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Women of Leadership Profiles

Kelly McPhilliamy Finds Inspiration Strategically Advising Health and Beauty Clients

While getting an MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Kelly McPhilliamy’s eyes were opened to a broader world that led her to investment banking and stints at some of the world’s most prestigious companies. After years of honing her analytical and relationship-building skills, Kelly has found her niche leading the health and beauty sector at Harris Williams, a global investment bank specializing in M&A.

Current role: Helping health and beauty companies pursue strategic opportunities

Tell me about Harris Williams.

Harris Williams is a global investment bank specializing in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) advisory services. We work with companies, private equity groups, and corporate buyers to either sell their businesses or to make acquisitions. Harris Williams has been committed to helping clients reach their goals for three decades, and we have 10 dedicated Industry Groups and eight offices in the U.S. and Europe.

Describe your current role as Managing Director in the Consumer Group.

I joined the firm two years ago to lead Harris Williams’ efforts in the health and beauty sector. We have strong experience across many sectors of the M&A market, but Harris Williams wasn’t active in the area of health and beauty. Pre-COVID-19, I spent time traveling to execute deals, to market the firm, or to work with our team in London and San Francisco. All of these activities are now happening virtually. When I am not head down in deal work, I spend time on things like mentoring and recruiting.

 

Health and beauty is fascinating because it is always changing and has a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

 

What is your favorite part of your job?

On the lighter side, the best part of beauty and wellness is all the free products—I get a lot of samples! More importantly, I help companies solve problems and think about how to create value through their strategic choices, such as evaluating the right timing to sell their business or when to bring on an investor to fuel growth. Health and beauty is fascinating because it is always changing and has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. It is inspiring to be part of an industry that comprises so many enterprising and successful women—and men.

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours?

Analytical, sales, and relationship-building skills are necessary for clients to trust you, the key to getting hired on deals. Companies look to us for a view on how market, industry, and competitive dynamics shape their strategic opportunities, so having insights and being able to relate these factors to our clients’ situations is critical. At the beginning of your career, the day-to-day is more focused on the fundamentals of running an M&A transaction. Over time, the job is more about sales, strategy, relationship-building, and driving great M&A outcomes for our clients. 

What is most challenging?

It is a very competitive industry, and like many careers, it is demanding. You have to work hard to have a point of view, to have good insights, and to hustle for business. I am married with two children and have been able to find my own balance, but you have to be “on” for clients when they need you. I wouldn’t have stayed 20 years if it wasn’t fulfilling.

Career path: Don’t be afraid to make a change

Did your upbringing influence your career path?

I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad was a chemical engineer, and my mom sold real estate.

I always liked math, and while I was studying finance in college, I worked as a bank teller all three summers. Some combination of all that led me to investment banking. 

Did you ever think about doing something different?

I have tracked toward business for a long time, but I do remember wanting to be a veterinarian as a kid. I loved the book “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot.

What was your very first job (not after college but first ever)?

Aside from babysitting, I worked for an after-hours telephone answering service for physicians. It helped me learn to solve problems and determine whether to escalate issues or let them wait until the next day. 

What was your work experience prior to Harris Williams?

I worked at Wells Fargo in consumer investment banking for 15 years right before coming to Harris Williams. I still have many friends there and respect the work we did. Before Wells Fargo, I was at Morgan Stanley and, before that, Merrill Lynch.

What attracted you to work at Harris Williams specifically?

When I was at Wells Fargo, I saw a heightened shift in the marketplace when I was advising Colgate on the purchase of EltaMD, its first move into professional skincare. Global giants like Colgate increasingly want to acquire innovative, independent brands like Elta. Harris Williams exclusively focuses on M&A, and I was drawn to the opportunity to focus on what I enjoy most: helping companies make strategic decisions.

 

I think the biggest takeaways from my career are don’t be afraid to make a change and love what you do.

 

Is there anything you would do differently? What do you think young professionals can learn from your path so far?

I think the biggest takeaways from my career are don’t be afraid to make a change and love what you do. When I look back, each move provided different growth opportunities that made me a better banker. I believe one reason I’ve found success is that I truly enjoy the work, the people, and being part of such an interesting and dynamic industry.

What have been your biggest lessons in business?

I stay true to giving clients our best advice, not necessarily what they want to hear. Be honest and straightforward, support your perspective with facts, and have a point-of-view on what is happening in the industry. Find ways to add value for clients—it is why they want to work with you.

Any career advice to share?

Take control of your career, speak up, and ask for things for yourself. Don’t wait for things to come to you.

Diversity and inclusion: Amplifying the possibilities

Why is Forté’s mission important to you?

It’s important for women to understand why it’s exciting to work in business. Forté is raising awareness about all sorts of career paths women may not have considered just because they weren’t aware. I serve on the Women in Business Advisory Council at UNC-Charlotte, where a third of the students are the first generation in their families to attend college, so I am passionate about this. 

Can you share any of Harris Williams’ activities to advance gender diversity and inclusion?

At Harris Williams, diversity, equity, and inclusion are major priorities. We host several annual diversity events; have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council; and have Employee Business Resource Groups for women and for Black professionals. The diverse perspectives and backgrounds of our team provide the best possible service to our clients.

 

Take control of your career, speak up, and ask for things for yourself. Don’t wait for things to come to you.

 

Educational choices: Seeing a bigger picture

What inspired you to pursue an MBA at Kellogg?

I was working for Wachovia and moved from Atlanta to Chicago, and it was the perfect timing for business school. I started going to Kellogg at night, and when it became clear that I wanted to pursue investment banking, I quit my job halfway through and began attending full time.

What did your MBA mean for your career in the immediate and long term?

I graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a finance degree, which gave me a solid foundation in finance. However, an MBA was essential to transition into investment banking. Going to Kellogg gave me a broader view of business—it provided a more strategic, global, and multidisciplinary view beyond finance. I met people from all over the world, and it opened my mind. Fast-forward to my M&A career, where thinking strategically is the core. Kellogg set me on that path. 

Personal pursuits: Family, soccer and travel

Is there anything on your bucket list you’d be willing to share?

I love traveling with my family, and I have a list of places I would like to explore. With that said, my bucket list does not include things like jumping out of an airplane!

How do you spend your time when you are not working?

I spend as much time as I can with my family and friends, and I enjoy being outside as a mental break—running, golf, and tennis.

Is there something you can share that is not on your resume (that people may not know about you)?

I’m an avid soccer fan—my husband and I are part owners of a USL Championship professional soccer team, which is one notch below Major League Soccer.

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