When Gary Walter was unexpectedly thrust into the role of CEO at Infutor, his first thoughts weren’t about himself; they were about his siblings, family, employees, and customers. Over time, he recognized the need to upgrade not only the company’s operations, but also his skills as a leader. A close, long-term relationship with Norwest helped him grow as CEO and led to a professionalization of the entire company that paved the way to an acquisition.
After Gary Walter decided that teaching wasn’t his calling, he joined Infutor, the company his father had started in 2003 and built into a leader in the then-nascent field of customer data intelligence. It was a small operation – just a handful of people – and Gary Walter Sr. had close relationships with most of the leading firms in the consumer-data field, including the major credit agencies. It was common practice for him to secure multi-million-dollar deals with a handshake.
Those relationships turned the company into the leader in data-driven consumer identity management. Infutor gives companies instant access to the most complete and accurate information about consumers and prospects, contributing to informed marketing and risk-mitigation decisions.
The business was rolling along profitably when, in a period of just six weeks in the spring of 2012, the senior Walter was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and passed away suddenly. With the support of his two siblings, Gary Jr. became president and CEO.
In addition to his family responsibilities, Walter had to organize what had been a successful but largely informal business. “We had a foundation of great data and strong relationships, but there was no organizational structure and a lack of focus on clarifying what our core business was,” he recalls.
His first priority was keeping the business going. “I was on the road every week between 2012 and 2015 working to grow the business and expand our presence,” he says. But eventually he understood that growing the business required more than just his hard work. He needed to add experienced executive-level talent, as well as make other investments in the company.
That led him to explore possibilities for private funding. He had discussions with a private capital firm in 2015, but at the last minute, the firm told Walter to build a senior management team before they would invest. He also was in contact with Jon Kossow, a managing partner with Norwest Venture Partners and head of its growth equity team. Kossow had nurtured a relationship with the Walters over a period of several years. Infutor was in the sweet spot of Kossow’s team, which looks for solid, profitable companies whose primary need is for operational excellence and accelerated growth rather than working capital.
By 2016, Walter had two proposals for equity funding on his desk: one from the firm that had told him to go make some hires and then come back, and a leveraged buyout proposal from Norwest.
“There was a great personality and cultural fit between us and Norwest,” Walter recalls. “They focus on backing existing management teams and working collaboratively to solve problems. Plus, Jon’s team specializes in companies exactly like mine, so I figured I could learn a lot from them. I decided to go with Norwest, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
“Before you even talk about his business skills, what you see in Gary is a remarkable person,” Kossow says. “He has a very big heart, is incredibly generous, and puts everyone else first. Taking over from his father was of course emotionally wrenching, but it also threw a lot of challenges at him. He handled those challenges with enormous commitment, character, and energy, but in the end, he knew he needed some people to work beside him. That’s the role Norwest plays; what we call an invited guest.”
Ran Ding, another Norwest partner who collaborated with Kossow, said Norwest’s focus in working with Infutor fell into two general categories:
– Leadership development: helping recruit a board of directors who could provide experience, insight, and positive guidance; and assisting in building a senior management team that raised the bar for the caliber of new hires.
– Business development: crafting a strategy for growth that took some of the company’s profits and invested them in strategies that extended the company’s reach, broadened its product offerings – including two acquisitions – and “amplified all the good things we saw when we first looked at the company.”
Walter took full advantage of Norwest’s Portfolio Services, a broad range of free, a la carte advisory services that the firm offers its portfolio companies.
At the top of that list was recruitment, hiring, and compensation. “Norwest’s talent team added incredible value to our efforts to strengthen the company and prepare it for accelerated growth,” Walter says. “When you’re trying to recruit good people, it makes a big difference when you have a good relationship with your board and your lead investor, and they go to a candidate and say, ‘we believe in this guy, you should too’.”
Walter also drew on Norwest resources in other essential areas, including HR, legal, finance, marketing, sales, and investment banking. Along the way, he observed another key indicator of Norwest’s trademark approach to collaboration with senior management. “I firmly believe that if I’d partnered with another firm, we would never have maximized the potential of the business in the manner that we did. Norwest supported me, encouraged me, and helped me to expand my skill set as a CEO.”
With upfront liquidity and the resources and backing of Norwest, Walter was able to invest more of the company’s profits into growth, which ultimately helped accelerate revenue. Infutor built strong momentum from 2017 to 2020, demonstrated by 70 percent growth in revenue, earning it a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. The increased revenue helped unlock operating leverage in the company, allowing it to revert to prior levels of profitability. That scale, growth and profitability ultimately culminated in a sale to Verisk in February 2022.
Walter acknowledges the many ways he has grown as a CEO but says the impact of Norwest extends throughout the company. “In every aspect, Infutor is a much better company thanks to Norwest’s involvement. Everything is more positive, more refined, and operates better. Together, we thoroughly professionalized the company.”
Recapping the relationship with Norwest that has stretched almost a decade, Walter says: “With Norwest, we started with people; we invested in technology and in all areas of our data; and then invested in both the strategies and operating excellence we needed to create a company that attracted a buyer. It was a big win for everyone involved.”