Michael E. Gibbons got his first glimpse into entrepreneurship as a middle-school student, when he wrote a report about Cleveland’s famous oil magnate, John D. Rockefeller. Inspired by Rockefeller’s rise from meager beginnings to unmatched wealth, Gibbons remembers thinking, “Boy, maybe I could do that, too.”
Rockefeller’s story struck a chord with Gibbons, who shared a similarly humble background growing up in Parma. Driven to succeed from a young age, Gibbons worked his way up the business ranks from intern to associate, partner and CEO before starting his own firm. Since then, he’s built Brown Gibbons Lang & Company (BGL) into a leading independent investment bank and financial advisory firm focused on the global middle market, handling major multimillion-dollar transactions.
“The average lifespan of a company like ours is only a few years, and we’re going on 33,” says Gibbons, who serves as managing director. “We’ve created hundreds of jobs that wouldn’t exist had I not taken the risk to start this business. I had to struggle to get here, and that’s what makes it so rewarding.”
As BGL continues to grow, with five offices from coast to coast, Gibbons stays focused on sustaining a strong reputation for honesty and integrity — whether he’s in the corporate boardroom or on the campaign trail.
Gibbons learned the value of hard work from his father, who held two jobs to support the family while his mother stayed home raising four kids. His father, Gene Gibbons, was the winningest wrestling coach in Ohio dual meets, inducted into the Ohio High School Wrestling Hall of Fame, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
“Coaching was very rewarding for him, but not financially,” says Gibbons, whose father also supervised a recreational center for the city of Cleveland to help make ends meet. “Things were always tight growing up, and I wanted to change that.”
During Gibbons’ freshman year at Kenyon College, his father lost his job. “That changed my life,” says Gibbons, who remembers visiting his dad working at a carwash after that. “There’s my father — this famous coach, NCAA champion, world-ranked wrestler — wiping down bumpers because he had to make the dough so his family could survive. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I vowed at that point that I was going to change everything.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College on a full-ride scholarship, Gibbons earned his Master of Science in Management with a full-ride scholarship to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Weatherhead School of Management. Weatherhead arranged an internship for Gibbons at McDonald & Co., a nationally famous middle-market investment bank that was later acquired by KeyCorp. That internship turned into a job offer, and by the time Gibbons turned 27, he had become the youngest partner at the firm. While working full-time, he attended night school to earn a law degree from Cleveland State University (CSU) College of Law.
After a decade at McDonald, Gibbons was recruited by a larger firm in Houston, where he moved into the role of CEO just two years later. Nearly every weekend for four years, Gibbons flew from Texas to visit his family, who stayed in Cleveland. Tired of the constant travel and ready to return home, Gibbons finally decided to leverage his vast business experience and launch his own firm.
Founding the firm
In September 1989, after completing a few successful deals together, Gibbons started a private equity firm with his friend, a wealthy architect named Kevin Brown. Just six weeks after founding the company, Brown died in a powerboat racing accident during his pursuit of the world championship.
Suddenly without his business partner or the capital he provided, Gibbons had to quickly pivot. Being “the deal guy” that he was, Gibbons began advising private and public corporations, debt and equity sponsors through mergers and acquisitions, financial restructurings and other strategic capital issues.
It wasn’t just Gibbons’ wealth of industry knowledge or transaction expertise that propelled the firm’s early success; it was the values he upheld throughout every transaction. With a singular focus on helping his clients succeed, Gibbons championed honesty, integrity and accountability to build relationships that steadily grew the business.
“We may not always be the most profitable, but we are the most ethical,” he says. “It’s why we survived and a lot of other firms didn’t, because we do a great job for our clients without sacrificing our values.”
By 1995, BGL opened a second location in Chicago, which has become the firm’s largest office. In 1999, the firm pursued growth on a larger scale as a founding member of Global M&A Partners, a worldwide partnership of independent corporate finance advisory firms. Gibbons chaired the global organization for its first several years, logging hundreds of thousands of international flight miles as he established BGL’s global reach. With more than 200 active dealmakers who have completed over 3,000 transactions in at least 30 countries since then, this global partnership offers BGL and its clients access to strategic buyers and capital around the world.
Since then, BGL has bolstered its investment banking expertise across several key verticals, including business and industrial services, environmental services, health care and life sciences, consumer products and real estate. With the addition of offices in Los Angeles and New York City last year, the firm’s national presence now extends from coast to coast.
“We never set out to be the largest investment banking firm in the middle market, but we always wanted to be the best,” Gibbons said in a press release announcing BGL’s 30th anniversary in 2019, “and I believe we have achieved that goal.”
Real estate growth
Around 2010, following the Great Recession, Gibbons and his leadership team realized that “we had to diversify our business to fill the gaps in M&A, because M&A is very cyclical,” Gibbons says.
In response, BGL established a real estate investment banking group. With capabilities to handle institutional debt and equity placements for owners, operators and developers and also to advise real estate owners in investment sales and other liquidity strategies, the firm now offered solutions for clients’ operating companies as well as their real estate assets.
Since then, the real estate group has handled many major projects throughout the country — including local projects like the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and downtown Youngtown’s first new hotel in 44 years.
Today, Gibbons spends most of his time managing this part of the business. BGL’s real estate advisers provide capital-raising and asset management services for this real estate portfolio, in which BGL’s partners own stakes.
“We’ve grown into one of the largest holders of multifamily real estate in the Midwest,” Gibbons says. “We try to be the most ethical property managers.”
To achieve that ambitious goal, Gibbons follows one simple guideline inspired by the unsightly one-bedroom apartment he lived in during graduate school.
“My mother always asked when she could see my apartment and I said, ‘Mom, you will never see my apartment.’ I was living in a dump,” he says. “Now, we buy properties that are undermanaged and fix them up, and our rule of thumb is that when somebody moves in, it has to be an apartment they would show their mother. That’s literally the directive of our management company: Would I invite my mother to visit?”
As he’s grown BGL from a single desk to five offices with a global reach, Gibbons has upheld the firm’s strong reputation for honesty and integrity. The key, he says, is finding people who share the same values and undying commitment to serve the client.
“When somebody’s too interested in making a fast buck, I question whether they should be part of this firm. But if they want to be the best at what they do, I want to hire them,” he says. “To me, reputation is more important than money. If you focus on building the best reputation, everything else takes care of itself.”
The other ingredient in Gibbons’ growth formula is hard work. Early in his career, his colleagues at McDonald joked about who arrived at the office first every morning, since Gibbons was sometimes still there from the night before.
“I expect our employees to be willing to work hard — and if you expect people to work that hard, then you better be doing the same,” Gibbons says. “We work as hard or harder than anybody else because we’re obsessive about getting the best results for our clients.”
But, he adds, it’s important to balance this work ethic with a family-first atmosphere, which he modeled by coaching sports for all five of his children as he grew BGL.
“We believe that family’s the most important thing for our employees, and when there’s a family matter, we expect them to treat that as a priority,” says Gibbons, who still makes time to attend his grandchildren’s sporting events and other family gatherings with his wife, Diane. “People need to spend time on what’s important to them, and you’ve got to give them the time to do that.”
The campaign trail
Long before he started his business or even attended business school, Gibbons had been fascinated by political philosophy.
“I was very interested in how this country started, how it evolved and why,” says Gibbons, who studied economics and political science at Kenyon College.
But it wasn’t until he watched his son receive his wings as an aviator in the U.S. Navy that Gibbons decided to run for office. Realizing that his son was putting his life in danger for his country, Gibbons left the ceremony feeling compelled to contribute to the direction of the country he’d be fighting for.
“I remember walking out and telling my wife, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” Gibbons says.
After serving as Ohio Finance co-chair for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run, Gibbons launched his own campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018. Starting with virtually no name recognition, he went on to win 38 counties and nearly 32 percent of the vote in the Republican primary — which went to Jim Renacci, who ultimately lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Gibbons ran again in 2022, gaining endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul (KY) and several Ohio state legislators, and leading early on until Trump endorsed J.D. Vance, who won Ohio’s Senate race.
As a conservative Republican who ran not as a politician but as a self-made entrepreneur, Gibbons thought his business experience would serve him well in politics.
“My job is convincing people that they can trust me to handle the most important transactions their companies will ever do,” Gibbons says. “I understand how to get people to agree, and I thought that background could be very helpful in Senate.”
Gibbons’ guiding principles on the campaign trail were the same ones he embraces in his business: honesty, integrity and accountability.
“I never said anything other than the absolute truth when I campaigned,” Gibbons says. “I think we need that standard for our politicians.”
Making a difference
While he won’t rule out another political campaign in the future, Gibbons is now focused on making a difference at the local level by getting involved in his community. Through the years, he’s served on various charitable boards — including the visiting committee for CWRU Weatherhead School of Management, the board of visitors committee for CSU College of Law and the board of trustees for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, where he served as vice chair for many years.
Most recently, Gibbons was appointed chair of a Cleveland-based nonprofit called the Values-in-Action Foundation. The organization offers free education programs for schools and youth organizations around the country to promote kindness. Locally, the foundation has been encouraging students, neighborhoods and businesses to join the “Kindland” movement by reporting acts of kindness on the Just Be Kind app. The initiative eclipsed its 2021 goal to document 1 million acts of kindness — logging 37 million that year, and another 50 million last year.
“We’re teaching students the values they need to succeed,” Gibbons says. “The one thing I think can change the world is just being kind to one another, and that’s the primary behavior we’re trying to teach.”
Gibbons says the Kindland initiative is making a noticeably positive difference. Three years after implementing this program at John Adams High School in Cleveland, suspensions declined by 70 percent and graduation rates increased from 50 percent to 95 percent, while incidents of violence and gang activity dissipated.
“It’s so rewarding,” Gibbons says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in this kind of direct impact before.”
It’s no wonder, then, that kindness is also the first core value Gibbons lists as his guiding business principle, along with fairness, respect and hard work. Whether he’s leading his growing global company or getting involved in the community, Gibbons values integrity as he leads by example.
“You need to show respect for everybody that works with you and for you; that’s No. 1,” he says. “Caring about your people is the most important thing you can do as a leader.” ●
- Find people who share the same values and commitment to serving your clients.
- Make a difference in your local community through charitable board involvement.
- Be kind and show respect to everyone you encounter.