When did you first join the equipment financing industry and what has been the trajectory of your career?
Like most of us, I joined it by total accident. I was a Russian major in college, with an economics double major and a plan to work with the Foreign Service. I had traveled in Russia but as I got ready to graduate, the country was in a pretty rough state so I didn’t have much interest in working there. I ended up literally walking around Madison, Wisconsin and applying to banks. I figured I could get a banking job and get some health insurance until everything settled down. And so I had two opportunities for jobs as I got out of college. Fortunately for me, I chose to go to a regional bank, M&I, and work in their credit and operations area. After a couple of years, I ended up transferring to M&I’s corporate headquarters in Milwaukee to help them start up a small ticket credit scoring model for their business banking initiative. I did that for a year or so before getting a call from a friend that I worked with in Madison who said, “Hey, you should come check out this leasing company.” M&I had a small leasing company that was a bank-owned subsidiary but, as my friend put it, it had a fantastic, small-business, family feel. It was business casual, everybody really liked working together, and it wasn’t as “corporate.” We were a small to mid-ticket national business. So I began my career with M&I First National Leasing and then M&I Equipment Finance.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own professional development? How did you overcome it?
The first is both a positive and negative. I have been in the same place for 25 years (I was with M&I and we were acquired by BMO about 8 years ago). That has been a real positive in a lot of ways. I was able to build a really strong internal network and a really rewarding career but I have not had the experience of working in many different places. And with that lack of experience, it is tough to build up best practices because you are only exposed to how you are doing things. That has been a real challenge, and I think that many of us who have stayed in one organization for a long period of time have reflected on the same thing. The best way that I have overcome this challenge is to become deeply involved with ELFA. The group of people and companies is such a rich resource, for both personal and professional development best practices. It has enabled me both in formal settings and informal conversations to really leverage what other people have learned in their careers and bring that expertise to bear on the business that we run here.
The other major challenge was the 2008-2010 financial crisis. That was a profoundly difficult time for any of us who were running businesses in the industry. At that time, I was running M&I Equipment Finance and the personal side of going through something like that, combined with the professional side of learning through a dislocation like that, was profoundly challenging. I think what we learned through that process is that our businesses are extremely resilient and are actually quite a bit more profitable and less risky than our banks probably envisioned at the time. It has almost been like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This industry has really come into favor as banks realized how profitable and low risk these businesses are.
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?
In probably 2006 or 2007 our business was on a reasonably strong growth path and we had some new executives come in from other organizations. Specifically, Wayne Gru came from Banc of America and said, “Hey, you’ve been here a long time and you have this great internal network. Who do you know outside of M&I?” I got a blank look on my face. He said, “That’s exactly the point. You need to build an external network, and the best way that I can recommend doing that is to get involved in the ELFA.”
Wayne called a friend of his, Lesley Sterling, who used to be ELFA Vice President of Business and Professional Development, and asked if I could become involved in one of the Business Council Steering Committees. With Wayne and Lesley’s help, I ended up moving onto the Financial Institutions Business Council Steering Committee and served in that role for a couple of years before becoming committee Chair. From there, my involvement grew as I became aware of both the personal network I was building and the benefits for the business. After three years on the Business Council, I went on to the Board. I have served since then as Treasurer, Vice Chair and now Chair.
The benefits are hard to quantify; it is the personal networks, the educational resources, the ability to pick up the phone and just call any other leader in the industry and ask, “What do you think about this or that?” This is specific to our industry and it is really different from most competitive industries. We all compete pretty hard with each other but, at the end of the day, we are also very collaborative in building the industry.
What is the most rewarding risk of your career?
For me that was my move from sales into sales management. It is actually something I reflect back on a lot as I talk to people at various points in their career. I had learned credit and done credit for five or six years and moved into sales, taking a little bit of a risk but feeling like I wanted to expand and grow into my career. I had been lucky enough to do relatively well in sales, and to have a pretty strong territory in the core headquarters market for a bank that had a high market share. So sales in that capacity was, honestly, really rewarding. And I had not really thought much about management until our current President came to me and asked if I would be interested in moving out of sales into a management role. As he put it, “You’ll work harder, you’ll make less, it’ll be much more frustrating, but we’d really like you to do it.” In retrospect it was the best move I have made. It felt like it came at a very good time. It also felt like an opportunity to stretch in ways I had not had an opportunity to before. By doing that it opened up a whole world of management and leadership that I would not have had if I stayed on the direct sales side.
If you had to pick one, which is more important when considering a hire—a soft skills or technical background? You can’t pick both, and please include which soft or technical skill is most beneficial to success.
I am an absolute believer that soft skills, and especially EQ, or emotional intelligence, are markedly more important than technical skills. Certainly, in specific roles for our business technical skills are important and really critical but, having hired in this business for the better part of the last 15 years, the best hires have been people who fit the culture and whose emotional intelligence really helped our team to grow, build and develop. Those skills are really hard to train. If you think you can hire people who will change who they are, you are probably just kidding yourself. But if you think you can hire someone who is a really good fit, and who can develop the technical skills, you will have a really good shot at success.
What are the top 3 pieces of advice you would give to someone just entering the industry?
Be flexible, be committed and be adaptable. Those things tie together but, when I look at where our industry is today and more broadly where financial services are today, I think we are in a period of intense change. I would say we have been in that period since the last recession and I do not think that is going to change. Those entering our industry today have a deeper learning curve, and more flexibility and agility are required. We ask people, earlier in their careers, to be really influential in helping redefine the business process and evolve. These are all exciting things but they can also be somewhat intimidating for a new person entering a field. I try to encourage folks to be intellectually curious, think about why they are doing what they are doing and how to do it better. Be flexible regarding change and really committed to the business. I would say the myth of the next generation entering the work force is that they are constantly looking to leave and they are not satisfied. I really do think that is a myth. I think what they are looking for is to be challenged. Our belief has been that, if we give them more work, trust them and challenge them, they stay committed and the reward is significant.
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 or is doing to promote diversity and inclusion?
As a firm, BMO is completely committed to the idea that we are a better organization when we are inclusive and have a variety of voices and perspectives that help us arrive at a solution for our clients. It starts for us at an enterprise level. BMO is one of only a handful of companies to have won the Catalyst Award twice, which is an award given to companies that show excellence towards gender equality. We really have a strong emphasis on trying to make sure that our talent and employee space is diverse. As you get down to the equipment finance business, we do many of the same things. We look at trying to promote a broad and diverse talent pool. We try to make sure we are listening to every voice, independent of gender or age or experience, as we think about our customers. From a tactical perspective, we look at a lot of the ELFA’s current programming, like the Women’s Leadership Forum. We think that is going to be a fantastic event this year and we are sending a few people. We have engagement with the Emerging Talent Advisory Council and we send people to those functions. We try and look at every opportunity we have to develop people across the spectrum of our business and to build a broader and more inclusive business. In addition, BMO has industry-leading levels of maternity and paternity leave. We have a lot of people who take advantage of it.