Ralph Della Ratta has had a remarkable career. It spans four decades, hundreds of public and private M&A deals, and two retirements.
His first retirement was from McDonald & Co. after it was bought by KeyCorp. He was about 50 years old, which he says is too young to retire.
"The problem is all your friends are still working, so there's nobody to do anything with," he says.
During his retirement, he kept in in touch with colleagues, some of which expressed interest in partnering together on a new venture.
"A number of them said, I'd love to join you. I said, Well, I don't have any money to give you. I mean, we can start a new firm but we're going to start from scratch. So, we did," he says.
That led to the start of Western Reserve Partners in 2004, which provided M&A, capital raising and other financial advisory services to middle-market companies. Being a boutique firm meant he had more time to spend with fewer clients, which enabled him to offer a high level of service in the areas of mergers and acquisitions and financial advisory.
He hired people he knew and trusted, and who had a lot of experience. He says he asked them to pledge that they would give the best possible client service they were capable of. As more people saw what the firm was doing, he says it resonated.
"Through word-of-mouth the firm became kind of a hot firm, if I may say that, and we just took off from there," he says. "It wasn't long before we were doing a few billion dollars of transactions a year with a small boutique of 30-35 people."
In 2017, Della Ratta sold Western Reserve to Citizens Bank. He had connections to the bank as a member of its national advisory board and, before that, was being recruited by them as they looked for people who were centers of influence in the various markets they were in.
He says he got to know the bank and became a fan of what they were doing. It was a young organization that was part of Royal Bank of Scotland, a bank that had fallen into hard times during the Great Recession and was trying to reposition itself and grow into a super-regional.
"I could just see that the people were so hard working and so earnest and talented that it was only a matter of time till they found the success they were searching for," he says.
Looking to grow its M&A group, Della Ratta was approached about selling his business to Citizens. They negotiated a deal and about a year later, Western Reserve was part of Citizens
Being in a deal involving his own business, he says, gave him a lot more empathy for his clients.
"I always used to tell our people, If you're really emotional and riding this rollercoaster representing this company in a sale, think how the principals feel," he says. "And I got to have that feeling. There are some ups and downs. But it's also very exciting."
It's always powerful, he says, when he can tell clients he's gone through a process as an owner. The experience helped him be a better listener to his clients' preferences and concerns beyond price, terms and conditions — for instance, when it came to concerns over cultural issues, or ensuring the people in the deal were looked after.
"It helped my people because I had all my partners in on it, even though I was negotiating it, I made sure that I didn't get over my skis and too far ahead of my partners who were very important to me and very important to the business," he says. "What it also allowed me to do was to understand better the emotion that sometimes came out of my clients when we had some rough spots in the road on a deal."
Recently, Della Ratta retired from Citizen's — his second retirement — and is currently a partner with Kirtland Capital Partners, a Cleveland-based private equity firm. He says as he's gotten older, the long hours appeal far less to him, so he wanted to reduce his commitment but find a way to stay engaged in the industry.
"It's an exhausting business," Della Ratta says. "That's why a lot of people retire from investment banking at a very early age. There are very few people working at the big Wall Street firms that are in their mid-50s or older. I made it to 68, so I think I did pretty good."
Della Ratta spoke on The Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast about what he's learned from his four decades in M&A, his keys to success and how that experience will be brought to bear in his newest role. Hit play to catch the full conversation.