Excellence in Action
John Mapes ’90
Interviewed by Monique Beals • October 08, 2019
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I graduated with a BA in Economics/Business in 1990 and then joined Salomon Brothers Inc that same year. At the time, Salomon was one of the largest global investment banking firms and I joined as a Financial Analyst in the Corporate Finance Group where I helped advise corporations on mergers and acquisitions, financial strategy and raising capital. Because investment banking projects require high level attention and participation from corporate clients, I thought investment banking would uniquely put me in rooms with CEOs and CFOs where I could learn and observe from a front row seat. I originally joined Salomon in NYC to train and then joined the Los Angeles office where I became quite involved in advising Occidental Petroleum following a CEO change at that company. After two years at Salomon Brothers I basically stumbled into the private equity industry on the recommendation of my boss at Salomon who thought I would enjoy the work. Private equity at the time was a young and emerging industry and I joined one of the first private equity firms in Los Angeles called Aurora Capital Partners in 1992. I left Aurora in 1993 to attend Harvard Business School and then rejoined Aurora after graduating from Harvard with my MBA in 1995. I was named a Partner at Aurora in 2000 and became the Managing Partner shortly thereafter leading the Investment Committee among other roles. So I have spent my entire career in the finance industry and have been at Aurora for over 25 years.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I joined Salomon Brothers out of college because I wanted to benefit from a great training program, work with smart bankers and to learn how the global capital markets functioned. For a young professional interested in finance, I think an investment banking job is hard to beat. The hours are long but the learning curve is tremendous.
I joined and then remained in private equity because I love investing, I was pretty good at it and I think private equity is a winning strategy if properly executed. I joined Aurora because I liked and respected the people at the time. I also discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of buying and building businesses rather than just financing or advising. Buying businesses is a complex and challenging process and no two days are alike so there is never a dull moment. I get to meet hundreds of executives and study hundreds of companies each year even though we typically only invest in 2-3 annually. I enjoy learning and I seem to learn something new every day in my industry.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
I am so grateful to UCLA. My introduction to economics and ultimately finance began at UCLA. My horizons were broadened in so many ways. For example, I just did not grow up in a community or attend a high school where investment banking was on anyone’s radar screen. I benefitted tremendously from the course work and still believe that David Ravetch is one of the best accounting professors ever. He was smart, energetic and cared about the subject matter and students. Dave Butz was an economic professor of mine who introduced me to firm structure and markets in innovative ways. So from an academic perspective, I graduated with a solid base of skills and frameworks. My time as a student-athlete playing tennis for the Bruins was also very valuable. I learned how to be a good teammate, work hard and manage my time. That also proved to be essential.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
Building relationships has been critical in my career and being able to enjoy meaningful relationships is one of the most fulfilling parts of it. Meyer Luskin, for example, is a friend and mentor and what he and Renee have done across our campus – most recently with the Luskin Conference Center — is just exceptional to promote collaboration and success at UCLA. I would not have been connected to Meyer if it were not for another Bruin and dear friend David Chernow who is a CEO of a major healthcare company and who sits on a few of our Aurora company boards as a favor to me. And I would not have been connected to David Chernow if it were not for another successful Bruin by the name of David Eisman who is a very senior banker at Goldman Sachs and an important advisor in the past to many of Aurora’s largest and most important transactions. All of these Bruins have become friends, are intertwined in my career in various ways and bring joy to my life.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
When I think back to my greatest career challenge, I think back to 1998 – 1999 when Aurora experienced a rough patch from an investment perspective. The private equity environment changed and Aurora owned some businesses that were not performing well at all and the solutions were not obvious. Cutting through it, while this period turned out to be a real crisis, it allowed me at a young age to lead a turnaround and simultaneously re-architect our investment strategy which has been core to our success at Aurora over the last 20 years. A very well known business executive and friend of mine who successfully turned around Xerox years ago remarked that for any leader who finds themselves in a tough turnaround and is able to walk out the other side alive will forever be a more effective leader going forward. I feel that was certainly the case for me.
So that was a real challenge and the way I ultimately succeeded was to hire some really smart teammates to help execute a new strategy. The core team is still with me 20 years later and have led Aurora to its most successful place in the firm’s history.
This has been an important reminder throughout my career. In other words, while vision, priorities, finance, strategy, operations, sales and marketing are crucial to leading a successful business, department or team, at the end of the day the most important element for me comes down to the people. The older I get the more this becomes obvious in my business ventures and with other leaders I know. As a leader, it is paramount to be able to attract, recruit, coach and retain talent. Losing talent is a killer and expensive. I believe that being able to attract and keep a great team at Aurora has been the secret sauce to Aurora’s success over the last 20 years.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?
For students, I would suggest initially joining an employer with an established training program where you can add some important business skills, relationships and experiences to your tool box. Private equity investing is not an industry that young professionals can easily start on their own because you need investment capital which is ultimately the gas in the engine for any private equity firm. Yet investors don’t want to allocate capital to investors without meaningful experience. So for students interested in a career in private equity, initially joining an organization that offers experiences and exposure to finance, operations and strategy is essential.
For alumni with business experience and an interest in private equity, I think networking with those in the industry is crucial. This will provide exposure to different private equity strategies in the market and there are now many. I have found there to be no better way to get familiar with a particular business sector than by talking to experienced veterans in it.
How do you participate and support the UCLA community now?
First of all, it is a total privilege to support UCLA’s mission which is essentially to make our global community a better place through research and education. It is also a privilege to be able to drop back onto campus for various meetings and to feel the energy and optimism in Westwood. And in terms of dropping onto campus, I have been doing a lot of that lately.
I am currently the UCLA Foundation Board Chair. This board’s primary duty is to oversee all of UCLA’s endowed resources and to annually determine the payout rate from the endowment which helps to fund the school’s departments. Reporting to the UCLA Foundation Board is the UCLA Investment Company which consists of a Chief Investment Officer and staff in charge of managing and investing UCLA’s endowed capital on a daily basis. I also sit on this board. So these two activities alone mean I work closely with the Chancellor and university leadership weekly which is an impactful way to help UCLA and remain connected to the opportunities and challenges we face.
I am also on the UCLA Technology Development Corporation Board. This is an organization designed to help advance and commercialize inventions being developed across all parts of the UCLA ecosystem. I am told that across all of the departments at UCLA, there is almost an invention per day coming out of our UCLA ecosystem and many are changing California and the world in positive ways. So this board is an important group of business people and technologists with an important role to play at UCLA.
I believe that my business experience as a private equity executive aligns well to my involvement on both of these boards in particular.
As a former UCLA student athlete, I have always been involved in UCLA Athletics originally as part of the donor community and now with the Athletics Centennial Campaign committee. A great honor and a lot of fun was to Chair the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame committee that determines annually the new inductees. I always say there are Hall of Fames and then there is the UCLA Hall of Fame which in my opinion is a cut above the rest with former student athletes like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Kareem, Bill Walton etc as members. Not an easy club to get into and leading this board was an honor and a thrill. Our family has also endowed numerous scholarships across football, men’s basketball, men’s tennis and beach volleyball. In fact, this February the construction of Mapes Beach will open for competition.
I am also involved within the Economics department as a guest lecturer in a course concentration called Value Investing started by Professor Bill Simon. My hats off to Bill for bringing to UCLA an investing focus for students that we did not have before and I that I am delighted to support.
So that is a long way of saying I am wearing out my campus parking pass these days.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
Being involved at UCLA has allowed me to connect with others in the UCLA community with whom I would have never connected with otherwise. I guess I am coming back to an earlier theme around people. At the end of the day it is people who make life great. Meyer Luskin is a good example of this for me. I believe that he makes UCLA and everyone around him better.
The second piece that makes me proud to be a Bruin is our mission. At a public university like UCLA, it is all about the application of research and education to make our global community better. Not just our Los Angeles or CA community — but our global community. But this is one of those things in life that is easy to say and hard to. In order for UCLA to fulfill its mission, we need to fund top rate facilities to attract top rate faculty to attract top rate students. I am proud to put my shoulder behind these important initiatives and do my part.
And finally, what’s next?
I really don’t know. One of the things in my life that gives me the most joy is being around my family so that will always be a priority in whatever is next. Another aspect of life that is fulfilling to me is helping others. My children are getting ready to start their own careers so being helpful in their development as young leaders will be a focus. At Aurora, it is hard to believe and even harder to say but I am, for lack of a better description, the senior statesman around the firm these days so supporting the younger generation of partners make their mark and continue to take Aurora to new heights in private equity is something that is meaningful and important to me. I don’t know what is next at UCLA but as long as I can find ways to add value to our university mission you will see me on campus.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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