Meet Drew Hannah, mentor to BC MBAs
By Timothy Gray
If you’re trying to run a startup company, Drew Hannah suggests that you follow the Rolling Stones.
Not the music—though he’s a fan—but the way the members interact. Over the years, each Stone has carved out his role and let his bandmates do theirs. They’ve thus managed to bridge musical differences and personal disagreements while creating a multimillion-dollar enterprise spanning entertainment and publishing.
Hannah, founder of Drew Partners in Newtonville, Mass., thinks a lot about how small groups of talented folks, whether English bluesmen or Boston business people, interact. He’s a consultant who advises startups and a mentor for student teams in the Carroll School’s MBA business plan competition. Over the last decade, he has shown himself to as an unusually effective adviser: two of his student teams have won the annual competition and several more made the finals.
Hannah’s advisees in this year’s competition, who called themselves Organic Advisory Group, also made the finals. Team member Vanessa Vallenilla gives him part of the credit. Vallenilla, a second year MBA student, says that Hannah often used questions, not instruction, to guide her team in their meetings.
“He barely spoke sometimes,” she says. “He listened. We’d think we had everything right, and then he’d shoot us a question that would catch us off guard. In the first meeting, he said, ‘I don’t understand—who’s your customer?’ That haunted us to the end. We were selling an organic fertilizer, and every time we thought we had it narrowed it down, he kept asking, ‘Who are you targeting? Farmers? Distributors? Retailers?’”
Hannah ended up sharing the contact information of a farmer he knew, enabling the team to flesh out its marketing plan, Vallenilla says.
When he’s not advising companies and students, Hannah is also a musician—a guitarist and bass player—who continues to perform. One of his bands, the Del-Crustaceans, was formed in Chicago in the ’70s, and the members still gather to play occasional parties and college reunions.
Mark Wasif, a 2012 MBA and a member of a team that presented a plan last year for a company called Hubworks Interactive, says that Hannah used a shared love of music to connect with him and a teammate. “I play guitar, and my teammate Tom [Latronico] was in a band,” as a guitarist. “Tom had to do a big chunk of our finals presentation and was nervous. Drew told him just to think about it like he going up on stage to play music.” (Hubworks is led and was co-founded by Rob Berger, a 2009 Boston College MBA.)
Hannah stipulates that he knows more about management than music. He has never made a living as a musician—he plays for pleasure—but he has helmed several companies. He was CEO of Softbridge, a Cambridge, Mass., maker of automated testing software, and led it through its acquisition by Teradyne. He then became top executive of Parker Guitars and Fishman Transducers in Wilmington, Mass.
Parker made instruments that were lighter and more technologically advanced than other electric guitars. A few high-profile players, including the bassist for Aerosmith, adopted them, but the company couldn’t break into the broader market. As a result, Hannah ended up selling to U.S. Music Corp. During this time, he was also a director with the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., an early-stage venture capital fund.
He started Drew Partners in 2004. There, he coaches the management teams of early expansion-stage tech companies and startups. He’ll spend a day or two a week with each of his clients, embedding himself with the team. He likewise tries to meet weekly with his BC student advisees.
Eileen Holcomb, a 2012 MBA who was part of the Hubworks team, says that Hannah’s availability impressed her. “If we wanted to throw ideas around, he’d meet with us,” says Holcomb, who’s now with Bank of America. “And if we emailed him, we always heard back within 24 hours.”
Vallenilla, from Organic Advisory Group, agrees: “He was always available by email and phone—he wanted to Skype us from Argentina while he was on vacation.”