Mastering the Good Business Fit

Interline Brands’ Lev Cela on following through with a vision, his leadership style, and the next chapter in merging together two complementary companies

I was born in Venezuela and came to Miami around 1981. I think my dad knew what was coming to Venezuela from a political and economic perspective and got out at the right time. Either that, or he brought us to the US simply for a better education and more opportunity. I like to give him credit for both.

I remember first being interested in finance at about six years old. I walked into my parents’ home office in Venezuela while they were working on my dad’s company books. I saw columns headed “créditos” and “débitos” but misread débitos as bebitos. I asked them, ‘Who has so many babies?’ My parents laughed then proceeded to explain debits, credits, and double-entry accounting. Something must have stuck because when I took accounting in high school, the subject matter came so easily to me. I later became a CPA.

I got my bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Miami then began my career with Ernst & Young in Miami.

This was the late 1990s—right in the middle of very good economic times, with IPOs, M&A deals, and the dot-com boom. I learned a lot. I then worked at a publicly traded tech company. Unfortunately, the technology became obsolete and there wasn’t enough research and development investment to maintain a solid revenue stream. I joined Burger King briefly, right after it was sold to a private equity group, primarily to help it prepare SEC-ready financial statements. After that, I worked at a small biotech company. Sadly, before the company’s product for malignant melanoma got FDA approval, funding began to dry up.

“Even if a person thinks their role is meaningless, if someone tells them why their role is important to the larger vision, it helps them understand it all and take more pride in their work.”

In 2006, I joined Interline Brands, a leading distributor and direct marketer of broad-line maintenance, repair, and operations products to the facilities maintenance end market. We’re a business-to-business distributor of plumbing, HVAC, hardware, electrical, janitorial and sanitation products, and appliances. But unlike The Home Depot, with whom Interline will soon be merging, it does not distribute lumber, drywall, or other building materials.

As director of financial reporting, I was in charge of all SEC filings and technical accounting matters. I was promoted to treasurer and vice president of investor relations. The duties associated with corporate development came with that role. As treasurer, I am in charge of the company’s cash position, liquidity, and capital structure (comprised of various debt facilities and equity). As VP of investor relations, I handle the company’s external communications relating to equity and debt investors. As VP of corporate development, I manage the company’s M&A processes as they relate to Interline Brands buying other companies and divesting of assets such as brands.

For Interline, I handled the successful sale of our AF Lighting brand. It was a good brand but wasn’t a good fit for us, and I was able to complete the sale in just six months. Both the company and the buyer benefited from the sale. I also transformed the company’s finances in my role as treasurer. Some of the recent refinancing of the company’s debt has been executed nearly flawlessly to the point that the prices on the deals were as near to the bottom as possible for the type of credit Interline Brands has. The results were much better than expected.

I’d describe myself as a vision-based, analytically minded person who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves, and one who executes very well. My leadership style is ‘guiding visionary.’ I don’t tell someone what to do or how to do it; I tell them what we want to accomplish and why. Even if a person thinks their role is meaningless, if someone tells them why their role is important to the larger vision, it helps them understand it all and take more pride in their work.

Now Home Depot is acquiring Interline Brands. I was surprised at the news at first, but after thinking about it, the acquisition makes sense. The two companies are industry leaders that do not really compete with each other, but there is so much potential value that the combined organization can provide to its customers. For Home Depot customers, it might mean last-mile delivery and supply-chain solutions. For Interline Brands customers, it might mean a greater product assortment and more access points. Or, it could be a combination thereof. I’m excited about the opportunity.