ELFA - Equipment Leasing and Finance Association - Equipping Business for Success

Ask a Leader: Interview with Lara Hernandez

Lara Hernandez

Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Lara Hernandez, VP Credit at Ascentium Capital LLC

February 2023


Interview conducted by Craig Colling , Senior Vice President - Sales, Ascentium Capital LLC. Craig 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?

I joined the industry 24 years ago by pure happenstance. I was working for a mortgage company and, while visiting my mother for lunch at her office building, was explaining what I didn’t like about my current role. Someone with the First Sierra Financial HR department overheard our conversation in the elevator. I was asked if I would be interested in talking about an open position. It was entry-level within the credit department, but an opportunity to do more of what I enjoyed, so I took a step back in hopes it would result in a more rewarding path forward.

Shortly after joining First Sierra Financial in 1999, the company was acquired by American Express Business Finance and ultimately sold to Key Equipment Finance in 2004. As a result of those acquisitions, the leaders of the credit department, whom I had a tremendous amount of admiration for, had left. I was enjoying what I was doing on an established credit team and remained at the company during the transition. 

Meanwhile, several former First Sierra senior leaders regrouped at a small community bank. When an opportunity came in 2006, I did not hesitate to join the fledgling credit department and was thrilled to be working for my mentors again. Over the next couple of years, I trained and mentored new hires for the small-ticket underwriting team and I was eventually entrusted to manage it.

My company became Ascentium Capital in 2011, taking the original infrastructure to the  third-largest privately-owned leasing company in the country. The global private equity firm Warburg Pincus acquired us in 2016 and our ranking on Monitor Magazine’s Top Private Independents list soared to #1. Regions Bank acquired Ascentium Capital in 2020.

I am happy to share I still work for the same senior leaders who are among the brightest minds in the leasing industry, and I still manage a small-ticket team. Our Credit Department has grown to over 30 team members spread out among five mid-level managers to keep up with volume. It has been rewarding to be a part of what the Ascentium Capital credit department landscape has become today.

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

I wish I knew how challenging it is at every level. A lot of people may think they understand financial services, lending or banking. However, it really is a complex field. We have incredible teamwork, but there is also a lot to learn for people who are new to the industry. Innovation is also big in financial services; it’s not an industry that is standing still, so we have to stay on the leading edge of providing the customer experience that today’s clients expect. It is rewarding work, and part of that is the challenge itself. We run a marathon every day, and while it can be exhausting, it is something we take a lot of pride in.

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

Early in my career, work/life balance wasn’t as elusive as it has been the last several years. I have a strong work ethic, but when my daughters were young it was important for me to be fully engaged once home from work until they went to sleep. I did not want to be unavailable on a computer or phone. Company laptops over the years allowed me to handle important workday clean-up later in the evenings to accomplish getting work done without intruding on family time. Now that my kids are grown and remote working is the norm, I really struggle to take personal time.

I think the “mom guilt” that I used to experience has now transitioned to the workplace. I trust the people I work with and am blessed to have a fantastic relationship with managers that cover each other, but when considering time off I tend to worry ‘it might be a really busy day, I don’t want to burden anyone to cover for me or what if someone wakes up sick and the team is shorthanded.’ Those thoughts are hard to shoo away.

For better or worse, I have a resilient energy level that doesn’t require typical time to recharge. However, work/life balance is important on many levels, and I certainly want that for my team. I think it’s important for leaders to demonstrate work/life balance to help set the tone for their team, and that is something I am working on.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career?

The most rewarding risk was leaving a nationally recognized bank-owned leasing company downtown to join a small community bank in the suburbs. That opportunity would later come full circle as Ascentium Capital, currently powered by Regions Bank. It has been an exciting ride and I love the people I work with and for.

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

Leaders in our organization manage from the trenches. As a result, we are intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the workday and engaged in every aspect of underwriting a tremendous amount of volume. Our dedicated teams rally to support each other when unexpected volume or staffing events occur and it is inspiring when everyone finds the next gear and collectively overcomes challenges.

I have been moved over the years by how much our senior leaders put into their roles and hope to pass it forward through my own efforts.

Recognize efforts. Be positive. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Find the fun figuring out what you are not being told, favorable or unfavorable. We make the most informed decisions by knowing the customer.

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

If a round table discussion on credit reporting became available, I would explore an opportunity to share strong opinions developed over the years. In my current role, I moonlight after hours researching and hunting for the “smoking gun” whether it be a problematic account, system issue or potential fraud concern.

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.

Soft. We can teach the technical part, but the dynamics are incredibly important in a high-volume production shop. Prior to the new remote working world, it was challenging to find candidates with leasing or even app-only business underwriting experience. We have become pretty adept at finding people who are responsible team players, eager to learn and receptive to coaching with a can-do attitude who thrive in a fast-paced environment. We almost have it down to a science.

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

Leasing moves fast. You need to be able to thrive in a high-volume environment, particularly on the operational side.

Be flexible. There will always be firm policies to adhere to, but protocols change and there are always caveats, so stay fluid.

No matter what industry, be kind, say thank you and smile. It is contagious and life is short.

Note from ELFA: For those who may be interested, the association holds an annual Credit & Collections Management Conference for equipment finance professionals. Learn more on the Events page.