Entrepreneur and civic leader Martin Nesbitt, ’89, is five years into his latest co-venture, Chicago-based Vistria Group, a $1.7 billion private equity firm that invests at the intersection of public and private sectors in healthcare, education, and financial services.
Before that, he was CEO and cofounder of the Parking Spot, the first nationally branded airport parking company, which has grown into a business worth more than $1 billion. The public good is always on his plate: he was recently named to the transition team for newly elected Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker; he’s chairman of the Obama Foundation; and he served on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority. Dubbed “the first friend,” Nesbitt raised funds and weathered the campaign trail from the very beginning of former president Barack Obama’s political career. Said Nesbitt: “Going to the White House never got old: it was awe-inspiring every time.”
The one thing I bring to business and civics: “It’s not about me.” It’s about the capacity to put the interests of others (the institution, the company, and the people) ahead of my own. People empower you with leadership opportunities when they trust that you have their best interest in mind. That’s what leads to success, and it’s one of the fundamentals of Vistria, the firm I started with my partner, Kip Kirkpatrick. We thought to ourselves, “What if we started a firm that’s not about us? What if it’s about Us—our partners, our investors, our portfolio of companies, and their employees?” We thought there was a value proposition at the intersection of private and public interest, in doing the right thing for the broader community. For example, we bought an online high-school completion program for adults. There’s a skills gap in this country—we have people who are undereducated and undertrained. Our investment serves the students, the corporate community, and our broader society. That company fits squarely into Vistria’s mission.
Measuring myself against others spurs me. At my first job out of Booth, at LaSalle Partners (now JLL), I was exposed to people who had more financial success than I had ever dreamed. Were they 500 times smarter? I convinced myself it wasn’t mathematically possible. That got me thinking about doing my own thing.
A LaSalle managing director, Dan Cummings, ’77, once asked me to look into their parking assets. There were low-margin operators in a highly fragmented industry, scattered all over the nation. I asked myself a few questions: Why does parking service lag the hospitality industry? Why isn’t there a strong national brand? Why isn’t technology leveraged more aggressively in parking? And finally: Is there a value proposition associated with exploiting the state of the industry? I created a business plan around perspectives I developed around these questions, which became the Parking Spot.
I’ve been incrementally bold. My family thought I was out of my mind to give up a job and go to business school. Think about it: I was the first in my family to go to college, which was a big deal in a working-class family like mine. My first job out of college was at General Motors, at the headquarters in Detroit. I’d made it! Why would I give that up? It was bold of me just going to Booth. Later on, it was bold of me to do something entrepreneurial.
I’m reminded daily of the lessons I learned on the athletic field. It’s not about how fast you can run or how high you can jump; it’s about how you work with people to accomplish a goal. I credit my prep-school basketball coach Jack MacMullan for teaching me that I am part of the whole.
Validation came from Howard Haas, the former CEO of mattress company Sealy. He taught leadership at Booth, and one day he reached out to me after class: “I see something in you, but something’s holding you back in class. Let it go.” I was focused on the analytical skills Booth was helping me develop and lost perspective on what I was already bringing to the table. I was able to figure out how to combine the lessons from athletics with the lessons from Booth to become a well-rounded business leader.
For advice, I turn to a host of friends and longtime business associates. The top of that list is my wife, who’s brilliant. [Anita Blanchard, MD, is a University of Chicago Medicine professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate dean, graduate medical education.] To unwind, she and I collect art and love spending time with our kids. We’re at the gym a lot. Our youngest daughter is a gymnast, and we have a son who plays basketball at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and a daughter who plays at Yale.
Growing up, I was a good student in bad schools. When busing came to Columbus, Ohio, my mother put my sisters and me on a bus to a white school. By seventh grade, a teacher there told me to apply to become an ABC Scholar, a program that allowed inner-city kids to go to a private prep school. A universe of possibility came from that scholarship. At the Columbus Academy, I met people whose fathers were doctors and lawyers, who owned businesses. My teachers and the headmaster knew I cared about school and wanted me to succeed. They built my confidence when they could have destroyed it.
There’s a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. Every time I visited, I’d stand there and I’d read it. Barack and Michelle were so good about sharing their experience in the White House. On some Friday nights, I’d walk into the Oval Office and ask, “Is that new, that architectural feature?” President Obama would say, “No, that’s been there a hundred years.” That’s how it felt visiting the White House—it was always new and inspiring.
Vinyl records are a thing in our office. We’re fans of Tom Kartsotis’s Shinola business, which produces record players, watches, and leather bags by leveraging the skilled, blue-collar workforce in Detroit and other cities, helping to strengthen those communities. That resonates with us at Vistria. I love music; at the end of the day, when I’m packing up to go home, cleaning up, I’ll put on a Stevie Wonder album, or Marvin Gaye. That’s always fun.
—As Told to Anne Moore