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

Ask a Leader: Interview with Nick Fong

Nick Fong, CLFP

Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Nick Fong, CLFP, Chief Marketing Officer & Chief Technology Officer at AP Equipment Financing

April 2024


Interview conducted by Jenaleigh Lathrop, CLFP, Equipment Finance Trainer at Arvest Equipment Finance, edited by Sylvianne Evans, CLFP, Documentation Manager at U.S. Bank Equipment Finance. 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 in 2010, during the Great Recession. After attaining my MBA with a double emphasis in Marketing Management and Finance Management, I was prepared to enter the professional world. Unfortunately for me, it was during one of the worst financial crises of our time, and not many groups were hiring marketing talent. 

My opportunity to join the equipment finance world came through a friend who had been working for a small originations broker known as First Star Capital. The First Star team was happy to take on an unpaid intern, and I was happy to cut my teeth in the professional world with any marketing opportunity during those tough economic times. I didn’t know it at the time, but First Star Capital was owned by AP Equipment Financing (at the time, known as Allegiant Partners). 

At this firm, I was able to learn about the nuance and complexity of the equipment finance world while also building out various marketing strategies to engage with end-users and vendors alike. This led to developing the firm’s customer relationship management (CRM) program and defining a marketing strategy with the leaders of the organization. 

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?

As long as I have been in the equipment finance industry (14 years as of May 2024), I have only recently been involved with the ELFA. My first ELFA Annual Convention was in 2022 and I am now helping with the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation’s Branding and Marketing Committee. 

To be quite frank, I have always been a bit of a “back of house” kind of person. For the first part of my career I was really focused on “staying local” and working in the business. I personally think I have a lot of room for growth when it comes to engaging with industry events (go figure, right? you’d think all marketers are outgoing!).

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

To be quite candid, my biggest challenge has always been confidence. I am a full subscriber to the idea of “the more you know, the less you know.” The unique position that I fill in my organization of marketing and technology is one where advancements come at a blinding pace. So how do you know what strategy, technology, or methodology really is the “best” for the organization?  If you wait too long to see what tech “sticks,” you might be too late to the game, and everyone has springboarded ahead of you! Conversely, if you jump at every new technology and opportunity, it will come at a very high cost and a very unstable platform.

There is always research and analysis that can be done, but at a certain point, you may have to take a leap of faith in your own and your team’s abilities. Having the confidence to try new things, support the ideas, and push through barriers is always challenging.

I’m not sure I ever really “overcame” this challenge, and I think that is okay. I think having a healthy level of self-awareness and understanding of one’s abilities is a useful tool and a constant area of development. The only thing that can be done is to learn from previous experiences and to learn how to “fail fast.” There will be missteps, and there will be miscalculations, but understanding how to learn, adapt and overcome them quickly and with a better set of tools is an invaluable skill set to develop. 

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

Probably taking on AP’s Chief Technology Officer role. From an education and experience standpoint, I am a marketer. I love understanding the complexities of consumer behavior and analyzing the data and trends of what is working versus what is not. At AP, we have always fostered a very entrepreneurial spirit and culture. If people are interested in a specific area, we try to foster it as best we can. Ultimately, technology is something that I have always been interested in, but more importantly it was connecting the dots on processes and behavior. Technology is a tool that can expedite but can never truly recreate (yet) everything that starts with operational processes. 

I guess to some extent the combination of marketing technology and consumer behavior is very closely tied to systems, digital transformations, and technology. I work with an amazing team of technology experts, and we approach things from a very pragmatic perspective. What are we trying to improve? How does it affect the user? How does this make AP better? Always keeping your eye on the goal makes things pretty clear on what needs to be done and how best to accomplish it.

We made a very conscious effort to invest heavily into the Salesforce platform in 2014 and I was one of many people that dove headfirst into the project. We all quickly realized it was much more than a simple CRM and that it could solve many of our issues with our many legacy systems. Once we started to really develop this platform it became clear that all facets of the organization could run through Salesforce, and we never really looked back. 

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

Motivation in difficult times is always challenging, but that is when it is most important to be a leader. I believe that having a vision, communicating the vision, listening for feedback, and being “at the front” to work through the conflict or obstacle is paramount in motivating your team. It shows that you are equally invested in the process and are connected on the ground level, willing to work side by side with your teams. 

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

Diversity and inclusion of people and thought is very important to the growth of this industry. Looking beyond the normal areas of inspiration and including all types of ideas, people, and expertise can result in amazing findings. The equipment finance space is filled with amazingly creative and inspirational individuals, and that, coupled with additional diverse perspectives, can bring a whole new level of ideation and thought generation. 

I think we are already seeing a lot of diversification in action. Many of the newer faces I have met at equipment finance events have come from a wide variety of backgrounds and diverse career paths. Especially given the large focus on technology the equipment finance space finds itself in, I am seeing professionals and experts from all different industries and backgrounds now working with great equipment finance teams. 

But it does fall on the leaders of the equipment finance space to look for and explore a myriad of diverse candidates that are available to them. Unfortunately, very rarely will these folks just fall out of the sky, so building explorative strategies with your HR team or recruiters becomes a necessity. Whether people like it or not, the work-from-home Pandora’s Box has been opened, so you might as well use it to your advantage. Our team has hired many amazing remote employees that we previously would not have considered but working from home really opened up our options. If life gives you lemons, hire someone who can make you the best lemonade from 1,000 miles away! 

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

Oh man! Putting me on the spot, especially when I wear both of those hats. But if I had to choose, having soft skills eeks out technical skills, by a small margin. Being able to understand how people operate and being able to effectively communicate can drive a lot of change and efficiencies. Additionally, if you can find the right people with soft skills, technical skills can often be learned. In my general observations, I have found that it can be more difficult for people to learn soft skills than it is for people to learn and utilize technical skills. I also attribute that to the current age of technology. Professionals are becoming more adept at technological change. Technology trends change on an almost continual basis and technology is becoming easier to understand and utilize. But people still need to be treated and managed with a set of skills that don’t change as frequently as technology does. 

If I had to choose one soft skill, it would be self-awareness. Being self-aware allows a person to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and how they contribute to the group in a meaningful way. I envision it like a puzzle: A self-aware person is able to find or build a team that best complements their skill set, creating a cohesive and highly productive team. 

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

In my head, there is really just one goal: “To Make AP Better.” To provide better returns for our parent company. To offer better service for our customers. To serve our business partners better. To build a better workplace for our employees. Is it broad? Sure! Will we ever be “done” and the goal fully realized? Probably not and it shouldn’t! But it keeps me and my team motivated to continue to push and provide the best possible service to all of our customers – internal and external. 

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

Listen to the leaders and experts around you. Their experience should not be taken lightly and is probably why they are a leader in your organization. Great leaders will teach and share their wealth of information fairly often – listen up and take notes!

Learn from the wealth of readily available information, whether it is from your internal leaders, referencing external ELFA or ELFF resources, or pursuing additional certifications like the best certification there is, the CLFP. Learning as much as you can about the industry will set you up for the next piece of advice I would share.

Engage with your colleagues, your leaders, and your industry counterparts. Listen, learn, and engage with them as much as possible. Put yourself out into the various conventions and committees that are made available. Even if you are a 10+ year veteran that used to prefer to stay back in the office. It is never too late to engage with the amazing people in this industry!