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LAVA series: Working at a challenger boutique – starting with a blank sheet of paper

Since launching LAVA just under two years ago, we’ve received a steady stream of enquiries into what it’s like working at a new challenger boutique. Particularly as most of our team joined us from either the Big Four or international firms, we regularly find ourselves fielding questions from prospective hires and industry contacts who are curious about why we traded in our traditional career paths and how we’re finding the transition.

We’ve noticed there can sometimes be an element of hesitancy or suspicion behind these conversations. Large corporations provide familiar, typically secure positions and formulaic progression that some find hard to imagine giving up. In contrast, working at a challenger boutique is uncharted territory. Fast-paced and dynamic, these environments offer more varied, hands-on and creative roles. 

This feeling of the unknown can seem daunting and, for some, a little too risky. However, from our collective experience, the opportunities for personal and professional growth, plus the benefits of a collaborative, future-facing culture, far outweigh old industry setups and scenarios. 

Experiences can vary from company to company, so to shine a light on why we’re such strong advocates of working for a challenger boutique, over the next two months, we asked each of our team members to share some main observations about their LAVA career so far.

“Starting with a blank sheet of paper, you build the best business and team” Simon Woodcock, Partner

I began my career in a number of smaller firms, cutting my teeth on the boutique M&A scene before moving on to become a partner at Grant Thornton. During this time, I also kept a close eye on other companies in the sector, remaining curious about what others were doing and exposing myself to different business models and cultures.

This experience and insight taught me a lot. I noted the good and bad parts of a wide variety of businesses and ultimately realised that no one was doing things how I would do them or in a way that I felt reflected a more forward-thinking approach to M&A.

So when we had the opportunity to create LAVA, Claire, Hamish, and I sat down with a blank sheet of paper and combined all the best parts of our different experiences and observations, and scrapped those we felt were dated or restrictive.

Without the limitations of existing infrastructure or legacy systems, we could actually bring to life our ideal outcomes for questions such as, “What’s the best culture we can create?”, “What sort of backgrounds, perspectives and talent do we want to bring in?” and “How can our framework set us up to be leaders in resourcing and targeting future clients?”

If you’re working at a large corporate, this freedom to be dynamic and fluid in how you build and shape your business just isn’t possible.

By contrast, at LAVA, we’re structured in a way that enables us to go after whatever we feel is right for our team, clients and partners. Whether it’s applying for B Corp status, investing in exciting partnerships or recruiting outside of industry norms, we’re able to maintain our pledge to be the most refreshing face of next-generation advisory businesses.


“Enjoy more freedom to go after the deals you want to work on” Claire Davis, Partner

How do we define the deals we want to work on? It’s two-fold really: who do we want to work with and who do we enjoy working with, and what sectors really excite us? It’s really important to us and to our clients that there is an element of enjoyment in the relationship we have and also tonnes of mutual respect where we can challenge each other’s thinking.

We want to make sure that we and our clients get the most value from a project in all respects. The deals we’ve completed to date, and some that we are due to complete, show there’s significant appetite from private equity, particularly in the hobbyist retail space, homewares and ESG focused businesses.

How have we been able to choose what we have worked on? The big answer to this has to be time.

In a large organisation, the infrastructure means that a lot of senior time is taken up with internal meetings and red tape, so the time you invest in relationships as well as executing deals is not ideal.

We run a relatively straightforward and collaborative ship; sharing ideas and really dedicating team time to relationships and deals. Once we’re on the deal, senior team time is our focus, and we all get stuck in. This gives real value to our clients, which is often recognised after the initial deal through investment in their structure and an advisory role to help them grow further.

Having a voice to shape the organisation and collaborating more with your wider network”  Hamish Martin, Partner

One of the most amazing things about working for a new challenger boutique is that all team members have a voice that they can use to help define and shape the culture of the business. This is something we really encourage within LAVA to ensure everyone has their say and isn’t afraid of having conversations that challenge our way of working.

Our flat structure encourages this, as the team knows these changes can be implemented swiftly, and we can easily monitor and assess their impact. If they work, fantastic. If they aren’t working, then we are happy to fail quickly and learn something from the process. 

Ultimately, this approach allows us to build an environment where everyone receives support but is also challenged and, most importantly, feels that they can enjoy themselves.

The one aspect of working for a new M&A independent that has surprised me the most is how others in the industry have treated us. Many large organisations have quite an isolationist way of working, whereby they believe they can manage everything in-house and therefore are less open to collaboration with others.

Since setting up LAVA, we have been out there building relationships and are pleasantly surprised by how helpful, and collaborative everyone has been, even our competitors!

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