Up close with Rockbridge CEO Jim Merkel

Hotel Management Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Ricca recently traveled to Columbus, Ohio, where she met with Jim Merkel, the president and CEO of private-equity firm Rockbridge. What follows is a pared down version of her story. Click here for the full version.

Private-equity firms are known for their latest deal, the strength of their investments and their returns. It’s not often that “the money guys” are known for their corporate culture and solid company philosophy, but those are aspects of Rockbridge’s business that president, CEO and founding partner Jim Merkel is just as proud of as he is of the company’s latest deals.

That’s because the people side of the business is part of Merkel’s DNA, particularly at Rockbridge, the company he helped found at only 25 years old. “Our business philosophy is not an accident,” he said. “Our culture is a function of the people who started the firm. I’m blessed that they believed in me and they let me push the business forward.”

Growing up in Columbus, Merkel and his father invested in the stock market together as a hobby. This piqued the young Merkel’s interest in investment and finance, which he pursued by completing a school work project at an investment bank during his senior year in high school. At the University of Michigan, he majored in history.

“People ask me, ‘How do you get to do what you do with a history major?’” he said with a laugh. “I was involved in investing at a young age, but was always intrigued by history."

Turns out, that understanding of the human condition over the ages helped Merkel find his place in hospitality. “The hotel business is such a people business, on both the deal and operations sides,” he said. “Our success is about understanding how people behave and how we can take the dynamics of a situation and put together a prescription together for how to fix it.”

Merkel’s nontraditional path ended up placing him right where he needed to be. The Columbus investment bank he worked for during high school was acquired by Banc One and became Banc One Capital Markets, which was Rockbridge’s predecessor company. After talking the managers into hiring him as an intern (the company didn’t have a formal internship program), Merkel joined Ron Callentine’s group that had just been formed to invest in hotels.

Thus, Merkel began to work with the man who would become a mentor and peer to him throughout his entire professional career. Callentine had launched the Pickett Suites brand with Jim Pickett in the early 1980s and had co-founded the aforementioned Banc One Capital Markets.

Merkel was 25 when he started Rockbridge as a co-founder with Callentine, Stephen Denz (current EVP and CFO) and Kenneth Krebs (current EVP and general counsel). Callentine now serves as Rockbridge’s chairman.  

Rockbridge has built its reputation as an ownership company known for thoughtful repositioning of assets into top performers that maximize market-specific demand. As it happens, current economic conditions put Rockbridge right where it likes to be.

“We’re in a unique market right now where you can sell stabilized assets for a good price, and you also can buy unstabilized assets, fix them and create value,” he said. “That’s exactly what we do. It’s difficult today to just buy an asset and let the market add value; you have to be proactive and hands-on and really create that value. That’s been our strategy for more than 20 years.”

The company is renovating and repositioning the former independent hotel to re-open as a Le Meridien. The project is an example of how Merkel and Rockbridge work backward on each deal to unwind the maximum value at every step. Each deal is like an equation, Merkel said, in which all sides have to balance out.

The company did 12 deals in 2013 and Merkel said Rockbridge is geared up to do 10 to 15 deals a year in the near future. “We look a lot,” he said. “We spend time on probably 50 of the 300 deals that crossed our desk and we ended up doing 12.”

Merkel said Rockbridge right now is focused on ensuring its platforms and processes can scale and grow. And through it all, Merkel remains steadfastly committed to perpetuating the Rockbridge culture. “Everybody has to be engaged and perform at a high level to make this work,” he said. “We focus on getting better as a team. I want to always learn from the people around me and have them push me to do the best job I can. That’s what we have here.”