ST. LOUIS — When Mary Anne O'Connell graduated first in her class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 1982, women were a rarity in mergers and acquisitions, and in dealmaking generally.
"When I was in law school, it was 30% to 40% women — a far cry from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg days, but I may be the only woman who went into M&A," O'Connell said.
Thirty-eight years later, O'Connell is a partner at Husch Blackwell in St. Louis specializing in M&A and has worked on more than $1 billion in deals.
St. Louis women who make deals happen — lawyers, venture capitalists, investment bankers, commercial bankers, accountants, as well as corporate CEOs and business owners — are driving transactions worth billions of dollars.
But they're still, by far, a minority within their own industry.
In 2011, Reuters referred to M&A as a “man’s game," noting that just 15% of executives and senior level managers in U.S. investment banking and securities dealing industries were women. On the legal side of dealmaking, a survey of law firms conducted last year by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association found that women accounted for almost 50% of summer associates and 46% of associates, yet only 23% of partners and 20% of equity partners. In M&A, the levels were even lower, with women accounting for only 16% of senior M&A equity partners.
In St. Louis, a group of more than 60 women are working to make a dent in those demographics.
Formed in 2018, the Women's Peer Group is a subset of the 350-member St. Louis chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth, a trade organization that promotes networking among dealmaking professionals working in the middle market, a broad range of companies with $10 million to $500 million in revenue.
By at least one measure, the group is already making an impact.
"The group has grown 33% in just two years," said Amy Ruebsam, executive director of the ACG St. Louis chapter. "These are women helping women, networking, providing support to one another."
The group is made up of a who's-who of powerful dealmakers in St. Louis. That includes Holly Huels, who in 2016 became one of few women to found a private equity firm, Holleway Capital Partners, after 22 years at Clayton-based private equity firm Capital for Business. During her career, she has led the acquisition of more than 20 companies with more than $350 million of total transaction value. In the past 24 months, her firm has closed three transactions with a combined value of more than $65 million.
"These are professional women who are established in their careers, who lead deals or sales of a company or a family firm," said Huels, who will become president of the St. Louis ACG chapter in 2022, the first woman to lead it since its founding in 1985.
The group's members acknowledge that the path into M&A is a difficult one for women. And while the reasons why may vary, explanations commonly center on the perception of a career with little work-life balance.
"A career in investment banking, for example, is difficult — the nature of transactional work, sometimes with 80- and 90-hour weeks. It's a barrier for women considering careers," said investment banker Rose Thompson, chief operating officer of ButcherJoseph & Co. in St. Louis, who has executed transactions valued at more than $15 billion and raised capital of $3 billion in less than 10 years.
But the bigger issue — and one the Peer Group is tackling head on — is the lack of women in leadership roles who can serve as an example.
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