Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice
Interview with Bill Verhelle, CEO of Innovation Finance
Interview conducted by Jon Gerson, President of Executive Solutions, and edited by Lexie Dressman, Operations Process Manager, Huntington 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 financing industry and how?
I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1988. I was an English major. I had two opportunities out of school: a small financial services firm in California and a retail job. It just seemed more corporate to do something with businesses, so I figured I would take the financial services job. For the face-to-face interview, they put us up in a four-star hotel. I had never been west of Mississippi. I never stayed in a hotel like that. This hotel had a TV and a telephone in the bathroom! I remember my parents being excited for me. I just fell into it. I have found that’s pretty common in a lot of first jobs.
I went to night school at UCLA for an MBA because my English degree left me lacking some helpful business knowledge, like basic terminology and fundamentals. I knew little about accounting, marketing, and corporate finance. After business school, I was able to go to Tokai Financial Services, which is now DLL. I worked there for about four years and was fortunate to work in sales for a couple of years. I was promoted in my twenties to a great position with responsibility for the western half of the middle market business. It was a great experience, but I wound up leaving to go to law school at Cornell.
During my first year of law school, Guy (my business partner for 20 years) was calling me. He was thinking of starting a business. I wasn’t sure I could join him because I was just starting in law school. Thankfully, Guy is very persuasive. We started First American Equipment Finance in 1996. First American eventually sold to City National Bank, and I stayed on as CEO until 2015. I really liked Russell Goldsmith, the CEO, and Chris Warmuth, the President, of City National Bank. I learned a lot from them but eventually made the difficult decision to depart. I started Innovation Finance USA LLC in 2018. This small, new company we’re trying to get off the ground is the focus of all my business attention today. When Mark Tomaselli (President), Mike Ziegelmann (Chief Financial Officer) and Nate Gibbons (Chief Operating Officer) decided to partner with me on Innovation Finance, I knew it had the potential to accomplish something big.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own professional development? How did you overcome it?
One challenge for me—and this is probably unique—for most of my career, I didn’t really work for anyone. I was always aware that not being able to learn from more experienced leaders was a disadvantage. In the beginning, I worked for people at Tokai. I worked for Don Campbell and Steve Grosso, who are both still active and successful in the industry. I learned a lot from them. One thing I still remember and greatly appreciate is that they pushed me hard and had high expectations of me (and my peers). At a young age, they expected a lot from me. If I let them down, they communicated it directly. I remember never wanting to let them down. They encouraged me to do more than I believed I could do at the time, which is an important characteristic of successful leaders. After that, I was on my own for 20 years. It wasn’t until I worked for Russell and Chris at City National that I again had somebody to learn from.
There were a ton of mistakes over the years—I think I’ve made them all. I’ve had a blind spot around communication. I’m sort of an introvert, believe it or not. I’ve forced myself to do things that didn’t come naturally because I’ve learned an important part of leadership is communication. As a leader, especially CEO, you need to be clearly and consistently communicating all the time.
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?
Maybe 15-20 years ago Jim Segal from GE said, “Bill you should really run for the Middle Market Steering Committee.” The odds were pretty good I’d get on, but I was one of the people who didn’t get elected. I joke with people that my first involvement in ELFA was getting rejected. Fortunately, I eventually had the courage to try again and got on and went on to become Chair of that committee. Thereafter, it just seemed like I got involved in a lot of different things. I never really put my name in the hat, but opportunities would come up where people would invite me to do things, and it was the highlight of my career when I was invited to be Chair (of the ELFA Board) in 2008-09. The Association has given me an awful lot. Almost all the relationships I have in the industry have come through the Association. When you work on a project with people that isn’t about yourself or isn’t about your business, you get to know them in a way that is much deeper and much more meaningful than working purely in a professional capacity. Also, just spending a lot of time with spouses and in social situations has enabled me to know people differently. I’m friends with people I’ve never done business with, but I consider them close friends. ELFA has been great for my knowing people and building relationships. Many of those have been very valuable. So many people have helped me (through the ELFA). I’ve received so much more than I’ve contributed.
What is the most rewarding risk of your career?
For me, it would be starting First American. Probably rewarding in all senses. When we started that company people just thought we were nuts. It was like, “What are you doing? You don’t even have any money, and you’re going to start in this segment, and you’re going to do business, how?” I can remember going to ELFA conferences and people would come up, look at my nametag, and say, “Hmm, First American, never heard of it! What do you do, Bill?” In the early days, I would return from a conference and I would just want to hide. Over time, it worked out well for us, due to the hard work of a ton of smart people who joined First American in early days—many of whom are still there today doing a great job for their new owners, the Royal Bank of Canada. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate.
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.
When I think of hiring somebody who is highly technically proficient versus somebody whom I completely trust and think would be loyal, I will always pick the latter. I’ve actually had that experience many times. I think the technical things are all helpful, and I guess if you’re a lawyer or you’re an accountant or in certain parts of business, mistakes can be pretty unforgiving. But even that said, building an organization, to me, ultimately is all about having competent people that you can communicate with. And then you can turn your back, and you can march forward, and you just know those people have your back and they’re going to be doing their darned best to cover whatever it is that they’re going to cover for you. Organizations that I’ve observed that are full of dysfunction often have very technically competent people, but nobody trusts each other, nobody can turn their back and march forward. They’re all watching each other, and policing each other, and angling with each other. To me, it’s all about softer stuff. This all relates to building a high-performing organization. In my mind, the most important aspect of a high-performing organization is corporate culture.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to someone just starting out in the industry?
One piece would be that it’s a smaller industry than you can imagine. So on paper, the industry is about 10,000 employees. That seems huge. There’s a certain feeling of anonymity. The first thing I would tell people is that’s actually a mistake. It’s a very small industry. And it’ll be a relatively short period of time before your behavior and the way you conduct yourself results in a reputation, which a surprisingly large number of people will know. Depending on some turns your career takes, or some industry positions you undertake, it may be that within a relatively short period of time nearly everybody knows you…good or bad. It’s really a small industry, so be on your best behavior whether it’s returning phone calls or how you treat colleagues. Second, I would be concerned if some of my kids wanted to go into the industry right now because it is entering a period of rapid change, and I think there will be pain for some of the long-standing companies. In my experience, for whatever reason, there are companies that are organized in such a way that they are inflexible and they are not adaptable. It can be tortuously difficult for banks and hierarchical organizations in the industry to adapt. I would encourage people to be aware of that dynamic and position themselves to succeed. It can be torture to be in the wrong place at an organization that is unchanging or is going through internal nonsense. That could be a problem because there can be a great employee, a great human being with a lot to contribute, and their skills can’t be employed and developed.
Finally, I would encourage industry involvement, especially in the ELFA, which is an outstanding association. If your experience is like mine, you will receive a 10X return on every investment you make in this great industry association.