At Hinge we have been studying Visible Experts℠, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Chris Mercer, a Visible Expert for business valuation.
When he was a young man working for the investment firm Morgan Keegan, Chris Mercer made a name for himself as a valuation expert, appraising businesses for merger and acquisitions and IPOs. “No one wanted to do it, so I took it on as an ‘extra,’” He says. “I became a specialist and I began to realize that there could be a business in there.”
In 1982, Chris left to start his own valuation practice, Mercer Capital. He set up shop with an Osborne 1 computer with a five-inch screen and a Smith Corona printer that took several minutes to print a single page. “Unlike others who started their own firms, I kept my salary where it was at Morgan Keegan,” Chris says. “Any extra cash flow I invested back into my business. The business always came first, and profitability was the focus from the start.”
The Importance of Specialization
In the early years of building his business, Chris relied on several consulting contracts to supplement his valuation work. “In the beginning, we couldn’t afford to turn down a quarter million dollars in bank consulting work, but that wasn’t what I wanted to focus on,” he explains. By 1987, however, he was able to stop consulting and focus exclusively on valuation—his goal all along. “I realized that we were getting spread too thin and needed to specialize. Within three years we dropped consulting and focused exclusively on our valuation business. And that’s been our primary niche for over 25 years.”
Expansion through Content Marketing
Like the other Visible Experts in our study, Chris uses content marketing to expand his visibility through writing, speaking, and newsletters—practices he began long before the Internet. Over time, he realized that his content marketing strategy needed targeting. One day, he says, “I made a diagram of subject matter of the newsletter pieces that we had sent out, along with our target clients. And I realized that we were not sending out any specific subject matter consistently to any specific audience. So our flagship newsletter was born, the very next quarter.” His newsletter was a huge hit and he still emails it to thousands of clients and prospects each quarter. Now there are a number of other regular newsletters, as well.
Early on, Chris also realized that speaking events were critical to becoming visible—something that did not come naturally for this soft-spoken professional.
To become visible, Chris says, “You need to write, speak, make yourself known. I recognized that if I didn’t go outbound, the business wouldn’t succeed. Initially, that was hard for me. At heart, I have an introverted personality. It was hard, but the desire not to fail was a motivator!” He persevered and, today, is a member of the National Speakers Association, and is frequently invited to speak in front of large audiences of business owners and their ad advisers.
Speaking and writing are skills that Chris cultivates in his staff members, as well. “For a growing professional, knowing how to write and speak is critical,” he says, “and we’ve been consciously outbound with our senior people for many years. It’s great to see the new generation of management hitting the road for speaking engagements.” All of these practices help the firm grow—both in visibility and reputation.
The Power of Authorship
Books also have played a critical role in Chris’s content marketing effort. “They have been absolutely essential in creating the credibility that we market in, under, and around,” he says. Written in 1992, Chris’s first book, Valuing Financial Institutions, “put me into a rare group of a half-dozen people who had written anything about valuation. It established me as an expert in the valuation niche and positioned Mercer Capital as a valuation company.”
Along the way, there have been many more books, some written by Chris and others by other seniors at Mercer Capital. The books were important for giving his firm the clout to compete with the bigger name valuation and accounting firms. Chris notes, “Early on, if a prospect hired Mercer Capital, then virtually unknown, it was a bigger risk. We needed to be known and perceived as being big and ‘safe.’ Positioning ourselves as thought leaders was an essential part of our growth strategy. Today, we are nationally and internationally known.”
Assembling the Team
For Chris, another key to success has been assembling a crackerjack team. And that meant hiring the right people, whenever and wherever he happened to encounter them. “Leadership needs a long view. You need to be flexible and opportunistic, able to make hiring decisions today that will benefit your business in the long term,” he says. “So maybe we didn’t anticipate hiring two people at $100,000 a year each, but if hiring them is a unique opportunity for us, we have to look at long-term value. You need to be ready to scoop up talent when you see it.”
Our research into Visible Experts shows that building a strong support team is a critical part of the Visible Expert journey, increasing in importance as the expert becomes better known. Visible Experts’ roles and duties tend to shift with expanded visibility, as well. This holds true for Chris, whose role shifted away from operations as his team grew and his visibility expanded.
“Today, I am Chairman of the Board at Mercer Capital, but I am no longer involved in the day-to-day operations,” he explains. “It frees up a lot of my time. Now I spend my time either working with clients or providing expert witness services and doing business development like writing, speaking, and developing new ideas.” Recently, much of Chris’s writing has been focused on his blog, which centers around helping business owners on issues related to ownership succession and business valuation.
Cultivating An Entrepreneurial Spirit
Chris believes there is no substitute for hard work and drive, and Mercer Capital seeks to hire smart, talented people who are not afraid of work and who have, or who can catch on to that entrepreneurial spirit. “A lot of firms get to a certain size and the leaders get complacent—there is no more drive to grow it bigger,” he says, “To succeed, you have to have that drive, that entrepreneurial spirit. Initially that drive came from me, and then it was picked up by those I hired.” He continues, “At Mercer Capital, we have great people, who are well trained, client-service oriented, have a vested interest in company, and are just nice people to work with. I’m lucky—I like to come to work every day because I like the people that I work with.”
Check out The Visible Expert book to learn about our latest research on the benefits that industry stars bring to their firms and how to become or develop one.