What's in a name...

Names of businesses are sometimes interesting and, of course, many times not. They seem to be either a name that creative minds (often at marketing firms) spend weeks or months coming up with, or a name that the founder started with because it meant something to him. Occasionally a company’s name attempts to be descriptive of the business, but in my experience, we see this less and less and the business becomes descriptive of the name.

Think about Apple. In a 2006 interview with an MIT newspaper, Steve Wozniak was asked about the rationale behind the Apple name. He claimed that Steve Jobs came up with the name after spending a few months working on an apple orchard. “After trying to think of better and more technical names, both Jobs and I realized that Apple was a good fit,” he told the newspaper. Apparently, Wozniak and Jobs tried out alternate brand names such as Executex and Matrix. Somehow, Executex just does not fit the paradigm. Our minds have been formed to see and know Apple as…well, Apple. Nothing else. The name is synonymous with the company.

Fred Smith named his company Federal Express because he believed the patriotic meaning associated with the word “federal” suggested an interest in nationwide economic activity. He also hoped the name would resonate with the Federal Reserve Bank, a potential customer. Although the bank denied his proposal, Smith kept the name because he thought it was memorable and would help attract public attention. Of course, the name was later shorted to something the market dictated…FedEx.

Private Equity and Venture Capital firms are not much different. In the early days of the industry, PE/VC firms headlined the names of their founders on the door, resembling law firms use of the founding partners - Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts (now “KKR”), Forstmann Little, Warburg Pincus, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, and even a few made sure everyone knew who the king was like Thomas H. Lee. All were early and important entrants to the industry. Next generation firms seemed to lead with names that were less about the founders, more descriptive, maybe a play on words - Texas Pacific Group (“TPG” described dual headquarters of Ft. Worth/San Francisco) , Lone Star Capital (guess where they are headquartered), and Blackstone (Steve Schwarzmann and Pete Peterson…Schwarz means “black” in German, and Peter means “rock” in Greek. Go figure). Newer PE and VC firms often used terms or names to imply something. Nouns like “harbor” and “stone”, paired with other words to create a name, implying safety or stability, both visually and mentally. Names using achievement or heights like summit, peak, and mountain also come to mind. Names of trees have always been popular…Oak, Poplar, Sequoia, Cyprus, etc. imply growth and strength. They also make for easy use in the logo.

So, we are often asked, what about SSM Partners? Where did that come from? Well, it’s a long answer that we now have down to about a few minutes. So here goes. SSM stands for Stephen, Suzanne and Marilyn, our founder’s three children. Herbert Rhea started SSM in 1973 as a consulting and advisory business to work with the leading private companies in the Memphis. Prior to starting SSM, Herbert had founded what became the largest accounting firm in Memphis, Rhea & Ivy, where many of these same businesses were clients. He promised his accounting partners that to avoid confusion he would not use his name in the new firm. As we understand it, Herbert was on vacation and asked his lawyer to form a new company to use for his new consulting practice. Herbert’s lawyer filled out the incorporation papers, and in his client’s absence created the name “SSM Corporation” using one of his usual methods … the initials of the founder’s children. (Note that in 1973 there were no cell phones, email, etc. to reach his client easily). Of course, it was always assumed that the name would be changed when needed at a later date.

As the story continues…Herbert, his longtime secretary, and the firm’s first new hire, our own Jim Witherington (just out of business school, and Hunter’s father), started answering the phone “SSM”. As the weeks and months passed, every effort to come up with a new name seemed to fade and eventually the SSM name stuck. It just worked, and felt right. SSM went on to become a premier consulting and advisory firm in the 1970’s and 80’s working the such household names like Federal Express, Autozone, Holiday Inns, Buckman Labs, Parts, Inc., Browning Ferris Industries, Dunavant Enterprises and the families that owned these businesses. Herbert was the dean of the financial community in Memphis for his generation, sharing his wisdom and business acumen with hundreds of clients and friends through SSM over a 20-year span. It was not unusual to see several of the leading businessmen of Memphis in Herbert’s office during the course of a day. He was quick-witted and generous, almost to a fault. His reputation was impeccable and his character never questioned.

Herbert retired from SSM in 1984 but was never far away. He shared office space with the firm until his death in 2010. His door was open to us anytime, and we all sought his advice eagerly and often. Both business and personal. He was a father figure and mentor. We miss him.

In 1987, SSM entered the direct investing business as a consultant to a small venture capital fund that was raised in Memphis. (Of course, Herbert was a Partner in the new fund.) SSM assumed management of that fund in 1990 and raised its first fund under the SSM moniker in 1994. The consulting side of SSM was slowly wound down by the mid to late 90’s. Now, six funds later we proudly continue to use the SSM name, because to us it stands for something. Namely Herbert’s legacy and that of all our partners before us, and the values they instilled to make SSM what it is today. And we also believe it stands for something in the market place.

Several years ago, we codified what we call our Core Values and Investment Principles. (See below) These were not new to us. We talked about these values and principles openly and often as we made decisions. We had just simply never taken time to record them more formally. Upon reflection, it was not lost on us that these values and principles were not just handed down to us, but they were entrusted with us. SSM is now in its third generation and as current owners and partners we hope that we are living out the legacy that Herbert started, one that would make him and his three children…Stephen, Suzanne & Marilyn (“SSM”) proud.

SSM Core Values

  • Prioritize the success of our investors and entrepreneurs above our own
  • Be intentional in pursuing, building and maintaining relationships
  • Be diligent, creative and loyal to our entrepreneurs
  • Communicate transparently with our investors and entrepreneurs
  • Make wise use of our time and resources for the success of our investors and entrepreneurs
  • Follow through on our commitments
  • Respect and value the differences in people and their viewpoints
  • Always do the right thing, even when contracts would allow us to do otherwise
  • Engage in the community with our time and resources

SSM Investment Principals

  • Invest our partners’ capital as if it were our own
  • Invest in proven, high-growth companies that we understand
  • Recognize that leaders are critical to the success of our investments and partner only with those that are capable, trustworthy, and motivated
  • Concentrate our investments so that we may dedicate significant time and resources into each company in which we invest

About SSM Partners. SSM has partnered with talented entrepreneurs for more than 25 years. The growth equity firm invests in rapidly growing companies that have proven and differentiated software, technology, or healthcare business models. Starting with a relationship built on trust, SSM offers its entrepreneur-partners a thorough understanding of the growth company lifecycle and a collaborative approach to building great businesses. Learn more at