Jeff Brownlow was recruiting at BYU when BYU recruited him.
Brownlow was a full-time venture capital analyst in Oregon when he represented his company at a 2007 BYU recruiting fair. “I was amazed at the quality of students,” he recalls. “They were happy, energized, and talented.”
After the event, Brownlow found himself with time to explore campus before his flight home. His first stop: the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building for a map. Offices were closing as Brownlow stepped out of the evening’s chill. A woman was locking up when she noticed Brownlow and walked directly toward him.
“Why are you here?” the woman asked.
“I’m on campus recruiting,” Brownlow replied.
“You need to come to school here,” she responded.
Brownlow thought she had misunderstood him. “I’m here hiring. I have a job already,” he explained.
“No, I’m telling you, you need to come to school here. This is a special place. I want you to apply,” she insisted.
“My wife and I live in Oregon,” Brownlow said. “She’s pregnant.”
“It doesn’t hurt to apply,” the woman said.
Brownlow, who had been accepted to BYU when he was in high school but opted to attend Arizona State University (ASU), left with an application packet in hand. He decided to follow the stranger’s persistent suggestion—but he also decided not to tell his wife, Charisse. Months later, Brownlow was in business meetings in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when Charisse called. He silenced his phone but soon got a text from her: “Call me immediately.”
Fearing an emergency, Brownlow stepped out.
“There’s an acceptance letter at our house from BYU,” Charisse began. “You need to call these people and tell them they made a mistake.”
Brownlow took a deep breath. “It’s not a mistake,” he said. “I’ll explain when I get home.”
Brownlow, who left ASU as a sophomore to work full-time in Oregon, says he didn’t expect to get into BYU. “I knew the competitive nature of BYU and didn’t think I was anyone special,” he says. “But when I did, Charisse and I agreed to think about it.”
Within a matter of days, Brownlow’s bosses announced they were moving the company from Portland to Salt Lake City. “You don’t have to move if you don’t want to,” they told Brownlow.
He pulled the admissions letter out of his briefcase. “Can I still keep working for you if I enroll at BYU?” he asked.
They agreed, and the following spring Brownlow began studying business strategy at BYU Marriott. Not long after, he went back to the administration building to find the stranger who had urged him to apply, but no one he talked with could identify the woman he described.
“I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a ghost,” he notes. “But I’ve always wanted to track her down and thank her for her courage to speak boldly to me.”
After BYU, Brownlow worked for Bain & Company and Bain Capital, earned his MBA at Stanford, and cofounded an alternative investment company, Fifth Partners. Much like his journey to BYU, Brownlow’s career has been pieced together through the help of knowledgeable mentors, a passion for learning, and a willingness to pursue opportunities, particularly those that came out of the blue.
At the Ready
In Brownlow’s home office hangs a picture from his 2010 BYU Marriott graduation. This picture includes former dean Gary Cornia and Brownlow, but there is one unexpected face: Brownlow’s two-year-old son, Carson, who jumped out of Charisse’s arms and rushed to Brownlow as he waited to take the ceremonial walk across the stage.
Four months before his graduation, Brownlow had moved his family to Dallas, where he started a job as an associate consultant with Bain & Company. He finished up his last class remotely, often hammering out assignments on his weekly flights between Dallas and San Francisco, where he was assigned his first case.
Just months into his new job, Brownlow received an email about an info session for Bain Capital, the private-equity spin-off of Bain & Company. “I replied to register for the event and had a response in 10 minutes asking for a résumé. It was 11 p.m. Pacific time and 2 a.m. Eastern time,” he says. “A few hours later, they wrote back and wanted an interview.”
Brownlow never made it to the info session. After multiple interviews and a trip to Boston, he had a job offer with a start date 18 months down the road. He accepted the role with Bain Capital, and his family moved to Boston in 2011.
However, Brownlow spent much of his first year at Bain Capital on assignment in Tampa, Florida, prepping Outback Steakhouse to go public. “I wasn’t home a lot,” he recalls. “The CFO of Outback’s parent company left, and I inherited a pretty big job.”
One day, Brownlow’s assistant came to him; she had been fielding many calls regarding the steakhouse, but this call involved a different type of stake: “There’s a man who says he needs to meet with you and your wife. He says he’s your stake president.”
The next night, Brownlow and his wife were called to be institute teachers at Harvard University and at Boston University. Brownlow initially resisted. He told the stake president, “There’s no way we can do this job. We’re not qualified. My wife never sees me as is.”
“God wants you to do this,” the stake president responded. “If you tell me no, I’ll find someone else, but pray about it first.”
The Brownlows accepted the call. Charisse took the Wednesday class at Harvard University, and Brownlow took the Friday class at Boston University. The students in Brownlow’s class were few in number, but they recruited friends during the school year, and the class ended with seven times the number of attendees that it began with.
“Teaching institute changed the trajectory of my life,” says Brownlow, who ended up baptizing two of his students. “I realized I had been so focused on my career I was not asking what God wanted me to spend my time on, which was my family.”
Charisse was also feeling the strain of Brownlow’s demanding schedule, and she wanted a change. After more than a year at Bain Capital, the couple sat down together to discuss their options.
“This has been a grueling few years,” said Charisse. “What about grad school?”
Brownlow was hesitant. Charisse added, “Whether you feel like you need it or not, I feel like our family needs it.”
However skeptical, Brownlow applied to Harvard—a two-mile drive from where they lived—and to Stanford. He thought his chances of acceptance to either school were low. But even when two admissions letters arrived, he still wasn’t convinced that earning an MBA should be his next step. “It was a lot of time and a lot of money,” he says.
To aid his decision, Brownlow planned a trip to Stanford. “When I got there, I saw where families lived, in Escondido Village,” he says. “It was centered around playgrounds, and there were international families gathered there. I thought, ‘This would be amazing for my family.’”
As he toured Stanford’s business school, Brownlow noticed an inscription on its cornerstone: “Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up.” That adage rang true. Brownlow recalls, “I called Charisse and said, ‘I think we should come here.’”
As a result, the Brownlows packed up their home, bought an RV, and headed west with their three sons. “We drove across the country and saw the sights,” Brownlow says. “I sold the RV in Utah, bought a car, and we finished our drive to California.”
Drafting Fifth Partners
Returning to the western United States felt familiar to Brownlow, who not only worked and served his mission in Oregon but grew up in Prescott, Arizona. He has vivid memories of moving sprinkler pipe as a four-year-old with his dad on a farm. “Growing up we lived in a trailer house,” says Brownlow. “We were poor, but I never had the mentality that something was wrong. I was taught to work hard, do my best, and things would work out.”
Brownlow now chairs one of the country’s leading private manufactured-housing companies. He credits family members and friends who helped him along the way, like his stake president, who hired 12-year-old Brownlow to be an apprentice at his home development company. “I’ve always loved people,” he says. “There have been so many junctures when God has sent very capable mentors into my life.”
This passion for people influenced Brownlow’s studies at Stanford, where he first envisioned creating a company focused on finding, developing, and empowering leaders. “I believe that the knowledge is there, but you have to find it, and it’s best transferred through the apprenticeship model,” he says. “I like to find experienced, thoughtful people and try to absorb everything possible from them.”
The groundwork for his company, Fifth Partners, however, was laid well before Stanford. When Brownlow was with Bain & Company in Dallas, he met Joe Drysdale, and the two began investing in energy and real estate projects together, eventually getting into growth-stage companies before turning their investments and their passion for leadership into a business. They opened their Fifth Partners office in 2015, and Brownlow commuted for a few years from Salt Lake City before moving to Dallas in 2019, where he and his family currently reside.
Brownlow says of Fifth Partners, “We’re entrepreneurs and operators first and investors second. We have built the inside of our machine to share and transmit best practices for accelerating company growth and returns. Eighty percent of the same business challenges exist in every industry and in every business. We believe if you master core principles, you’ll have a general toolbox that can apply to many situations.”
Although it’s faced ups and downs as new ventures tend to do, Fifth Partners has grown rapidly over the last five years. Fifth Partners companies now employ more than 1,000 individuals across North and South America, and the firm has invested more than $2 billion. Brownlow’s leadership has been key to that success.
“Jeff is committed to truth at all costs,” says Jamie Panganiban, chief operating officer of Fifth Partners. “I, and others, follow him because of his unflinching commitment to the principles we all believe in. Jeff has the gift of vision. He sees potential everywhere—in markets, in companies, and, most importantly, in people.”
This Big Adventure
Despite the variety his résumé boasts, Brownlow still finds himself where this story began: recruiting BYU students. “In every job I’ve had since that first recruiting fair, I’ve been back to BYU to recruit,” he says. “Besides PwC, Fifth Partners is probably one of the more active recruiters of BYU students.”
Outside of work, Brownlow fills his time raising his boys—the tally is now up to six—serving in a bishopric, and relishing BBQ, as any self-respecting Texan should.
Brownlow credits much of his success, in both his personal life and his career, to Charisse. The two met at ASU when they were both on dates with other people, and he touts her complete commitment to their family as an anchor in their lives through the crazy hours, multiple moves, and highs and lows of building a business.
“Many moments in my life I’ve been on a fairly visible stage, but my truest partners don’t get to share the stage—like my wife, who is focused on raising a healthy, productive family,” he says. “She has been extraordinary in the process.”
And as for the moment when Brownlow explained that surprise BYU admissions letter to Charisse, he says he’s learned over the years that more communication is better than less. “Charisse would probably characterize that conversation as typical for how I operate, classic Jeff,” he says. “For me, life’s this big adventure. I’m excited for what’s going to happen next, but I’ve learned that’s not how everyone operates.”
Embracing the unexpected, it seems, is a trait Brownlow exemplifies.
“There’s so little in the world that we can control. We think we can, but there’s something so much bigger than all of us,” he says. “By resisting the challenges, the twists and turns, the difficulties, we miss a lot of the richness of life. But if we show up and are just willing to give our best, incredible surprises happen.”
By Emily Edmonds
Photography by Bradley Slade
About the Author
Emily Edmonds is a former editor of Marriott Alumni Magazine. She and her husband, Rhett, have three daughters. Early in 2020 their family took a monthlong trip to Texas, where they were pleasantly surprised to learn that queso is a breakfast food.