013: Mastering the Art of Building Business Relationships

This is a special episode discussing how to build successful business relationships. In this episode, Gina Cocking is joined by featured guest Willard Bunn, a managing director at Colonnade Advisors. Willard has previously served as chairman, chief executive, and director of several commercial banks. He has held numerous board positions and has extensive experience as an investment banker. Willard has the ability to build deep relationships with potential clients and industry professionals, resulting in seemingly effortless marketing.

One of the key takeaways from this episode is that trust is the key factor in building a successful business relationship.

In this episode, Willard addresses the following questions as related to building business relationships:

Before you meet somebody for the first time, do you do any special preparation beforehand? (02:02)

Willard: “Yes, there is so much information available on LinkedIn and other sources. When I meet people for the first time, I will search for them and extract what I can. It’s helpful when you show up at a luncheon table to know who exactly you’re talking to.”

How do you prepare when you don’t know you’re going to meet a person? For example, when attending conferences with hundreds of people in a room. (03:11)

Willard: “I have found the best icebreaker has always been to ask. ‘What is your business? What do you do?’” Because there is nobody on the planet who doesn’t want to talk about his or her business. Once you get that laid out, then you know where to go with the next question.”

Once you have met a person and chatted for a few minutes, how do you continue with that relationship? What type of follow-ups do you do? (03:57)

Willard: “Normally, the follow-up would be an email of some sort. In the email, try to grab onto something in the conversation because that person has met a lot of people that evening, too.”

How soon do you generally follow-up with someone that you have met? (04:53)

Willard: “I try to follow up quickly with an email, so the image is still in their mind. I also think it’s helpful to attach something to the email. For example, for Colonnade’s marketing, attaching a podcast episode or white paper would be helpful because it gives them an idea of who you are and the company.”

Do you have any strategies for cold calling or emailing people? (05:52)

Willard: “If you are reaching out to someone for the first time, it is a good idea to attach a piece of work that you have done. For people that you’re in touch with regularly, it is a good idea to attach a current update to the piece of work. This kind of process can stretch over the years. Building these relationships takes time.”

When you do outreach and do not get a response, how long do you wait before you reach out to somebody again? What strategy is there without making the person feel guilty but reminding them that you’re there? (08:19)

Willard: “These are situational. I think once a quarter is probably sufficient time to give some downtime, but not to let it lapse either.”

What are other successful maintaining relationship strategies have you encountered? (09:21)

Willard: “When I was running a bank, I was the target for investment bankers, and one of the bankers would send a non-business book every Christmas. I always thought that was a good way to keep in touch via a non-aggressive Christmas present.”

How do you prioritize maintaining relationships with people? (11:35)

Willard: “One of the things that I noticed in the investment banking business was the bifurcation of time. When you get busy with current active deals, how do you simultaneously keep in touch with prospects? It’s like everything else in life, you have the work you have to do right now in front of you, but you also have a list on the side of prospects. Communication now is much easier than ten years ago, which makes reaching out to prospects to keep in touch much easier.”

How do you reach out to people that you have not interacted with much? (13:26)

Willard: “During non-COVID times, Chicago offered various events that allow people to meet. One medium that I have used in the past was the speaker dinners at the Economic Club. It gives you an informal, non-threatening environment to try to further a relationship.”

How do you build trust in a relationship? (15:18)

Willard: “That is an important concept. People hire you because they trust you and feel you understand their business. It is hard to know what triggers trust. In my particular case, on the investment banking side, the people we represented, I knew well over several years. When you see how people behave in restaurants with waiters, how they behave on the golf course, and all that kind of stuff, that adds up to form a standpoint that I know this person and trust them, particularly, I can trust them to tell me the truth.”

Gina: “We also talked about how follow-ups after meeting a person can build trust.  It’s a good way to start building trust.”

What is one way to distinguish yourself when following up with business prospects? (18:39)

Willard: “You distinguish yourself by actually doing something you said you were going to do. It is super simple, but not everybody does that.”

How often do you use handwritten notes, and when and why do you do that? (19:45)

Willard: “In meaningful situations, I think a handwritten note is a very nice idea. It shows a little extra effort.”

Gina: “When I left Discover Financial Services, I wrote some of my colleagues handwritten notes a few days before I left. Then, I noticed several people had my note in their cubicles. I think because it was an unusual thing. People kept it and remembered it.”

What are your thoughts on postcards? (21:26)

Willard: “Postcards are a very nice thing to send to people because it lets them know you’re thinking of them in out of the way places.”

We all have limited hours in a day; how do you politely decline someone who reaches out to you, but you may not be in the best position to have a conversation with them? (23:00)

Willard: “If someone wants your opinion about something, that is a nice compliment, so you don’t want to seem ungrateful. If time is limited, tell the truth that it isn’t anything you want to get involved with right now.”

Do you have any advice for people who are starting their careers and starting to build professional relationships? (25:31)

Willard: “I’ll give a piece of advice that I got from my father-in-law. When I was working in New York in the 70s, he advised me that I should get out every day and have lunch with somebody, and I did. Some of those lunches have led to great business ideas. My main point is to make sure you are out there seeing people, and lunch is a good time to do it.”

Featured guest bio and contact information:

Willard Bunn III

Email: wbunn@coladv.com

Willard Bunn III joined Colonnade Advisors as a Managing Director in 2012. Willard has served as chairman, chief executive, and/or director of several commercial banks in the course of his 40-year career. Willard’s long career in the banking industry began at Chemical Bank in New York before returning to Springfield in 1978 to serve as Executive Vice President and eventually Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Marine Corporation, a multibank holding company with $1.2 billion of assets. Following Marine’s merger with Banc One, Willard was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Banc One Illinois Corporation, which he held until 1994. Willard went on to serve in various management positions with two investment banking firms. Willard served as a Director of Baytree Bank of Lake Forest, Illinois, from its founding in 2000 and as Chairman of the Bank from April 2010 to August 2012. Willard serves on the Board of Directors of CIB Marine Bancshares, Inc., a bank holding company based in Waukesha, Wisconsin, that operates banking offices in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. He also serves on the Boards of Midland National Life Insurance Company and North American Company for Life and Health Insurance, insurance subsidiaries of the Sammons Financial Group. In addition, Willard is Chairman of the Board for the Poetry Foundation, a literary organization, and a Poetry magazine publisher. He serves as an advisory director of Chicago-based Campus2Career Transition Services and a member of The Banc Funds Company’s valuation committee. Willard holds a BA from Princeton University and an MBA from the University of Virginia. In addition, he has the Series 79 securities license.

About the hosts


Gina Cocking serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Colonnade Advisors. Gina began her career in investment banking at Kidder Peabody, was an analyst at Madison Dearborn Partners and an associate at J.P. Morgan & Co. She was the Chief Financial Officer of Cobalt Finance, a specialty finance company. She went on to become the Chief Financial Officer of Healthcare Laundry Systems, a private equity-backed company for which she oversaw the successful sale to a strategic acquirer. Gina served as the Line of Business CFO – Consumer Banking and Lending at Discover Financial Services. Gina serves on the Board of Directors of CIB Marine Bancshares, Inc. Gina received her BA in Economics and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Jeff Guylay headshot

Jeff Guylay is a Managing Director of Colonnade Advisors. Prior to joining Colonnade in 2000, Jeff was an investment banker at J.P. Morgan in the firm’s Mergers & Acquisitions and Fixed Income Capital Markets groups in New York. He also spent several years in J.P. Morgan’s Chicago office. Jeff has over 20 years of M&A and investment banking experience and has served as lead execution partner on over 25 M&A and financing transactions at Colonnade. Jeff received an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a Master of Engineering Management from the University’s McCormick School of Engineering. Jeff received a BA from Dartmouth College and a BE from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

About the Middle Market Mergers & Acquisitions Podcast


Get the insiders’ take on mergers and acquisitions. M&A investment bankers Gina Cocking and Jeff Guylay of Colonnade Advisors discuss the technical aspects of and tactics used in middle market deals. This podcast offers actionable advice and strategies for selling your company and is aimed at owners of middle market companies in the financial services and business services sectors. Middle market companies are generally valued between $20 million and $500 million.

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