Ask a Leader: Interview with Dave Fate

Dave Walton

Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Dave Fate, Founder, President & CEO, Stonebriar Commercial Finance 

May 2020


Interview conducted by Harrison Smith, Investment Manager, Stonebriar Commercial Finance and edited by Jacob Fahl, Opportunity Development Leader, Hitachi Capital America Corp. Both are members of the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more about this interview series.

When did you first join the equipment finance industry and what has been the trajectory of your career?

I joined the equipment finance industry right out of college in 1982 working as a Credit Analyst for CIT in Wichita, Kansas. I rose to District Credit Manager covering Oklahoma during the mid-80s when the oil industry was under severe stress. I spent too much time repossessing equipment, holding sheriffs’ sales or in bankruptcy court. It was a very educational experience. When I was 27 years old, I moved to Texas with CIT, which was a great career move for me.

I joined ITT Capital Finance in 1988 as a Senior Risk Officer in Plano, Texas, reporting to Bill Farrell, who became my longtime friend and mentor. In 1990, Bill asked me to start a Buy Desk for ITT. I grew that office from a startup into the largest and most profitable office in ITT Capital. These were exciting years as we grew the business’s balance sheet from $300 million to $2 billion and ultimately sold to GE Capital in March 1995.

During the due diligence process of the ITT sale, we met the CEO of Transamerica. We cold called him and asked if he would back a management team starting a de novo business. In April 1995, a group of us started Transamerica Equipment Finance (“TEF”) where I led our Intermediary Funding and Commercial Aircraft Finance groups. I was promoted to EVP and had full P&L responsibility for both businesses. We originated over $2.7 billion of new business during our time at TEF until it was sold to GE Capital in January 2004.

A few us once again went out on our own to start up another business. We identified AAA rated, $1 trillion AIG as a top candidate. It took us three months to get through the AIG approval process and we met with Hank Greenberg for formal approval. We launched AIG Commercial Equipment Finance in October 2004. I was EVP-COO running day-to-day operations of the business. We built a very successful $3.5 billion portfolio. We did our best to stay out of AIG corporate issues during the 2008-10 financial crisis and protect our portfolio that was generating a lot of cash and profits.

In the spring of 2014, several of us left AIG to build our third business: Stonebriar Commercial Finance. We had a simple investment thesis. We had a management team with extensive experience in starting up and running successful diversified commercial finance businesses and we could see GE Capital was exiting the market. And the rest is history…

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own professional development? How did you overcome it?

As I took on more senior roles managing personnel and business platforms, one of the biggest challenges I faced was learning to delegate. I couldn’t keep doing everything myself. You need to trust and empower your people for them to continue to grow and develop into the future leaders of your organization.

Another challenge is effective communication up and down the organization. Managers can’t fix something or provide guidance if they don’t know about it. That holds true the other way as well. Employees can’t meet the company’s goals and objectives if they are not aligned with the executive team’s strategy.

When did you first get involved with ELFA and how have you been engaged as a member thus far? How has being a member of ELFA helped your career?

I joined ELFA in 1989 while at ITT. Soon after joining, I thought it was important to become a sponsor for multiple ELFA events and assist the organization as it continued to grow. I still believe this today.

Being an ELFA member has been a very rewarding experience for me personally. It has provided a very valuable and efficient way to network with and meet new sources of business and services. It also provides invaluable data covering many industries, markets, trends and potential disruption. I have been involved in various ELFA committees and boards over the past 30 years including the Executive Committee, Foundation Board and Independent Committee. The relationships you create over a long period of time are invaluable and everlasting. The ability to interact with, learn from and compare notes with other senior leaders is very beneficial for all. This industry is very collegial, which makes it unique.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career?

When we sold ITT Capital Finance to GE Capital in 1995. Three of us turned down GE’s job offers and went on to start TEF. My wife was pregnant with our first child and we had just bought a bigger house. It was a lot of fun and hard work. We were able to assemble a team quickly and over the next 10 years build a very profitable business.

If you had to pick one, which is more important when considering a hire—a soft or technical background? You can’t pick both, and please include which soft or technical skill is most beneficial to success.

For me it will always be soft skills. We look for people that are team players, who will fit well within our culture and who relate well with all the various departments and functions within our organization—people that can think and function independently and who are low maintenance. We have had a lot of success hiring athletes for those reasons. Technical skills can be strengthened and invested in as needed. One never stops learning.

What advice would you give to someone entering the industry?

I encourage anyone entering this Industry to meet with many people from a wide variety of companies and backgrounds. We have a saying: Take every meeting. You never know when you will meet a new customer, friend or someone with similar interests. You can learn something from everyone you meet if you just listen. Also, put in the work and grind. Take on responsibility and contribute any and every way you can. Be the person that fills the refrigerator with water, the copy machine with paper. Learn everything you can about all the different jobs and opportunities within your organization. How does it impact your business? Contribute to your organization’s success and ultimately the bottom line.

Given that the ELFA recently updated its mission statement and strategic plan to affirm its commitment to diversity and inclusion, can you give some perspective on what your organization has done or is doing to promote diversity and inclusion?

As Stonebriar recently celebrated our five-year anniversary, we have been focused on building out not only diverse but also generational talent throughout our organization. Back when we started the AIG business, we were committed to hiring at least one young person into the organization in the early years. We ended up hiring seven over the first three years and crossed-trained them throughout all departments and functions within the organization. This was an extremely successful initiative that we have replicated at Stonebriar.

When I was running the business at TEF, we became one of the first sponsors for the Women in Leasing reception. We continue to support these initiatives and are very proud of the contributions Kevin Sensenbrenner has made over the past few years on the ELFA Women’s Council.

Stonebriar is also very proud of the fact that Lisa Ohlmeyer, SVP in our Aviation Capital business, was named one of the Top 50 Women in Leasing. As we continue to build out our organization, we look for the best candidates as possible with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. This will naturally lead to a diverse organization.