Ask a Leader: Interview with Valerie Jester


Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Valerie Jester, President of Brandywine Capital Associates, Inc.


ETAC_horizontalInterview conducted by Lexie Dressman, Operations Process Manager, Huntington Equipment Finance, and edited by Jon Gerson, President of Executive Solutions. Both are members of the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more about this interview series.

When did you first join the equipment financing industry and how?

I joined the leasing industry immediately after graduating from the Business School at William and Mary in 1982. Interest rates at the time were crazy—the prime rate was 21.5% and the job market was very tight. I was offered positions in banking but felt I wanted to do something that was more “creative” in finance and frankly didn’t see myself as the training program type. At the time it was a risky decision to give up a sure thing and hope to find something more to your liking. But after a few months, it worked out and I began my first job at Automotive Rentals, Inc. ARI was a leader in the automotive fleet leasing business—a family-owned entity. It was very interesting learning how large companies manage their fleets of cars and trucks. Not only did I learn a lot about vehicles, maintenance programs, etc., I also learned a great deal about differing structures of transactions and the use of Investment Tax Credit to structure very attractive asset management programs. It was also great fun to work with companies such as Mary Kay and learn about their fleets of incentive pink Cadillacs. Bruce Springsteen was singing about those cars—I was living it! After a few years I was recruited by GE Capital to work in their fleet leasing division, which was part of their commercial equipment finance division or CEFD, as it was known at the time. It was that move that introduced me to equipment finance and leasing as well. Many of the fleet customers were also good cross-over candidates for equipment leasing. It was all good training and background in the industry.

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

I believe the biggest challenge I have faced is the “isolation” of having your own business. I have worked for myself for over 30 of the 36 years I’ve been in this industry. You tend to get a bit myopic. I appreciated the opportunities to collaborate with other independents like myself via meetings our lenders had arranged and then through membership in the professional associations. Through my involvement with the ELFA, I learned so much about what peer companies within the industry did to handle the day to day business challenges I faced. I also had a chance to spend a great deal of time around the leadership of the leasing space through my Board connections. That kind of exposure was priceless and rare. I treasured our meetings and always came away feeling I had learned much more than I contributed. I think people don’t realize that the bulk of the membership (in terms of actual number of members) are small to mid-sized independents. We all face the same challenges and the forum of the ELFA provides great interaction and idea exchange.

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?

My involvement with ELFA goes back to the late 1980’s. I began attending regional events in the Philadelphia and North Jersey areas and will never forget my first experience with then Chairman Bob Stubbs. He was so warm and supportive of my involvement. I was President of a small independent company and he was head of one of the largest leasing companies at that time—Bell Atlantic TriCon. You can imagine the impression it made on me when someone like that took an interest in my participation. I then joined the Eastern Regional Council of ELFA, which at that time planned many local events. I attended my first Annual Convention in San Antonio and it was shortly thereafter that I was asked to join the ELFA Board. I served on the Board almost continuously (I missed one year in between), as Director, Treasurer and Chairman. I am very proud of being the first woman to serve in that role. I do not think I would have achieved nearly what I have if not for the education and connections I have received through ELFA. I owe my career and success to my membership. I have always made it a priority to give back. I owe it to the association.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career?

The most rewarding risk of my career was starting my own business in 1989 after buying out my company from its original parent. I didn’t know what I was doing and I was too young at the time to understand the risk. It was difficult and fraught with more challenges than I care to remember but the payoff was large. “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose” was truer than I knew. I realize I was always meant to be my own boss and I am forever grateful for the many lenders and partners that took a risk with me.

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.

There is no comparison. I can find technically competent people anywhere. I much prefer hiring partners that have strong communication skills as well as strong leadership capabilities. I have always bet on the person and their characteristics and helped them with whatever technical skills they have lacked. The most successful partners I have had are those that came to the business fairly “green.”

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

(1) Always walk the high road. This industry has the potential to showcase the worst of human traits. I have always felt you need to display the highest moral character and always, always do the right thing. Too many times, people compromise their ethics to make a quick profit. I feel that the saying “ethics are doing the right thing when no one else is watching” is truer than you realize. (2) Immerse yourself in all things of the industry. My involvement opened many doors and gave credence to my work. ELFA and other professional associations give you the opportunity to meet so many intelligent, successful people and learn from the best of the best. (3) Understand the value of time. I look back on the 36 plus years of my work in this business and they have flown by. Take advantage of all you can as early as you can in your life. Make mistakes—it is just fine. You can’t learn if you don’t put yourself out there. Go for the gusto and don’t be afraid to take risks.

Given that ELFA recently updated its mission statement and strategic plan to affirm its commitment to diversity and inclusion, can you give some perspective on what it is like being a woman in the industry?

When I started out being involved with ELFA and other industry associations, women were most certainly in the minority in terms of being represented at the Board levels. Given the criterion for holding a leadership position—that you have to be head of your own business or business unit—that narrowed the field for many women until very recently. I was fortunate enough to be the owner and CEO of my own business and was able to “allow” myself the time to serve the industry. I am glad that the second woman Chair of ELFA, Martha Ahlers, will begin serving next year. I am surprised it has taken over 12 years for that to happen. I also see growth in the number of women participating in committees and attending the conferences over the past 10 years. The Women’s Council is a great example of the initiative that is promoting the issue of this underrepresentation. I have no doubt, with this new focus, that women in Directors positions and as Chair will be a more common event within the industry.