events, published media and technical articles, Jalbert is able to market to perspective clients from an “educational” standpoint. They also utilize email marketing to target very specific businesses identified by the investors they work with.
According to Jalbert, there are a few things inhibiting additional growth. “Cash is king and having the additional liquidity to grow is always a factor,” she said. “We recently expanded to other markets throughout the country. I’d love to expand on that more. Another barrier is that there’s a real reputation in our space about who can help these business owners. These businesses don’t always need to go to the big firms. There are resources like us that provide a tremendous amount of value.”
Align’s workforce currently consists of 12 employees. Jalbert anticipates 15 by the end of the year and 20 by mid-2020. A core team of financial analysts and administrative personnel serve as the engine to support directors and consultants in the field. The external facing directors are based in cities throughout the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Philadelphia.
Company culture is built around flexibility and work life balance. “When I founded this business, I was adamant that our structure would allow people to live their lives,” she said. “You can get your work done, but still have fun and have flexibility to spend time with your family. We provide 12 weeks paid family leave for moms and dads. We work hard and it can be demanding, but ultimately we work to live, not the other way around.”
When it comes to community involvement and philanthropic activities, Align is a big supporter of the AdventHealth Foundation. They sponsor various events and Jalbert used to sit on their Board. Currently, Jalbert serves as a mentor for the Winter Park Chamber’s ‘Relaunch’ Program, designed to bring women, who were out of the workforce, back into the work world. She also volunteers and participates in activities related to the homeless and other Christian charities. Jalbert is a big believer in giving back to the community you’re a part of.
According to Jalbert, operating in Florida is beneficial for a number of reasons. “It’s easy to recruit talent to come live and work here,” she said. “The climate is great, it’s very pro-business and there’s no state income tax. It’s also a great place to start a business. There are lots of incentives, tools and resources in Florida that you don’t find anywhere else. Florida is becoming such a target for investors and companies looking to grow. There’s also an amazing innovative ecosystem being built right here in Central Florida. That brings in so many different types of people. You also have world-class academic institutions like The University of Central Florida and Rollins College in our own backyard. It’s great to be able to pull talent from those institutions and keep them local.”
What Does it Mean to be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
“It’s very surreal and exciting,” she said. “We’re always so focused on highlighting our clients. To see ourselves recognized is humbling. Our number one company value is service. As such, we’re always focused on others. To have people notice what we’re doing is special. It’s a great reflection of our hard work.”
Jalbert continued, “In terms of why we were selected, if think it has a lot to do with how unique we are. There just aren’t a lot of companies like us in the market. They may have similar services, but how we serve and our process of doing it is distinctly different. For example, we were one of first firms to support businesses in the legal cannabis industry. It’s not every day that you get to be part of a brand new industry that didn’t’ exist before. It’s also rare to see a woman-owned financial services firm.”
Looking ahead, Jalbert is focused on creating a national brand for the lower-middle market. She wants a company that does $1 million in yearly revenue to feel like they have an affordable resource to turn to. Ultimately, she wants to be the “Bain Capital” of the lower-middle market and work with growing companies looking to advance to the next stage.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“Just do it,” she said. “It’s so simplistic and easy to say, but once you’ve made the leap, it’s very freeing. Then it’s a matter of consistently moving forward every day. Your progress can be small things, as long as you’re moving forward. A snail moves slowly but will cover the same amount of ground over time if it keeps moving. Consistent effort will bring the results you’re looking for.”
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