Inside an International Wharton Network Success Story

How two alumni turned one business plan and many Wharton relationships into Third Bridge, one of Europe’s fastest-growing companies

 

Bridge Builders: Third Bridge co-founders Rodolphe de Hemptinne (left) and Emmanuel Tahar.

When Rodolphe de Hemptinne WG04 was a student at Wharton, he made a point of getting to know his peers personally, both in and out of the classroom. Whether collaborating on class projects or organizing events for Europa Club, he knew the value of building a good reputation and an extensive network of contacts. At a Wharton Pub in the Steinberg Conference Center, he met Emmanuel Tahar WG05; the pair didn’t know it at the time, but their friendship—and many of the other connections they made while in Philadelphia—would eventually play an integral part in a successful global company they’d build together.

A year or so after graduation, Tahar was visiting London when he invited de Hemptinne to grab lunch and catch up. (At the time, both were working as consultants for Bain and Company.) It was during that meeting that they decided to explore the possibility of entrepreneurship. “Our interests are aligned, and we have several shared experiences,” says Tahar. “So we have a baseline of understanding about business, including how to build one.” Their idea was, not surprisingly, rooted in connecting people.

Put simply, they wanted to deliver insights into the hands of investors by linking them with industry experts from around the world. (At the time, this concept already existed in the U.S. but was largely untouched abroad.) “Investing is very competitive, and you need to make your mind up quickly,” says de Hemptinne. Take, for example, huge disruptions in global markets like the Icelandic volcanic ash that rerouted air travel for weeks in 2010. There’s an advantage in having a private database of experts to weigh in on which of the U.S. airlines flying to Europe would be impacted by the clouds.

“We wanted to know if people of a high caliber would consult,” says de Hemptinne. “So I looked at the Wharton Connect alumni database and started scanning.”

“There’s a ton of information out there, but knowing the source of that information can be quite difficult,” says de Hemptinne. “Getting access to independent and unbiased information from a credible source is more difficult than you think.” To build out their network of experts, de Hemptinne utilized the power of his alma mater: “We wanted to know if people of a high caliber would consult. So I looked at the Wharton Connect alumni database and started scanning,” he explains. “And I thought, ‘If I had a project in telecommunications, how quickly could I find experts in that field?’” He tested those questions with the Wharton network, reaching out to alumni in every country he’d travel to and more, and found that the level of responsiveness was strikingly high.

To get their company, now called Third Bridge—named after one of the deepest campsites in a Botswana national park, explains de Hemptinne—to market quickly, the co-founders needed money. Once again, they turned to their business-school connections. “There was an unoccupied market niche,” says Bernd Wendeln WG04, one of Third Bridge’s early investors. “They figured out that a strong European expert network was missing.” Joining the team was also an easy decision for another early investor, Cedric Sellin WG05: “You have fantastic people and a good market—that was enough for me to be a part of it.”

What makes Third Bridge unique is both its global reach and how the firm obtains its research. “Our understanding of markets, companies, products, and technologies isn’t based on ‘big data’ or satellite images or even Google,” says Tahar. “This intel comes from inside people’s brains.” Third Bridge finds sources in their respective fields—be it the Chinese auto industry or the Nordic lingerie sector—and taps into their knowledge. The result is unbiased information that can make (or break) an investment for groups like large private equity funds, hedge funds, or consultancies. Since time is of the essence in this sort of business, Third Bridge also has a unit that offers thousands of archived transcripts full of industry content and insights, so clients can figure out if a deal is for them literally within minutes.

Humble Beginnings: De Hemptinne and Tahar in 2007, in their first office in London.

Third Bridge has more than overperformed since opening its London office with 10 employees back in 2007. After a decade of solid growth (and a few more rounds of investment), an eighth office opened this spring—this time on U.S. soil, in Los Angeles—and the company employs more than 700 people across three continents. This reach around the world is critical to success. “Their clients want to have a global service because deals or projects often involve multiple countries and continents,” says Wendeln. “They want to have a one-stop shop.”

The strategy is working: This year, Third Bridge crossed the $100 million revenue mark, and Financial Times included it on its annual list of the 1,000 fastest-growing companies in Europe. “A lot of people talk about business school as being the opportunity to meet people. I’m the poster child for that,” says Tahar, who also met his wife, Catherine Chiurco Tahar WG05, at Wharton. “Being enabled to create an amazing story—it doesn’t get more exciting than this.”

 

Attitude of Gratitude

“I wouldn’t have met my business partner, have been able to raise money, or have grown at the rate I could without Wharton,” says Rodolphe de Hemptinne. He wasn’t the only one who appreciated the doors that were opened because of the Wharton network: This year, several alums tied to Third Bridge were so moved that, together, they decided to create a fellowship aimed at international students. The primary goal of the Third Bridge Fellowship Fund is to provide financial aid to Wharton MBA students—something undoubtedly helpful for those trying to offset international costs.

But at its heart, the funding is about enabling people from all over the world to develop professionally. “Diversity is the strength of a business school. And it’s a core part of Wharton’s brand,” says Cedric Sellin. “Hopefully, this funding will give more international students the tools to succeed.” Even better, as the endowed fellowship grows over the years, so will the opportunities for future generations of Wharton students.

De Hemptinne hopes this fellowship will serve as an example to other entrepreneurs—and to their investors, who have also reaped returns—about how important it is to both show appreciation for their education and support that next pipeline of young entrepreneurs. Adds Emmanuel Tahar: “This is creating opportunities for people who may not have the resources to do that—and, most importantly, this will allow them to get access to the Wharton network.”

To learn more about the Third Bridge Fellowship Fund or other ways to give back to Wharton, contact Antonella Triforo at atriforo@wharton.upenn.edu.

 


Amy Downey is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

 

Published as “The Network Experts” in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.

 

 

 

 

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