Brad Estes’ home life is all about family. So is his work life.
By Steve Kaufman | Photos by David Harrison
Neace Ventures is a Kentuckiana-based private equity management company with a diverse set of holdings.
As with many venture capitalists, the activity can be frenzied and the pace quick. Before starting the company in 2003, founder and chairman John Neace built one of the country’s largest property/casualty insurance brokerages. Since then, his holdings have extended into the food and beverage industry, manufacturing and construction, waste removal and recycling, engineering, publishing, custom fabrication, residential and commercial real estate, recreation and the sports world – on both sides of the river.
Ever heard of Falls City Beer? That’s Neace Ventures. Brownie’s “The Shed” Bar and Grille? Neace, again.
Louisville City FC, the area’s professional soccer team? Neace is chairman and a major shareholder.
The classic profile of a venture capitalist can be constant motion, a steady stream of deals requiring something of a risk-taker. When things are firing at their most intense, tornadoes can form. Sitting in the middle of it all, in Neace’s Louisville offices on West Main Street – sort of the calming, placid eye of the hurricane – is company president Brad Estes.
“In some ways, I’m the risk-manager,” Estes said. “I’m the ‘yes . . . but’ guy.”
Not that the risks are always that risky.
“Deals constantly come to John (Neace),” Estes said, “but most of our investments are with friends or family, based on personal relationships.”
For example, Jason Brown, the owner/operator of Brownie’s, was a childhood friend of Neace’s daughter. Neace’s son, Jon Ryan Neace, is president of Old 502 Winery. His son-in-law, Shane Uttich, is president of Falls City Brewing. Neace’s partner in Allterrain Paving & Construction is his very good friend, Steve Triplett.
The company’s mission statement states: “(John Neace) has always carried the attitude of ‘family first.’ Atypical in his approach to business, John has long surrounded himself with family and friends as a foundation to spur growth. We attribute our success to our strong relationships in fast-paced environments.”
“We’re not cutthroat Wall Street guys,” said Estes. “We don’t measure everything in terms of return on investment.”
Or, as the mission statement goes on to say, “Some deals require lawyers, and other deals require a handshake over dinner and drinks. No matter the means of acquisition, once they become a part of our portfolio, we treat them like family.”
Estes brought an accounting and financial background to Neace when he joined the company in 2016. (His hiring was typical of the John Neace way of doing things. “I knew his son-in-law,” Estes said, though he kept quiet about his plans to apply to work for Neace. “Also, my father’s former boss sent John a note about me.”)
As a financial executive, Estes had the requisite restlessness and curiosity for a venture capitalist. In his 15 years out of college, he had worked for two public accounting firms; was part of a team that saw high-tech information and communications company startup eventually sell for nine figures; was vice president of finance and information technology for a health services company; and was CFO for a company in the basement waterproofing business.
“My father worked for the same company for 43 years,” he said. “I’ve had six jobs.”
His father was a large influence in his career decisions after his football career was abruptly ended his freshman year in college. A tight end on St. Xavier’s 1995 state championship team, Estes had gone to Marshall University on a football scholarship only to severely injure his shoulder eight weeks after he arrived on campus.
“Four surgeries later, football was over, but I told my father I’d stay in school, get a marketing degree and join him selling heavy equipment,” Estes recalled. “He said, ‘The hell you will! You don’t know how difficult it is to fight the ups and downs of this industry. You’ll get a degree that means something!’
“So, I studied accounting,” said Estes. “Life is funny. I thought getting injured was the end of the world. But when you’re playing college football, you never know how much time you’ll be able to devote to your studies. Without football, I had plenty of time to be a student.”
After graduating in 2000, Estes went the public accounting firm route: large firm (PricewaterhouseCoopers for two years) and small firm (Crowe Horwath for three years). Along the way, he got an MBA in 2002 and his CPA in 2003.
Then he heeded the call of private enterprise. He was hired by Smoothstone IP Communications, one of his clients, as controller. It was, he said, a “cloud-based unified communications” company. He eventually became vice president of finance.
“I was 29, it was a way to get great experience in an executive role.” Estes said. “Smoothstone was funded by venture capitalists, but it was losing significant amounts of money every year. As their public accountant, I’d known the business and how the company worked. I also believed in the product and in the people, so I took the gamble.”
Five years later, Estes and other executives engineered its sale for $120 million. Then he was vice president of finance and IT for Trilogy Health Services for 10 months, until he got a call from one of Smoothstone’s founders.
“He was putting together another business deal, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.” That business was B-Dry, LLC, which had developed a basement waterproofing system. The company owned all the franchises and had nine company-owned markets. Estes was CFO.
“I was there for three years, and then they relocated to Knoxville, Tenn. My kids were involved with school here, and we were part of the community. We didn’t want to leave.
“Besides,” he said, “I’m an old Kentucky boy at heart. I couldn’t stand ‘Rocky Top.’ ”
That led him to Neace. Their adventurousness was a good fit. “In my father’s day, if you had three jobs by the time you were 30, they’d say, ‘Why can’t you hold a job?’ Now, if you don’t have three jobs by the time you’re 30, they say, ‘Why can’t you find a better job?’ ”
Estes runs the Neace offices in downtown Louisville, one of the period buildings that define West Main Street, all cast iron on the outside and exposed brick on the inside. Impellizzeri’s Pizza is on the ground floor.
A staff of about 15 moves through the large, comfortable space, pleasantly shady despite the large windows looking out onto some of its neighbors – the KFC Yum! Center in one direction, the cranes that bustle about the Kentucky International Convention Center in another direction.
For a company with so many lines in and out of the water, it all seems very relaxed in there. “I like to keep it light around the office,” said Estes. “I want people to enjoy coming to work every day. I don’t want coming into work being a chore for them. I know there will be times I’ll ask someone to stay late, or to come in on a Saturday. I want everyone to know there’s an offset to that. I want them to know that they’re valued, that their opinions are valued.”
If Estes is the calm in the storm for Neace Ventures, he finds his calm at home in East Louisville. Family is clearly important to him. He met wife Emily during grad school at the University of Louisville. He was tending bar at Bahama Breeze, and she was working as a hostess while finishing up at the Speed School of Engineering.
(She subsequently worked with Luckett & Farley architects and with Heritage Engineering.) They were married in 2002. They have three children at home – sons Owen, 11, and Mac, 10, and daughter Stella, four. Estes also has a daughter, Madeline, 23 who is a senior at Western Kentucky University.
A look at the pictures around his office tells the story of importance of family to Estes. There are team pictures of youth sports. He coaches Owen in baseball and Mac in football, and expressed sensitivity to the handling of each boy.
“Coaching them is a challenge for me,” he said, “because they’re two dramatically different people, though just 18 months apart.
“Owen is intelligent and reasonable. You have to treat him like an adult. Nothing will resonate with him unless it makes sense. Yell and scream, and you’ve lost him.
“Mac is the quintessential second child. He wants to please, to do everything right. If I sometimes have to get on him about something, I have to explain that he shouldn’t take it personally, that I’m actually getting on the whole team. And he’ll say, ‘OK.’ He takes it well.”
Stella is, not surprisingly, the princess at home. “She’s proud to say she’s the tallest girl in her nursery school class,” said Estes. “She isn’t – but she says she is.”
If she were, it would be in her genes. Estes himself is an imposing 6-foot-3 and, at 240 pounds, he works hard to keep the ex-tight end’s body from veering out of control. He once decided that competing in a triathlon would be a good way to do it.
“I started training in January, and in August I competed in the 2012 Louisville Ironman,” he recalled. “I finished – which is the objective of most triathletes – and in 15 hours, which wasn’t terrible.”
His triathletic career was short-lived. The next morning, he said, “I woke up and Emily told me she was pregnant. Three kids at home is not conducive to intense Ironman preparation.”
So, he concentrates on cardio workouts. And he works hard to eat smart. “Being in the beer and wine business is not necessarily great for the midsection.”
And he hikes. “We try to do quick weekend getaways,” he said. “Emily and I just got back from a hiking trip to Gatlinburg. We love the Smokies.”
Those kinds of things are important, he said, because he could otherwise fall into the trap where his life becomes “work, home, and then back to work.” It would be an easy rhythm for him, because the job is so comfortable to who he is.
“My background has given me a diverse skill-set,” he explained. “I have the financial background, but I’ve also worked extensively on the operations side. This company is an aggregator of operational companies, and I’ve dealt with customers, managed employees and negotiated contracts.”
He said that when a new company comes before them as another possible acquisition, he’s able to evaluate the financials but also the operational profiles. Fit is critical, he said, because of the Neace approach – which is not always just rate of return.
“We invest in our areas of competency, segments where we already have some experience,” Estes explained. “We’ll joint-venture with people in areas where we don’t have core competency, but we’d never invest in businesses where we didn’t know what we were doing or didn’t have people who did.” It’s almost a mantra: “We know what we don’t know.”
“You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to be comfortable saying ‘I don’t know,’ ” Estes said. “That’s the key to this business: We have to identify a key someone to operate the business, a trusted partner – someone we know.”
But that’s what holds out the possibility of endless growth to Estes, working with Neace in a business based on relationships.
“John knows everybody!”