Leading an equipment finance company has always required a special combination of skills, from spotting underfed markets to walking a tightrope between risk and profitability. The participants of the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation’s 2019 Industry Future Council (IFC), which met in Washington, D.C., in February, agreed that today’s industry leaders must be more alert and agile than ever, monitoring trends and investing in those that will serve both customers and companies well.
INNOVATION IS ONE SUCH TREND,
and it’s growing in importance. The process of testing ideas and translating successful ones into goods or services that create value, innovation was once viewed as an elective for companies that could afford it or were willing to assume the risks. Today, though, innovation is becoming a requirement for equipment finance firms hoping to keep pace with competitors inside and outside the industry who already innovate effectively. As IFC participants concluded, today’s cutting-edge innovator has only a seat at the table tomorrow. Those who don’t learn to innovate will be caught in a deadly game of catch-up.
The good news is that a number of equipment finance companies innovate already. To exemplify their efforts and highlight aspects of leadership that produce them, we bring you vignettes of four ELFA-member companies and leaders who’ve bucked the status quo and created new value through innovation in one or more areas. For more on this topic, read the IFC Report at www.leasefoundation.org
Amur Equipment Finance
Strength Through Diversity
At this national independent company located about 90 miles west of Lincoln, Nebraska in the city of Grand Island, 67% of employees are female, as are nearly 50% of managers and 44% of executives. Roughly 20% of workers are non-Caucasian. “We look for basic concepts of integrity and community in our people, and we’re very inclusive in how we hire and promote,” says CEO Mostafiz ShahMohammed. “We provide training to everyone, focusing on company first, but we also focus on community and family, providing flexible hours. This makes it possible for people from different backgrounds to work here. We strongly believe that our differences are a strength.”
Amur Equipment Finance is one of a growing number of companies working to diversify its leadership and workforce to ensure that both represent a range of backgrounds and perspectives and also reflect the diversity of the marketplace. Writing recently in an “Executive Perspective” column for Equipment Leasing & Finance
, Vice President of Business Intelligence and Internal Controls Kimberly Adair observed that ShahMohammed is “an ardent supporter of a diverse and strong workforce, and has built a culture that favors talent and ability over any other perceived factors or biases.”
“We need to understand that our customers are no longer predominantly Caucasian or male... our industry needs to reflect that change by achieving more diversity in our workforce.”
–Mostafiz ShahMohammed, Amur Equipment Finance
ShahMohammed arrived in the U.S. from Bangladesh at age 17 on a full college scholarship. He worked briefly on Wall Street before buying controlling interest in a company that provided equipment financing for small businesses. Today Amur Equipment Finance has offices in six states and employs people around the nation. “I’m the result of meritocracy in the U.S.,” he says. “I have no limits and can do whatever I’m capable of, and I wanted to make sure everyone I hired had the same opportunity. We’re based on meritocracy and nothing else—and it is working out.”
In business since 1996, Amur Equipment Finance finances up to $2 million per transaction in more than 15 equipment segments through vendor programs and direct originations. ShahMohammed believes that soon, much of the routine activity of his business and of equipment finance generally will be done by artificial intelligence.
“As we move closer to AI, doing more data-driven decision-making, we’ll need very human attributes, such as empathy and the ability to pay attention, in our leadership teams and our sales departments,” he says. “Customers will still need humans to listen to them, understand their needs and exhibit integrity in business relationships.”
Jacklynn Manning, Vice President of Marketing, remembers her first days at Amur Equipment Finance. “I was shocked at the number of women who worked here,” she recalls. “It was wonderful to see such a vast variety of women contributing in so many different roles. It’s an anomaly in our industry, and for us it has been extremely successful. Working now to grow our sales division with more women as well as more men is encouraging and exciting.”
“We need to understand that our customers are no longer predominantly Caucasian or male,” says ShahMohammed. “The numbers are shifting to show more diversity across the board, and our industry needs to reflect that change by achieving more diversity in our workforce.”
Innovation Finance USA, LLC
Obsessed with the Customer Experience
Leaders at this national lending company in Fairport, New York thought traditional methods for delivering equipment financing to large, successful companies could be greatly improved. “We saw Fintechs innovating to deliver a better client experience, but they were primarily focused on small-business and high-rate lending,” says President Mark Tomaselli. “We thought we had a unique opportunity, given our backgrounds lending to investment-grade credits and our progressive approach to using technology, to better the experience for these customers.”
So intense was their focus on building an incomparable experience for the best customers that Tomaselli and his team soon realized they weren’t designing a new equipment finance company, but building a technology company that would happen to deliver financing. The awareness took them in a new direction. Instead of immediately opening for business, Innovation Finance USA began innovating to build a platform that would deliver financing in a manner radically different from that of competitors. Says Tomaselli, “We decided not to originate any business until we’d built our platform and created an entirely new business model, because we knew if we started in a legacy manner, we’d become a legacy business—with all the legacy challenges.”
“We wanted to innovate the entire financing process so that everything could be delivered with speed and simplicity.”
–Mark Tomaselli, Innovation Finance USA, LLC
Company leaders believed consumer preferences were bleeding into B-to-B markets, making mobile technology, speed and transparency increasingly important to business customers. “Originally, I thought we’d design a mobile app to complement a web-based solution,” says Tomaselli. “But we quickly saw that we could offer more capabilities with mobile technology alone.” Using only mobile technology, the company could enhance security, take advantage of biometric authentication and image-capture, and allow anyone to conduct business with Innovation Finance USA anytime and anywhere.
The leadership team continued its focus on customer experience, thinking the new company might become the Rocket Mortgage of equipment finance. “But when we downloaded the Rocket Mortgage app, we realized it was only an electronic version of the traditional mortgage process,” says Tomaselli.
The discovery formed the basis of a guiding principle: If the technology is mobile, it should be simpler and easier to use than non-mobile counterparts. “We had to rethink business strategy and all our business processes,” says Tomaselli. “When we ran into issues, it caused us to challenge every fundamental approach and ask if there was a better way to do it. We wanted to innovate the entire financing process so that everything could be delivered with speed and simplicity.”
One year after the birth of Innovation Finance USA, the company published its QuickFi mobile application in Apple and Android stores. Says CEO Bill Verhelle, “It took us the first few months of our existence to detox from thinking traditionally. Our biggest challenge was our prior success, which we desperately needed to forget. Biometric authentication, artificial intelligence and blockchain now make for a dramatically more efficient and more secure financial transaction. No salesperson, no paperwork and complete transparency in pricing and terms allow large, creditworthy customers to initiate and complete financing in three minutes!”
United Leasing & Finance
Girded for Aggressive Growth
When Martha Ahlers became President of this Evansville, Indiana-based independent nine years ago, she had big plans—and nothing that could be described as “legacy” was safe. “To grow the business aggressively, we needed to have the right systems in place,” she explains. “We had to get rid of paper, manual functions and manual spreadsheets and push for automation, remote employees and remote relationships.”
Within two years, United Leasing & Finance had contracted with a service provider to build a system that converted paper documents to virtual files that multiple users could work on simultaneously. “When everyone completes their contribution, the file goes to the customer,” says Ahlers. Department heads manage workflow by monitoring the files in each person’s queue and making adjustments when necessary.
Next came electronic documentation. Company leaders had talked for years of implementing DocuSign and eOriginal, “But few companies had done it, and there was no case law to support it,” says Ahlers. Convincing company attorneys that e-docs bearing e-signatures could be certified as authentic was a long process. So was engaging with the company’s syndication group of banks to get their approval. “Then we changed leads in our syndication, so we had to repeat the process,” Ahlers says. Months passed.
“It’s important to identify projects that will significantly impact customers, internally and externally, and commit to doing them.”
–Martha Ahlers, United Leasing & Finance
Finally, the company’s IT team set to work with DocuSign and eOriginal to build the platform and implement the solution. “We told everyone that everything would go live on a certain date this past January; it did, and there were no complications,” says Ahlers. Customers embraced the changes without a whimper, and Ahlers says that the combined efficiencies created by so much new technology are nothing short of amazing.
“We could have said we’re a mid-size company, and we don’t need to do these things or we shouldn’t spend the money,” she reflects. “But education and continual learning have always been tenets of this company, and I believe in moving ahead. It’s important to identify projects that will significantly impact customers, internally and externally, and commit to doing them.”
What’s next? “We’ll create a more robust vendor portal experience through an app for phones,” says Ahlers. Yes—the project will be expensive. “But we live in this instantaneous world predicated by our phones,” she reasons. “They run our bank accounts and everyone has a phone unless they’re younger than 12, so there’s a greater need to provide account access in touch-screen environments. Besides,” she says, pausing a moment, “We always have to look toward the future.”
Focusing on the Future at Customer Engagement Hubs
Eileen Schoonmaker oversaw the opening of offices in four regions of the U.S. last year for this global vendor-finance company. As things go for an organization active in more than 30 countries, these could be viewed as four drops in a very large bucket. In reality, though, the offices signify an innovation for DLL known as Customer Engagement Hubs. At these sites, the company focuses solely on customers, connecting with them to deepen relationships, discuss ideas about technology and, more importantly, test those ideas together.
“We have regional cultures in the U.S. and each one is slightly different,” says Schoonmaker, Senior Vice President and leader of the initiative. “When we looked at our business model, we saw a legitimate need to be closer to customers in each of those regions. The hubs allow us to create an almost hyper-focus on where the business is being done and connect with customers on new levels, putting us on the fast track of innovation.”
To date, U.S. hubs have opened in Dallas; Jacksonville, Florida; Summerlin, Nevada; and Wayne, Pennsylvania. The spaces are purposefully small, accommodating roughly 25 people, and offer areas for meetings, networking, experimenting and customer use.
“The hubs allow us to create an almost hyper-focus on where the business is being done and connect with customers on new levels, putting us on the fast track of innovation.”
–Eileen Schoonmaker, DLL
“Many people think that because of artificial intelligence and other technologies, you no longer need humans in a lot of locations,” Schoonmaker says. “But people are social creatures and want to connect. Connecting creates an environment where you can experiment and challenge the status quo. Our hubs are also places where we can hold focus groups around burning issues. And when you talk about those, you’re inviting serendipitous concepts to grow from the conversations.”
The hubs further serve as recruiting centers. “From these locations, we have the ability to recruit anywhere in the U.S. and find the best people who are customer-focused, tech-savvy and hate the idea of the status quo,” says Schoonmaker. But mostly, the hubs are for talking with customers. “They give us the opportunity to educate at a different level, whether that’s about technology trends we see that are of a global nature and a local nature, or about resources and partnerships that we have and our customers may not,” she says.
There is yet another purpose for the hubs, and that is to contribute to what can only be called DLL’s “self-disruption.” Says CEO Bill Stephenson, “Every one of our members is encouraged and challenged to identify ways in which we can disrupt ourselves. When you combine this with a culture where it is safe to try, and fail, it’s amazing to see the new and innovative ideas that are the result.”
DLL celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019, an accomplishment that instills pride and an acknowledgment that the company needs to continue innovating to remain at the forefront of the industry. “The value we provide has always been rooted in the true partnerships we have with our customers,” says Stephenson. “These Engagement Hubs are facilitating connections that we believe will make those partnerships even stronger.”
Adds Schoonmaker, “At DLL, we believe the future will be about meaningful, purpose-driven partnerships and technology that will enable them at a speed we can’t even begin to understand. The hubs are helping us create that future hand-in-hand with our customers.”
To learn more about innovation, its growing importance in equipment finance, and an approach to it that may best fit industry requirements and characteristics, read the 2019 Industry Future Council Report published by the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation. “Embracing Innovation: Positioning Your Business for Future Success” is available for download at www.leasefoundation.org/industry-resources/industry-future-