By Elliot M. Kass

Born in Skokie, Illinois, Mary Josephs was the sixth of 12 children. She left the crowded nest to enroll in nearby Marquette University with the intention of becoming a physical therapist, but the heavy load of science courses, the all-girl PT program and no opportunity to study abroad abruptly changed her mind. Before classes even started, she transferred into liberal arts, and later spending her sophomore year in France.

“So,” she quips, “I proved myself a renegade decision maker right from start.”

In 1982, fresh out of school, Josephs “got really lucky” and was admitted into a six-month training program at Continental Bank, which was recruiting liberal arts majors in an effort to help solve some of its internal communications woes. By 1984, she was working in middle-market banking “and loving it.”

Josephs enjoyed working with middle-market business owners and was inspired by their stories. She also recognized the pivotal role they play in the economy. That led her to what’s become a central focus of her life’s work—helping business owners preserve their own life’s work by transferring ownership to their employees through an ESOP program. Along the way, she launched a national ESOP Advisory practice for ABN AMRO LaSalle Corporate Finance and led the ESOP Solutions Group for all of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.

As Josephs learned the market, she realized that when it came time to pass on the business, a business owner would talk to an investment bank like LaSalle, if they were thinking about starting an ESOP, but would go to their incumbent bank, if they were considering a dividend recap. And they would seek out an M&A advisor, if they were thinking of selling. Unsurprisingly, the respective banker or adviser would tout the solution that was in their wheelhouse—regardless of the client’s true interests and desires.

Josephs wanted to go another route, and when she started Verit Advisors in 2006, she brought together all three disciplines under one roof. That freed her fledgling investment bank from the temptation to promote any one option, allowing her advisers to offer clients the solution that was best-suited to their needs. “That solution-neutral approach,” she says, “really resonates with the middle market.”

It certainly has led to some significant deals. Within the past two years, Chicago-based Verit has advised on and led sales and ESOP transactions at Symbria, a provider of pharmacy and physical therapy services to healthcare institutions; The LOGS Group, a national provider of law firm practice management solutions, and consulting firms The Northridge Group, Morgan Franklin and EYP.

Reflecting on some of the key challenges she faced when launching Verit, Josephs admits that when she started the firm, “I felt that to be taken seriously, I needed a male partner.” But in the wake of two unsuccessful attempts to bring in the right person, she changed her mind, “We kept growing anyway,” she says, “and I realized, you know what? I really don’t need a male co-head after all.”

And what other lessons can she offer to other woman interested in pursuing a career in M&A?

“Network!” she responds emphatically. “I’m 57, and as I was going through school and moving up the ladder as a woman executive, I did a lot on my own, and I think that’s characteristic of women of my generation.”

“What I realized starting Verit is that I didn’t need to know it all myself. Nobody knows everything, and you will paralyze yourself, if that’s your strategy. The more you collaborate and bring out the talent in other people,” she concludes, “the more effective you will be.”

Josephs has a B.A. in Economics and French from Marquette University and a MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the second year in a row that she has been named to Mergers & Acquisitions’ Most Influential Women in Mid-Market M&A.

Mergers & Acquistions magazine