Todd Willits is the CEO of EPFR, a 25-year-old data provider on institutional and retail investor fund flows and fund manager allocations. Based in Cambridge, MA, EPFR was acquired last year by Montagu Private Equity.
I grew up in the small town of Halfmoon in upstate New York. My upbringing influenced me to want to connect with the people around me. My graduating class had 43 kids, so I knew everyone well.
In high school, I was heavily into science and math. By 10th grade, I started taking college science courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Albany. During my senior year, I decided to become a music major. I played a little bit of electric guitar and bass. But I was primarily focused on the business end of music. Mel Byron, the high school band and drama teacher, was the mentor who steered me in that direction.
In 2001, as a high school sophomore, I attended a weekend leadership seminar. It’s called the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation. The intention is to push people toward leadership for service in their community. I learned quite a lot about how to lead people and many of my early leadership opportunities through volunteering in that organization. I’m going on 22 years of being involved with their foundation.
At Northeastern University in Boston, I majored in music business. They challenged us to think ahead and look around corners to see what was coming. Students returning from cooperative education programs — where they worked for six months with a company — would talk about how the businesses didn’t understand where their industry was going. I learned that you must be nimble.
I’ve been working since I was 14. Summers were everything from light construction to bank telling. In college, one of my co-ops was to go to LA for six months at a record label. I learned that you have to do your homework.
My first job out of college was at a music tech startup called Sonicbids, running the promoter relations team. We had about 150,000 musicians and 15,000 promoters and acted as the platform for connecting those two groups.
After three years, I came to EPFR. I started in client services as the first employee on that team. It was a similar role to Sonicbids, working with the client base. That was in 2010, just before their acquisition by Informa. We were part of the business intelligence division until 2022, when EPFR was carved out as its own entity.
Honestly, I chalk up a good percentage of my success to just showing up. After theInforma acquisition, both of the cofounders left within four years. At that point, I was one of the individuals who knew the business the best.
I’ve probably read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell 10 times. It gives an excellent framework to think through how actions build and lead to results. I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done three times. It’s how I keep myself organized and structured.
I like to lead by example and show people that if I can do it, anyone can. Because this is a small organization with 87 employees, many people have to wear many hats. In hiring, I look for self-starters and people who will drive action. I like to have diversity of thought and approach. I ask hypothetical questions, like how many baseballs would fit into Fenway Park or how many piano tuners there are in New York. You can start to see how people work a problem.
The best leadership advice I ever received was to put yourself in an individual's shoes before criticizing or questioning their work. If somebody puts 60 or 80 hours into something, and you come in and rip it to shreds, that doesn’t make for a creative culture. The worst leadership I’ve seen is management by fear, where you berate people or constantly criticize.
I bring a level of candor to the role that’s maybe unusual. If people ask a direct question, I’ll answer it. Candor and truthfulness build trust. I do 15-minute check-ins each month with my 13 direct reports. I ask them to tell me something they’re proud of and something that needs improvement, and I give that back to them. Then I ask what I’m doing that helps them and what I could do better. It’s my opportunity to celebrate wins and highlight areas where we need to see growth.
My mentor was Craig Woodward at Informa. I learned from him that you need to keep your attention at a certain level in this role, and you can’t get into the weeds.At EPFR, we’ve always had a remote aspect to our culture. It’s been fascinating to see the rest of the world catch up. We didn’t have to change anything after March 2020, but the advances and adoption of video technology have helped us grow.
I’ve noticed two significant shifts in business. The first is how organizations utilize data to make smart decisions, leading to the development of data science as an industry. The second is more and more visualization or contextualization of data.
A really important lasting change I’ve made has been incorporating reflection. There’s a tendency to run and push to do more constantly. For the past eight years, every single Friday, I set aside three hours to reflect, organize myself, and plan for the following week.
When I spoke at an entrepreneurship class at Emerson College recently, I made two points. Just show up and do your best, even if you don’t have all the answers. I came into this job without much financial background, but I learned about it because I showed up every day and tried hard. The other point was just how vital networking can be. Remember names and faces because they’ll be your next opportunity.
If I were coming out of college now, I would probably go into data science. Whether I would cut it is another question. But I would give it a shot.
CEO of EPFR