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Ask a Leader: Interview with James Cress

James Cress

Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with James Cress, Vice President and General Manager of Stryker Flex Financial

September 2022


Interview conducted by Austin Law, Vice President - Front-End Operations, AP Equipment Financing and edited by Will Mennesson, Vice President – Credit, AP Equipment Financing. Will is a member 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?

Like most people, I didn’t start out in leasing. I was in commercial banking for about 12 years before one of my colleagues joined a leasing company and recruited me to come over. I started as a credit manager, went into operations, and then became business unit director of their vendor group. In 2008, I had the opportunity to join Stryker Flex Financial. The hiring manager told me that they wanted to centralize the leasing function within their business and wanted me to help build out the captive. It was really exciting to start with a blank sheet of paper and build something from scratch.

What is something that you wish you knew about the industry before joining?

There are two things that stand out. Moving from commercial lending to a leasing company, I have really enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspect of leasing. When you think about equipment finance, and financing in general, the leasing companies are just more innovative and get to be creative developing programs to meet customer needs. The second is how large the industry is while still feeling small. It is a $1 trillion industry, but so many people know each other. Most of my best friends are people in the leasing industry that I have either worked with or had the opportunity to meet through industry connections and events. The people within the industry are great and I enjoy that very much.

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

I got started in leasing in 2000, attended my first ELFA event in 2002 and have been attending and or involved for the 20 years since. Bob Rinaldi was one of the executives at the company I worked for at the time and is a former ELFA Chair. He took me to an event, encouraged me to participate in the industry, and pushed me to take on leadership positions within ELFA.

ELFA has been a big part of my career and has helped in many ways, but three things really stand out. First, the networking is spectacular. I have had the opportunity to meet and get advice from people that I never would have met just working at my company. A great example would be at one of the events I attended early on in my career. I remember one of the speakers at a breakout session saying something that has stuck with me. I quoted her several times in my presentations when I would talk about the industry. ELFA created the opportunity for me to get to know her and eventually work with her. Now, I count her as one of my best friends and a mentor within the industry. If I had not attended and participated, I would have never had the exposure to these great leaders that I look up to and respect today.

Additionally, ELFA provides helpful and relevant information. It is a great resource for me, especially working in a captive for a medical device manufacturer. I can tap into the reporting that they do and get industry specific information that guides strategic decisions within our business.

The last piece is advocacy. There are a lot of things that happen within our government that impact the industry. The way that the trade association comes together and creates a single voice for equipment finance and advocates for our interests has been fantastic. It helps push initiatives in a more impactful way than we could on our own. We all benefit from that. I encourage people to be an active participant in the advocacy effort as it shapes our industry and the way we do business.

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

I think a lot of people start out their careers really focused on developing technical competencies, which can create an attitude of, “If I keep my head down and work hard, I will be rewarded.” However, there is a certain point in your career where everybody has the technical competencies and that just becomes a ticket to the game. Then those soft skills—relationship skills—become very important. The reliance on technical skills starts to diminish and the reliance on those softer skills and leadership competencies becomes more and more important. It becomes a transition from what you know, to who you know. When I say who you know, I refer to key stakeholders. You need to be able to build not just a network of numbers, but a network of individuals who can make decisions that impact your day-to-day business. I wish I had learned and focused on the soft-skill component earlier in my career.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career to date?

The most rewarding risk of my career was when I made the leap to build out a captive. I really enjoyed where I was working but when I interviewed for this captive position, the hiring manager said, “We have a great sales force, we can sell anything, but we don’t know how to build this. So, you can start with a blank sheet of paper and build it the way you want.” I said “Great, I will take the position.” This new adventure of leaving a company I was comfortable at and building something new really excited me. That night, my wife asked me how it went and I told her that it was great and I took the position. She said “Well, how much money are you going to make?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. We didn’t talk about that.” She says “Well, are you going to work from here or do we have to move?” I said, “Yeah, we didn’t get to that part.” She responded with “Are you crazy?” I said “Maybe.” Fast forward 14 years, it has been a lot of work and there have been a lot of ups and downs, but it has certainly been the most rewarding thing that I have ever done.

How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles that you come across?

What I love about our company is it is a medical device company, and our mission revolves around making healthcare better. This year has been very challenging for several reasons. The thing we keep coming back to every time is our mission, which is to enable medical technology that makes people’s lives better. We just had a mid-year meeting, and we started the meeting off by sharing a video of a patient’s story. The patient was a Sales Rep for Stryker who had been involved in a snowmobile accident and was at risk of losing his leg. They used Stryker equipment to save his leg. Seeing this person we all know and work with being impacted by what we do was inspiring. If you work at Stryker long enough, you are going to have a family member, a friend or even yourself benefit from the equipment we sell. So, we keep bringing people back to our mission: together with our customers, we are driven to make healthcare better. Our patient stories are powerful and give our team purpose. No matter how hard the work is, it is easy to rally around something like that.

What are some of your next goals or steps you would like to explore and/or achieve?

Stryker provided me the opportunity to build an equipment finance function in Europe as we have continued to expand. This has been a challenge and I love continuing to learn through the process. Different markets have different challenges. I will go back to what I said at the beginning: I love this industry because it is so resilient, so creative and innovative. I look forward to facing new challenges and developing solutions. We are lucky we get to create new finance programs and different ways for our customers to consume capital equipment. For me, it is continuing to think about new, innovative approaches to serving our markets and driving finance to help better the lives of people and healthcare.

Given the ELFA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, can you give some perspective on how emerging leaders in organizations can promote diversity and inclusion?

It is something that we have been talking about as an industry for a long time. Seeing people taking intentional steps in the last few years has been great. I think the best way people can do this is leading by example. Within our organization, we focus on hiring diverse slates of candidates. When thinking about ELFA events, we want to sponsor individuals to participate and advocate for them. It falls to us as leaders to do that for people. Be intentional about it. Create an inclusive environment where everybody feels comfortable coming to work, attending events, participating in discussions and bringing their whole self wherever they are. I encourage emerging leaders to be advocates for diversity and inclusion and lead by example.

What are the top 3 pieces of advice you would give to someone just entering the industry?

A mentor of mine said you must do three things to be successful. First, be smart. I would encourage people to work hard on those technical competencies and to be an expert in their role. We just had six people become Certified Lease and Finance Professionals at Flex Financial. This would be a great example of working on those technical competencies.

The second is work hard and do what you say you’re going to do. One of our best salespeople likes to talk about maximizing his “Say/Do Ratio” and making sure that it’s always high. You want to be reliable and do what you say you are going to do. Doing the little things every single time makes a difference in building your brand and your credibility. Make sure your Say/Do Ratio is always high.

Lastly, get along with other people. Be likable and intentional about developing those relationships with people that can make a difference in your business or your career. Don’t be shy. If you know somebody or look up to somebody and you want to have them as a mentor, reach out. Talk to them. Try to bring added value for them and work to develop that relationship. Nobody is going to do that for you. You must do that for yourself.