MEL PIRCHESKY HAS
Here’s an analogy - Mel Pirchesky is to local venture capital and entrepreneurship what Evel Knievel is to motorcycle stuntmen. Over his years as an investor and entrepreneur, Pirchesky has successfully jumped many shark tanks and rings of fire, while also surviving a few crashes along the way.
It’s silly of course, and the often ego-checking Pirchesky, Founder and President of Eagle Ventures, laughs at any comparison to Evel Knievel but does admit to being a "non-traditional” kind of guy. “I’m an entrepreneur,” he says, leaning back in an overstuffed chair in a well-lit comer of a Starbucks in Shadyside, “I shoot from the hip.”
Maybe there’s a little cowboy in the man who grew up working in his father’s junkyard in Monongahela, PA.
So, he takes the necessary risks of venture capital. “I seek change,” he says. “Difficult is right up my alley.”
In 50 odd major deals, Pirchesky says he’s “never found an easy deal to do.”
“I help high-potential manufacturing entrepreneurs develop the
articulation of their value proposition and secure the funding they deserve
from small groups of very high-net-worth angel investors,” Pirchesky
explains. In simpler terms, he’s the money guy.
During a 13-year accounting career, “all I did was advise people on deals, help structure them. So, I got it in my blood. I loved wheeling and dealing.”
“ I figured I didn't want be 70 or 80 and look back on my life and have some things I wish I’d done. That’s what made me take the leap.”
After doing tax consulting work for a few years to keep afloat, in 1986 an opportunity to invest in leasing gas wells came up and turned profitable, at least until he realized this was a great way to make money and also “a great way to lose money.”
In 1989, Pirchesky and his partners bought Schultz Mechanical Wire. They held that company for seven years, through the recession in the early ‘90s, and turned it around. “We tripled our investment.”
The key to that deal paying off? “Hiring a professional manager. I put the deal together, and then we hired a management team. Eventually, we sold it back to management. It was a great feeling to sell it back to management, who really made that [success] happen.”
Pirchesky would learn the importance of focusing solely on his role as “the financial visionary” again and again while raising funds and helping to turn around or expand
companies like Allegheny Container, a Harmarville-based box maker, and Dawar Technologies, a Pittsburgh company that makes the electronic touch pad used on appliances like microwaves.
“ I had to ask myself 'Do you want to be rich or be the boss,’” Pirchesky recounts.
“ You can take a mediocre product, niche or opportunity and a great professional manager. You’ll get a high probability of success. You have a great product or opportunity and a mediocre manager. You’re looking for failure.”
This is one of what Pirchesky likes to call “lessons learned.” And many of these are about learning from failure. “Failure is part of life, part of business,” he says. From the deals that went bad and opportunities missed to those that resemble financial feats of strength, persistence and success, Pirchesky’s stories often have the quality of practical homilies, business parables.
Taking stock after raising money and doing high-profile deals since the late '80s, Pirchesky is committed to giving something back. One of his new projects is developing a program for public radio around the idea of “lessons learned” in which entrepreneurs of all kinds would tell their stories of both success and failure. Pirchesky sees it as a possible resource for young entrepreneurs and the business community in general.
“I’m a champion for entrepreneurs,” he says with sincerity.
And Pirchesky is still thrilled to be doing business in Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh is it. We’re in the midst of change. We’re not done and that’s what’s so exciting.”
A perfect example might be Cardiac Telecom, whose home heart-monitoring device has recently been approved by Medicare and seems poised for success.
Cardiac’s technology, nurtured by Al Langer, and guided by the business prowess of CEO Lee Ehrilchman, improves the quality of patient care and saves money.
Pirchesky became involved early on but confesses to writing off the deal just a few years ago.
“Over the last 12 years we’ve gone through many rounds of funding. FDA approval took eight years instead of 90 days. But through thick and thin, our CEO persevered,” Pirchesky says. “We’re the only one out of 317 companies to get this approval. The CEO stuck to it, and it’s liable to make myself and a lot of other people a whole lot of money.”
“We are the phoenix,” he says.
And with enough people like Mel Pirchesky, able and willing to take the chances necessary to make deals happen, maybe Pittsburgh can continue its own dramatic rise.