Innovative Family Office Led by Katherine Hill Ritchie (016)
Katherine Hill Ritchie has extensive background running single family offices including a strong emphasis on sourcing alternative investments. Her most recent role involves both investment sourcing and project sourcing for a Cleveland based family office rooted in industry design.
Tobin Arthur, Katherine Hill Ritchie
Tobin Arthur 00:23
Hi, everybody, this is Tobin, Arthur, with Innovation4Alpha. And I’m joined today by Katherine Hill Ritchie, who I’ve gotten to know over this last year, and she has an really interesting background, working with family offices. And more recently with the Nottingham Spirk, family office in particular. Katherine, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you. Walk everybody through your background, talk about how you got into this world of family offices, and then maybe let’s add a little bit of color to your your most recent role with Nottingham Spirk.
Katherine Hill Ritchie 00:59
I’ll date myself, but I got my MBA in 2003. And in my program, there was no mention of family office, and I had one half semester mini course on venture capital and private equity. I got my MBA at Fordham in New York City, but every MBA program uses almost all the same books and things like that, that you have to learn. But alternative investing and family offices were just not something even talked about. I also interned while getting my MBA at Morgan Stanley private wealth management of New York. I was really interested in getting as much exposure as possible. But at Morgan Stanley, private wealth management, they didn’t even talk about family offices back then. And this was over the summer in 2002. So they talked about high net worth and how they were going after them, and but there was really no mention of it. So when I graduated, my first job, it was funny, all my all my MBA friends wanted to go into investment banking, or be a consultant at McKinsey. I mean, that was what back then everybody did. I was the weirdo that went to a startup and all my friends were like, “Oh, what are you doing? Like, don’t you want to be at a big bank?” and it just wasn’t for me. And so my background beforehand was also just unorthodox compared to the rest of my peers. So I went to hedge fund because I was super interested in alternative investments. And that was the first time I really understood what a family office was. Because the data that was from the database, we sold to investors, pension funds, endowments, and then family offices, I was like, Okay, I understand now what that is. And it was also a really cool time, early on in the internet, where you had data online for alternative investments, which was the first of its kind. And so you know, we had stories about a family office in Buenos Aires, using our database to invest in a fund in London. So you’re like, “oh, wait, this is cool.” This kind of connectivity, and able to get investments, information globally. So that’s how I started to hear about a family office, I thought, “Oh, this is so cool.” And then I ended up getting hired by family office in London that wanted someone in the New York area, who knew hedge funds, private equity. So I got hired by that family to establish a New York office for them. And that’s how I first got started in this. So it was really interesting. Family with strong roots, a billionaire family, and I felt really privileged to be able to work for them. I got a lot of autonomy, and I opened an office in New York. And then from there, I was poached by another family office in Geneva, Switzerland. So I moved to Geneva, after in my second job. So I’ve worked now for eight family offices. But that’s really how I got started.
Tobin Arthur 03:58
What an incredible background. And I want to touch on your most recent role here in a second. I’ve got to imagine that over that time you’ve seen a lot of changes even in that world, because you mentioned the internet, first of all, that connectivity and internet connectivity has accelerated. So that’s probably changed how these families are interacting with one another and finding deals that are more and more global. The statistics show that family offices are this rapidly growing phenomenon, if you will, financial phenomenon, what have you seen in that timeframe that you’ve been in that world in terms of these changes in some of those impacts around technology and the growth of this class?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 04:43
Well, I think the understanding of what a family office is, you know, a lot of people say maybe you need $100 million or more, but it depends on the structure and how, how many employees you want. I’ve seen a dad and a daughter and they have their own family office. And they’re very sophisticated and allocating frequently. So you know come in all different shapes and sizes. But I think what I have seen, is this is a high net worth individual or family that’s active. And this is what the purpose of a family office is, including some of it is concierge services, which I don’t do. But understandably, you would have a staff for that. But the investment piece, I think, has really grown. So they are separate from an angel, they’re separate from a VC and all of that. And I think that’s helped. They’re all of these clubs and conferences. So the whole idea of what a family office is, so people know, a lot of times when they have an exit, that’s kind of the next step, like an evolution of your wealth. That makes sense that after you exit that you would start a family office in whatever shape or size, which I think is helpful, because it’s a whole employment. Now there are recruiters specifically for family offices, there are family office investment committees and boards, just like for companies, so it’s a whole industry created around it. So that’s what’s changed. And then also the ability to co invest with each other share documents, that kind of thing, has really sprung up as well, because family offices like to work with other family offices. I’m responsible for my own due diligence but I’m glad to see there’s somebody else I know in the deal or I got the deal from a trusted source, another family. So there’s that kind of sharing information, which I think they’re very collaborative compared to private equity or VC. Family offices are usually very collaborative, because there’s not the same competition.
Tobin Arthur 07:09
Yeah, that’s a good point, a friend of mine who runs his own family offices and advises other families. He often reminds me that first generation family members actually have a job, your job is to run the family office, and it is a business. You know, depending on your goals, that business takes different twists and turns, but your most recent assignment and role is with an unusual family office. It’s got a very cool background in innovation. Talk a little bit about them and and what your objectives and goals are for them.
Katherine Hill Ritchie 07:38
Absolutely. So I was very privileged and lucky to meet the the Nottingham Spirk families. So Nottingham Spirk is a Cleveland based, they’re the original business, which is their largest holding, Nottingham Spirk Design Associates has been around for 50 years, and they are responsible for over 1000 product launches. So it is an industrial design firm. We have 75 employees. So we’ve got biomedical engineers, electrical, mechanical machinists, prototypers its a huge facility where we can literally make anything. And that business is where it could be a startup are a very mature seasoned listed company. And we can help innovate those products. So it is more focused on hardware, but names like Dirt Devil Spinbrush, toothbrush, but even listed companies medical device companies like View Ray, which is an MRI and radiation machine. So we’ve been able to work on all of these in collaboration with businesses, or family offices, or even funds. So it’s an incredibly fun place. There’s just new ideas bubbling all the time. We really encourage people to come visit our facility, you’ll walk around, and it’s almost like a museum of all the products we’ve launched. You know, we hold over 1300 patents. So we’re very focused on IP, but we love to, you know, hear ideas, maybe there’s something we can launch together or improve a product that’s existing, but what we really want to do is improve people’s lives. And that is removing pain points, whether it’s a medical device, whether it’s, you know, longevity or diagnostics, or, you know, just improving how products are used, you know, decreasing costs of materials, input costs, or being able to manufacture at a lower price, all of these things. So it’s really exciting. They’re wonderful people. And so the name Nottingham Spirk comes from John Nottingham and John Spirk. They met in industrial design school over 50 years ago and then started the firm right out of college, and their families are behind that today. So I also work directly for the founders and the second generation works there too. So it’s nice, there’s, there’s four or five of them running around, and they will inherit this business. And so John and John like to invest in what they know. So in this case, because they’ve launched over 1000 products, they really focus on consumer products, medical devices, industrial equipment and materials, because that’s what they know. And we can help those companies rapidly launch and commercialize, because we’ve done it so many times. And I think that’s a real bonus. Because yes, some people just want cash from their investors. But when you have someone who can actually say, you know, what we’ve done this 15 Other times, and this is what worked and didn’t, you know, that’s real value, because we are in real, we’ve got skin in the game, and we are really aligned, because we will have built that product with them and for them, and then even gone through and found it found their manufacturer, you know, and so we are really a part of the entire investment, instead of just being a passive investor that, you know, checks in once in a while, we’re really a part of that team. That’s incredibly valuable. Having the patterns that they’ve learned, obviously, over 50 years they just have to have an instinctual understanding of where the opportunities are, what’s not going to work and, and like you said, having all those resources behind them. That’s super cool.
Tobin Arthur 11:58
I imagine Nottingham Spirk is Willy Wonka for industrial design, like anybody who appreciates design and product. I love those kinds of things. It’s gotta be a lot of fun to see the facility, like you said, it’s got all of the patents, and a lot of the products demonstrated or displayed, it’s neat.
Katherine Hill Ritchie 12:19
You know, it’s great for someone like me, I’m an investment person, right. But I’m not an engineer, or designer, but I learned something new every day. And it’s fascinating. And it’s really fun. It’s just the the exposure, I get to all of these ideas. We’ve looked at everything under the sun, you can think about even satellites in the sky, robotic sensors, automation, there’s so much happening, and it’s so exciting. And you know, with all the negative things going on the world. It’s wonderful to be a part of such great innovation, and be the receiver of fantastic ideas, people coming to us saying, what about this? Can we do that? And for me, its great, because it’s, like I said, I’m an investment person. But to see all of that technology innovation is is just really exciting and very hopeful and inspiring.
Tobin Arthur 13:17
I agree. There’s a book Peter Diamandis wrote about a year ago who founded XPRIZE, and founded Singularity University. It’s called The Future is Faster Than You Think and he talks about how we’re living at the greatest time in history, because there’s this convergence of all these technologies, whether it’s 3d printing, supercomputing, genetics. And so when you’re in those worlds of design and engineering, it’s super exciting that things that are going on, I love to see all that on the cutting edge. Tell us a little bit about your kind of day to day as you’re thinking about your primary focus, outsourcing new alternative investments, making investments or finding products, or how do you go about managing this role? And now that you’ve done it a number of times, you must have some kind of patterns and best practices of sorts?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 14:05
Sure. So yeah, since I’ve worked for eight single family offices, but also I’ve run companies owned by family offices. So I’ve been, you know, an operator as well. I think for me, you know, I don’t know maybe it sounds cliche, but the number one thing is your network. So wherever I go, I’m really good at keeping in touch with people, because it doesn’t matter if it’s from venture capital, private equity, corporate America, you know, Main Street versus Wall Street, family or whatever. I always really tried to keep in touch with everyone because over the years, everyone changes jobs and moves on. But the, the speed with which you can get things done if you keep your network up. Really it’s been helpful when I moved to new job, I may have had a new mandate. So I had to, you know, I was working on something completely different. The goal We’re different, and I go out to my networks, this is what I’m doing, boom, and then I get, you know, a deal flow from that direction. So that’s the way it’s always been. So what I’ve noticed is I mean, I keep I keep in touch, I’m, I make sure I’m connected to people on LinkedIn, you never know what their next job is going to be. And then you might find out, Oh, wow, that’d be perfect for what I’m doing now. So that to me has been, because at the end of the day, what we’re all seeking is information. And the better relationships you have with people, the better they can connect you, you can connect them, that’s another thing too, I can try to connect people all the time and be helpful, because you never know when it comes back around. So um, you know, it’s worth it to have a quick conversation with someone because you just never know. And so that’s something that’s really been a part of, of my world, is, is staying connected and networking and being part of groups, you know, professional organizations and things like that, because some of the things I look for are not easy to find, necessarily. So my day to day is making, you know, I have a particular focus, I’m on the board of Nottingham sparks operating company. So that means I do, you know, want to make sure that company is you know, well run and getting clients and doing all the things they need to do. So that’s part of my job is helping that company grow, because that’s the biggest investment of the family, right, and then the family themselves. One of the things we’ve done now COVID, put a little bit of a stop to it. But we really were trying to get out there if people don’t know whom not to give Spark, it’s, and that’s part of my job is making us more aware in the family office community in the investment community. So that means I’m talking to family offices of venture capital, private equity, Angel, whatever, people in med tech people in consumer products, because what we want to know is, you know, in the consumer products world, where’s the whitespace in the medical space, where’s the need, maybe there’s something that we can invent together, or someone else brings us an idea. And we can do that together. So I in the past, my jobs have sometimes been operating the companies or passively investing in funds, where that that was different type of due diligence, this is more of a collaborative do we feel fitting all the pieces together, so I’m more of a deal person, I am looking to, you know, find opportunities for us for collaboration. But also our portfolio companies sometimes need to fundraise as well. I’m helpful in that. So I’m helpful and all of these things. And that’s kind of my day to day, which is really fun.
Tobin Arthur 17:42
That’s a that’s a great description. So one of the things that the Hall Family has begun to do, more recently, is allow outsiders to invest in their deals. And so they’ve created a fund. They’re the largest lp in their own fund. But this was an opportunity because more and more people said, well, how can we invest in your deals, they created a vehicle to do that. Do you guys do anything similar? Or is it sort of like, as you mentioned, you’ve got portfolio companies, and you’ll help pull people into those on a one off basis? What does that look like allowing people to get into what they’re working on?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 18:13
Yeah, great question. There are various structures you can put in place. But I’ll tell you this, John, and John do not want to become a multifamily office, or what’s the word I’m looking for…they dont want to be an asset manager. They dont want to be responsible for other people’s money, debt, no interest in that. So what we’ve done is, we a lot of times, we’ll either incubate a company ourselves, or someone will bring us a company and we will become a significant shareholder. It could be cash or in-kind services, because it could be, you know, $2 million dollars worth of tooling, right? Which, why would we give you $2 million to then go find somebody else, we could do it quicker, faster, maybe even cheaper, right? So we don’t, we’re not your standard, just like, here’s a check for a million dollars, it could be a unique combination of both. And then what happens is, if there is not a CEO, then hopefully, we’ll go out and find a CEO. Because also we don’t want to be running companies. We want to own a majority of them and help them but we want an outside CEO. And then when they do a new series, they will be extremely helpful and helping them raise money. So a lot of times we’ll do conferences in our offices in Cleveland, we did that before. Or the past year, we’ve gone online and said, “Hey, we incubated this company, we put in a million dollars worth of tooling and you know, whatever it could be, we think this is fantastic. Please look at the company and invest directly.” So that way the investor is indirectly investing in part of Nottingham Spirk, but not really. They’re investing in this particular entity that we believe in, and we’re a significant shareholder. And so then that way people can participate in our deals. And then we do our follow-ons and everything. But we can have outside capital, and then they can choose because sometimes we have hardcore medical devices on cutting edge. And there’s some people that are just like, this is a little bit beyond my understanding. I don’t have a PhD on staff, but they’re like, you’ve got consumer products, I love consumer products, and I’ll invest in that. So it is deal by deal with us.
Tobin Arthur 20:29
That makes a lot of sense. And it’s interesting how two families with common backgrounds in terms of engineering will approach this differently. Like you said, they have no interest in being in the asset management business or, or doing that. And so that makes a lot of sense that structure is really slick. In some ways, what was coming to mind, as you’re describing that is almost what Johnson and Johnson does, where they’ve got J Labs. a lot of their startup investment is in kind, whether it’s in tooling or facilities or access to their legal department, which is enormously valuable. Even if on $1, for dollar basis, you could go out and hire a law firm. But you’re not going to have lawyers that understand things the way the insiders at j&j do. So there’s these enormous advantages that that brings to the table. Maybe talk if there’s any projects more recently that you find particularly fascinating personally, that they’ve worked on whether it’s a consumer product or medical device, is there anything that jumps out at you?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 21:25
Certainly, so we’ve had some really fun ones. I mean, you know, over the years, we have worked on things. In robotics, for example, we have an autonomous vehicle golf cart that won the PGA innovation Product of the Year, which is a really fun. And then last year, we had a really great ice cream machine, actually, which is going to be a fantastic forgetting, you know, premium gourmet ice cream everywhere, you know, in a sterile way, because by the way, a lot of the a lot of the ice cream and milkshakes out there, are actually not even dairy and are not sterilized or cleaned. And then we’ve got things like cutting edge diagnostics, one of our companies XDetect that just had a series B round. It’s a rapid coagulation testing of blood, which can be bedside in minutes, and it uses physics instead of chemistry. Most blood tests today are chemistry based. And this was a really cool tech transfer deal out of Case Western where it was a collaboration between the physics lab and the medical school, and the medical school and the physics lab came together and said, what about using a different property to measure blood coagulation, which was really innovative. And actually, the FDA gave us a breakthrough status Innovation Award for it. So we’re always working on cool things.
Tobin Arthur 22:57
I love it. golf carts, ice cream, diagnostics. I mean, that sounds like a ton of fun. Talking a little bit about how those deals came to the to the firm. As you mentioned, networking is a huge piece of thing. So let’s take the Case Western. Was that just a case where the physicist or somebody involved there knew the Nottingham Spirk operation? Or how did that come to be just as an example?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 23:23
Great question. So we have many, we’re in touch with many tech transfer offices, Case, Western happens to be down the street, John and John are alumni. And there’s a third John, who is a partner with us. And he was he’s a medical doctor. And so they were actually looking at the tech transfer office opportunities. But others have come just from networking, people reaching out saying, oh, you should really speak with Nottingham spark. And we’ll get a cold call from a PhD or a university. But we’ve been in touch with, you Pittsburgh, Cornell, you name it, we’ve been talking to Stanford recently. So those opportunities come to us, it can be also that entrepreneurs hear about us and come to us. I speak at a lot of conferences, so I get a lot of deal flow that way. Also, funds reach out to us a lot, especially me, since that’s part of my focus. So we’ll speak with funds, and we’ll look at their portfolio together and say, “hey, you know, what, what about this company that you own?” or, you know, even if they’re a minority shareholder of it, maybe there’s some innovation we could do together, if they’re early stage. We do also work with mature companies. You know, we like sleepy companies, where maybe they’re profitable, but there’s a lot we can do in terms of reverse engineering things, bringing down the cost of materials, and then increasing the profit and possible exit because we’ve innovated and disrupted that product that’s been around for a long time.
Tobin Arthur 25:05
We similarly we have interactions with a ton of tech transfer programs. We’ve got a lot of early stage entrepreneurs, many times, they’re scientists and physicians, and they’ve been tinkering in the garage, so to speak. In fact, a very famous inventor in our network, he gave a talk at one of our conferences and talked about how his lab is Home Depot. And what he does is he loves to go over there and Sunday night when there’s nobody around, and he just walks the aisles, and he’s got some problems trying to work through in his mind. And he’s looking through Home Depot figuring out how he can cobble these things together to create prototypes, but might be in a really interesting process to do something on the filtering side, where we have people submit like a one page summary of their of their project. And then we whittle that down to some number and then give them you know, just very rapid fire presentations over an hour to but have the Nottingham Spirk organization, almost judge them. But it’s really a way to also create exposure for the firm. And then ultimately, maybe some of those turn into clients anyway, something to think about a lot of fun.
Katherine Hill Ritchie 26:10
Absolutely, you know, anyway, to get our name out and just have people know who we are and what we do, because that’s going to only improve our our deal flow, you know, we can only work on so many projects a year, we are very picky. But the better deal flow we have, you know, and and exposure to really wonderful, disruptive ideas are better for everybody better for the world. That’s right.
Tobin Arthur 26:35
And you made a comment earlier about needing the whole networking part of what you do. And we have a saying internally that your network is your net worth. And I think it resonates where we’re trying to train our members that this is a big reason why physicians in particular and dentists are on ANGELMD is because a lot of them it’s not, common for them to know, to understand “why is my network, so valuable?” but for them, they build up this expertise over the course of their career, but they also build up these enormously valuable networks, a lot of times they can make introductions to industry. So a startup they might be advising needs to get into Medtronic or needs to get into Cleveland Clinic or what have you. And a warm introduction by a physician oftentimes is the difference for that company, because it can accelerate lots of things. So it’s not something though, that’s common for everybody to understand the value of that. Maybe let’s look on the reverse side of lessons learned over the years. Is there anything that stands out that you worked in these various different family office environments, things that you would have done differently or recommend other people, you know, don’t do this or avoid this that stand out?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 27:38
What I learned that I thought was so valuable, is that some of these families have enormous wealth, but even people who aren’t wealthy can almost ruin their children by spoiling them. And we all know that we could see that no matter what someone’s net worth is, but when you also just have enormous wealth, that can be a burden. And also dangerous. Because young people don’t necessarily have self control, they’re surrounded by peers, and too much access to too much money can be dangerous. I mean, it can lead to terrible things, not only can you ruin their motivation, which is terrible, but also they can just do stupid things that are dangerous for themselves or others, which comes down to, you know, drugs and just bad people and stupid choices. So what I’ve seen, which I think I’ve seen this a couple times, which was very successful, is basically pitching to the children like this, the family office is like a business, you it’s not your ATM, you don’t touch principal, if you do something for the family office, then you can get paid. Otherwise, you know, you may be able to get dividends, like a business. But or you inherit a portfolio and you manage it, but it goes one way, which means we invest and we put money in or we reinvest, you cannot and you do not have permission to take money out. You can’t go buy a jet, you can’t go buy a house. Now if you want to buy a house, we have to talk to the whole team. And you can get money out for specific purposes. And you can be paid almost like a fund manager for that. But it is not an ATM you are not taking money out. That I’ve seen is very valuable because then they’re teaching them that this is an ongoing concern. It’s not just your money. It’s not just a trust fund for you to blow on anything they want. In fact this is supposed to continue on for your children. And I think that’s been really great because then they see it as a job and but now they can invest well. You know Mom and Dad, I really care about impact or I’m really excited about crypto, great. You know, what, have a team now this is almost like your own family office, you have to have a team you have to have, or board members or an investment committee. And it could be mom and dad on that, too. And a lawyer. And so it’s explaining, well, I think crypto is great. Okay, well, not just letting them willy nilly do it, but actually have to just like if they worked at a firm fund, you know, let’s have some documentation did you do due diligence? Why? So I that to me is the way to go – super impressive. And it’s a way to continue the family office wealth, because you’re just not letting them take out money and blowing it on whatever they want. That’s great.
Tobin Arthur 30:49
I love that. I also have a ton of respect for what the Halls do, which is the kids are all expected to go work outside of the family for at least 10 years, and build up skills under somebody else’s watch. And then they can come back in the family. But now they’ve had to prove themselves in the real world. And you know, they weren’t necessarily rewarded for just being the son or daughter of a rich person. I have another friend who’s very wealthy. And he, he feels very strongly that by simply giving his kids money, it robs them of the most important thing in their life. And that’s their self worth and their self drive. And so he’s very judicious and thrifty with giving them money, they have to earn it. So I like that thinking because you know, at the end of the day, the biggest legacy anybody’s gonna have is their kids. It’s not their money. It’s not their business that they sold and made, you know, $5 billion. It’s the it’s the kid. So mining the farm is so important. Let’s just talk a little bit about the balance of the year. What are your focuses? Are there any projects, events, things that are on your radar that Derek, you’re particularly excited about that you want to highlight?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 31:56
Yes, so I do run a family office group through ACG. So it’s family offices, anywhere all over the world, we’re going to do an in person event, which is nice, I have not done an in person event so far this Fall it’s almost like back to school back to work. And so I’m going to be participating in some in person events. So I’m excited about that. And also, I miss that kind of interaction, because it’s those side conversations, you know that that just can be a lot of fun, but just very useful. Zoom has been good, We’ve continued our business and our productivity has been still very high. Our physical offices, we’re still open. But the in person conferences are great. So we’re excited about that we’ve got a few new products that are going to be out there fundraising, these are companies that we have a significant stake in that we’ve worked on. So I’m really excited about some of those because they’re cool, and they’ll be fun to work on. But also just you know, getting our message out hosting people, we are going to be hosting an event in Cleveland at our offices, Ernst and Young actually built on to our offices, and they have a really cool studio with, you know, LED screens and everything they’re planning to bring by their clients to do innovation work with us. And we’re going to be able to have a conference and and I think we’re going to do we have a cool new rooftop, and we’re going to have drinks on a rooftop and just give people tours of the building. So I invite you to, to come out. And I think, yeah, that’ll be a lot of fun. And also, you know, I’m just hoping that people behave, and we continue to have the ability to do things in person. But so I’m, I’m excited to do that in September and October, just in case we ended up you know, things shift have to shift back again. So I’m looking forward to being out there again, and speaking and meeting people.
Tobin Arthur 33:54
That’s awesome. For people that want to get a hold of you. And we’ll put more information in the show notes and elsewhere. But what’s the best way for people to reach out to you to learn more about Nottingham Spirk and any of your other activities?
Katherine Hill Ritchie 34:06
Absolutely, they can email me directly, please do. That’s my job. I want to hear from people. And, you know, I encourage them go to the website, just to see what we’re more about. But also I will. There’s a video that we can put on screen a link to it that they can watch two minute video, which is really cool. And that tells more about what we do. But yeah, I encourage people to reach out to me because you just never know.
Tobin Arthur 34:34
Awesome. Well, Katherine, it’s been great to catch up with you. I love what you’re doing. You’re always a lot of fun, because you’re touching so many different things. You’re a great networker and appreciate your time and your insights.
Katherine Hill Ritchie 34:47
Well, thank you so much. You know, I’ve just enjoyed also getting to know you since we met last year and what you’re doing and I think these podcasts are great. So I’m just grateful that you think I have something interesting to say and I I’m glad to be here with you today.