“We all have experiences that open the scope of our being, and it is incumbent on each of us to use those experiences to guide our progress forward—remembering that which we have been privileged to see and using that gained knowledge to call those around us to greater purpose.”
Alysha Cooke is the VP of Finance for Thoroughbred Holdings, an investment firm that has quietly invested $400M spread across five portfolio companies over the last 15 years in the energy sector. In her role as VP, Alysha has overseen $60M in acquisitions since joining the firm and sits on six corporate boards as part of her responsibilities within the company. She is also an adjunct professor at DU where she teaches accounting from a real-world perspective.
Can you tell us a little bit about Thoroughbred Holdings and what your role is there?
Thoroughbred Holdings is certainly a unique workplace. I think if you were to cross a private equity firm and its portfolio companies, you would get something resembling Thoroughbred Holdings—with some aspects of each. In a nutshell, we aim to acquire and develop energy and energy related projects. We partner with a handful of different private equity groups and also invest our own money, all while setting up individual portfolio companies to be successful on their own. We provide executive and board oversight as the new projects get underway so the project teams can focus on what they do best—the operations. The synergies we have found with this model are unique and advantageous for us and the project teams. My specific role as the VP of Finance involves managing all aspects of the financial operations. As with many small businesses, everyone tends to wear a lot of hats, so I also manage HR, risk management, IT, office management, land operations, and various other things that come up. The variety keeps it interesting every day.
Your team has made quite a few acquisitions. What are the main things you’re looking for in an acquisition?
The good thing about working with a handful of different private equity groups is that we get to explore a wide variety of projects because we are not locked in to one strict set of investing principles. We are also very creative when it comes to structuring, so that opens up a lot of opportunities to find the most beneficial solution for all involved with a specific target project. All the targets we look at are energy, infrastructure, and/or natural resources related. The projects tend to include large, hard assets requiring capital expenditures between $10 million and $100 million. However, even if you have a larger or smaller project, we have the flexibility to make it happen if we believe in it.
For those that are interested in acquisition type roles, what’s your advice to them? What skills are critical to learn and how do they learn those skills?
Learn to be uncomfortable not knowing everything and don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Particularly in the industry we are in, each project can have very unique geology or infrastructure or local politics, and each of them may require built-to-suit solutions. Certainly, there can be key indicators and metrics that could be similar across various projects, but overall, it is difficult to force a model from one business to another without regard for its nuances.
The most critical skills are analytical in nature. A healthy curiosity and humble attitude are helpful along the way! Many of the critical skills come from simple repetition and exposure to a lot of projects. Just as important as understanding the projects that make it up the food chain is understanding why we cross other projects off the list. There have been multiple times where potential projects have come around for a second or third time as circumstances change, and it is helpful to have the full background from the last time on the merry-go-round.
In finance, are there a set of truths or principals you live by?
I have found that my values in finance are aligned with many of my values as a person. Over the past five years or so, I have spent time thinking about what my core values are as a person—if “Alysha” were a business, what would those values be on the wall when you walk into the headquarters? One of them is curiosity. This natural curiosity serves me well when it comes to financial information. I find it is important to have a healthy skepticism about information that comes my way and question when things don’t make sense. Early on in my career, I was hesitant to ask questions out of fear that I may come across as uninformed, but as I have leaned into my curiosity value more, I realized that those questions are a great way to build relationships and get to the heart of the matter at hand.
You’re on six different boards – How do you see your role as a board member and what do you think makes a good board member?
I typically serve as the board secretary for our companies, in addition to leading discussions on accounting and finance matters as a part of the management teams. If I had to sum up my role as board secretary in one word, it would be “resolute”. All the different boards are made up of different personalities, styles, and expectations. However, the things they tend to have in common are that they appreciate (1) a clear process, (2) someone leading the flow of the agenda, and (3) being able to rely on someone to ensure the minutia and follow up items are adequately executed. This consistency I can provide as a board secretary means the other board members can focus on the critical discussion points that vary from meeting to meeting. In my experience, the best board members are the ones that bring a wise point of view that can both challenge and inspire the management teams.
You’re also an adjunct professor at Denver University in your “spare” time – what brought you into that and how has it impacted your professional perspective on businesses?
I am so glad to be working in the small business community, however I realized a few years ago that I missed the teaching opportunities I had while working at a big firm. Therefore, I set a goal to teach an accounting class as an adjunct professor. I was open to the specific course and university. This was a five-year goal for me because adjunct positions can be complicated—the time of year, the time of the class, the technical material, and various other things need to align for it to be a fit for both the adjunct faculty and the university. After a couple years of strategically networking, the stars aligned, and I began teaching. I aim to teach one class per year. While those few months of teaching are always challenging from a schedule perspective, the reward is worth it. Students at the University of Denver get to take so many wonderful classes with research professors who provide great exposure to the world of academia, and I think the course they get to take with me helps to round out their experience to understand real world accounting and finance more fully.
What’s the number one question you get asked by your students? Your answer?
The difficult or entitled students mostly ask: “Can I have an extension on XYZ assignment because of [enter special circumstance]?”. The engaged and hardworking students ask: “What is the best career path?”. To the former, my response tends to be “no”. I do not like the idea of giving special treatment to one student over another (of course, in certain circumstances there can always be exceptions, but as a general rule, I don’t think it is good practice to compromise on the standards set forth for all students). To the latter, my response tends to be “it depends”. Many students have a general sense of where they may like to go in their careers, but there is no one-size-fits-all experience for accounting students. I like to spend a bit more time with them so I can better help advise on what types of experiences might help to get them where they want to go. I have found that many times, simply sharing my experiences and the related pros and cons of each help them firm up a bit more what they may envision for their first jobs.
You have a lot of responsibilities with being a board member, professor, VP of Finance, etc., how do you stay organized and manage your time effectively?
I am a schedule person. I know many find keeping a schedule to be daunting, but consistency in my schedule is actually very freeing for me. It ensures that I am able to do all the things I want to. I was a part of an innovation seminar a handful of years back. Before the seminar, I tended to think of innovation and creativity as more spontaneous occurrences, and therefore, something you could not plan for. However, I learned at the seminar that some of my best thinking can come about during an intentional and deliberate processes. The key, of course, it to make the time for those things in my schedule. I feel the most fulfilled when I am able to fit in all of my professional and personal commitments, so I live by my calendar and try to honor the commitments I make on that calendar.
What’s your favorite book?
Whichever one I am reading right now. It changes all the time, but I very easily get caught up in a book (or pretty easily toss it aside if I am not totally feeling it). I read a lot of different types of books, from business to politics to theology to fiction and beyond. I try to switch them up so I don’t get too far down a rabbit hole with one type of book, but of course sometimes I find a topic that I can’t quite venture away from for a bit. I have also gone back to re-read many books that I have enjoyed to try to suss out more details. It is always amazing how the same books can impact me differently based on what I may be experiencing at the time.
You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know. - René Daumal
I enjoy hiking and have done many of the Colorado 14ers. This quote very clearly speaks to those types of experiences, but like so many quotes, it is an overture leading to something more profound than simply the words on the page. Whether you like climbing mountains or not, we all have experiences that open the scope of our being, and it is incumbent on each of us to use those experiences to guide our progress forward—remembering that which we have been privileged to see and using that gained knowledge to call those around us to greater purpose.