The only woman partner and general counsel at an Indiana private equity firm (let alone at Indiana’s largest), Julianne Lis-Milam, has led Hammond Kennedy Whitney & Co. through 34 company acquisitions representing $1.4 billion in deals.
Pretty impressive, especially when you consider that the Detroit native didn’t even speak English until she was 5 years old.
“I came from a very traditional Polish family,” she said. “I wasn’t a rebel, but I was a little different.” A member of the Polish Women’s Alliance and dancer at Wayne State University, she thought she was going to be a school teacher and dance instructor on the side.
Feeling like she needed to break away and do something different, she went to Indiana University to study public affairs, followed by law school. Private practice led to a partnership at Sommer Barnard, where she represented Hammond Kennedy Whitney, which she later joined.
Among her achievements: Guiding the firm through the legal requirements under federal and state laws in forming and raising buyout funds—$100 million for HKW Capital Partners II, $225 million for HKW Capital Partners III, and $320 million for HKW Capital Partners IV. When the Securities and Exchange Commission mandated new rules for private equity firms registering as investment advisers, she led the effort.
“I’m not a woman in private equity,” she said. “I’m an investment professional in private equity who happens to be a woman.”
“It’s frustrating to me,” she added, “when little girls get pigeonholed. When we raised our children, we never said ‘these are girl toys and these are boy toys.’” She once cornered a clerk in a department store and said, “There are other colors besides blue and pink.”
“I’ve been fortunate,” she said, “to be surrounded by gender-blinded people.”
Her favorite part of the business? “When we orchestrate the closing to buy an investment. That moment is always exhilarating. There is a certain amount of adrenalin in it. It’s very rewarding. The second is when you work with the company you acquired, nurture it, strengthen it, improve operations, and then you sell it. That whole spectrum is rewarding.”
Her degree in management has given her a viewpoint grounded in structure and organizational strength. “When I started at Sommer, I fell into transactions and mergers and acquisitions and loved it. It fits my skill set. I enjoy following a project from infancy to nurture to close. I’m good at it and I enjoy it.”
“Of course,” she added, “its very time consuming and demanding.”
She praised mentors who helped guide her along the way, including Glenn Scolnik, chairman of HKW and Jim Sommer of Sommer Barnard. “I can’t tell you what it means to have them as trusted advisers,” she said.
And she’s been a trusted adviser to others, among them Caroline Young, a former associate at her law firm Lis-Milam & Associates. Young now is a partner at HKW. Lis-Milam has been involved with the Network of Women in Business. She also serves as a Eucharistic minister at Holy Spirit at Geist Catholic Church.
“What’s important,” she said, “is that you have the drive and keep your integrity in everything you do. Never be afraid to take on leadership roles but understand what you are getting involved in. Know the time commitment. Be realistic.”•
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