2023 Monitor Icon: Bette Kerhoulas – Pioneering a Path for Women in Equipment Finance

by Brianna Wilson Sept/Oct 2023
Bette Kerhoulas was one of the first women to do many things in the equipmnent finance industry, and even as she transitions out of full-time work, she continues to inspire and encourage those around her as a pioneer for women in finance.

Bette Kerhoulas,
Founder and Managing Director,
Pacifica Capital

“Conduct yourself in every situation as if there was a spotlight on you and everyone can see what you’re doing behind the scenes. Do what’s right. If you do what’s right and work hard, then you’ll be successful.”

Bette Kerhoulas’ equipment finance roots are tied to a whirlwind start in the industry. Out of college, Kerhoulas joined GE Capital, moved to an independent leasing financing company, then to a captive vendor with an inhouse leasing division. While at the independent leasing financing company, Kerhoulas worked alongside Leah Van Kirk, who would eventually become Kerhoulas’ partner in forming their own company, Pacifica Capital. Van Kirk and Kerhoulas set up the business in Kerhoulas’ kitchen and worked tirelessly to get Pacifica off the ground. That was in 1984 — just two years after Kerhoulas began working.

For five years, Pacifica employed only women, down to its operations and salespeople. In 1989, Kerhoulas bought out Van Kirk and shortly thereafter, brought in Tony Sherwin and Harold Noriega as minority partners. “Pacifica grew slowly but steadily up to 39 people in 1999. We were funding over $50 million in leases per year, with an average ticket size of $50,000,” Kerhoulas says.

The company remained independent over the years, despite Pacifica going through a few acquisition courtships from larger entities that wanted to purchase it. “We knew that the culture of the company would change if we were purchased,” Kerhoulas says. “Most of the time, those companies would consolidate operations to one area, so we anticipated losing our operations people. Then we’d also lose the ability to make our own decisions and set up short and long-term goals. Therefore, we never agreed to sell; we just decided to continue to run Pacifica as an independent, boutique finance company on our own.”

In 2007, Kerhoulas would buy out her two male partners and bring in her daughter, Amy Spragg, as a partner. Spragg had already been an invaluable asset to Pacifica for more than 10 years, and today, as Kerhoulas is transitioning into retirement and working part-time, Spragg is handling most of the business.

Pioneering As A Female Leader

Kerhoulas was the first woman to serve as the president of National Equipment Finance Association, which was founded as the Western Association of Equipment Leasing and then known as the United Association of Equipment Lessors by the time Kerhoulas became president in 2003. Kerhoulas says, though she puts it lightly, that it was a terrifying. Not only was it a long seven-year process to get through the president’s seat, having first been on the board and then “going through the chairs” (secretary/treasurer, vice president, president, past president), as the association called it, she was also staring down a major economic recession.

“We sat down, and the first thing Joe Woodley, who ran UAEL at the time, said was: ‘OK, Bette, are you ready to not only be the first female president, but also to be the first president in our industry to make a capital call plea to the association? Necause if we don’t get more money in, we might not have an association.’” Kerhoulas says. “That’s what was terrifying — I became president just at the time when industries were falling by the wayside because of the recession, and it was difficult.”

Brad Peterson, CEO of Channel Partners, says his first opportunity to work with Kerhoulas was during this period of time. “The association was reeling from some unpredictable financial setbacks and needed a serious, firm hand at the helm. Bette led the board, staff and association through some life-rendering decisions in a calm, professional and efficient manner. She was focused and unflappable in creating the pathway which led the way from potential disaster,” Peterson says.

“A few years later, Bette engaged in challenging a key ruling by the California State Board of Equalization, which, if acted upon, could have cost industry participants millions of dollars. The ruling established that a discounted transaction with typical assignment documentation was a subsequent taxable sale of the equipment under California law and subject to sales tax again,” Peterson says. “Over many months, she took on the bureaucrats in Sacramento, eventually meeting with each member of the Equalization Board to convince them their statute was misguided and inappropriate. And she won, to the great benefit of our industry. A pioneer goes first, before everyone else. Bette has been, and is always, selfless, assertive and forward-thinking. I am very pleased Bette is being honored by the Monitor as this year’s Pioneer Icon Award recipient — well deserved. Also, she is quietly a multi-year U.S. Tennis Association national tennis champion!”

Drawing Inspiration from Others

Kerhoulas credits much of her success to the people she’s collaborated with in the industry. “As far as being a pioneer, I just happened to be there a long time ago and I happened to stay in the business for a long time and keep the same company,” Kerhoulas says. “I surrounded myself with great people. I always made it important to hire good, trustworthy people that I felt comfortable around. I think that’s why my business was so successful. It wasn’t because of me; it was because of people that were around me.”

Kerhoulas had many mentors and influences during her career, so much so that “there’s no way I can name them all or mention them and say how they contributed,” she says. She did list a few, for specific reasons. Ruth Paddock, former owner of Heritage Leasing in Orange County, CA, was the only woman Kerhoulas knew when she got into the industry that owned a leasing company, and Paddock gave her some great advice about running a company. Russ Munson, former relationship manager at Citicorp, took an interest in Pacifica and bent Citicorp’s rules around volume to open the doors for Pacifica to become one of the company’s approved brokers. This opened up many more opportunities for Kerhoulas’ team. Oren Hall, owner of Heritage Leasing in Sacramento, CA, supported and encouraged Kerhoulas throughout her career. “He would call me when something happened in the industry that might affect how we do business, and we would dialogue and talk about it. He would introduce me to important people that I should know,” Kerhoulas says. “He influenced me by being a great example. He was hardworking; he was smart; he was dedicated to making the industry better.”

Finally, Kerhoulas was part of the first ‘women in leasing’ group, though it wasn’t formalized, with several women meeting for lunch every so often to talk about the male-dominated industry, bounce ideas off each other and share stories. “It’s important to get together with other women in our industry that have had similar experiences,” Kerhoulas says.

Jaimie Haver, chief enthusiasm officer of Happy Manufacturing, finds Kerhoulas to be an incredibly inspiring and encouraging woman. “Bette’s influence runs deep through the heart of Southern California, where many of today’s women leaders strive to be like her. If you were to cast a net in just Southern California, there are at least 15 women that have been positively influenced by her,” Haver says. “Bette is an amazing human being. That’s not just my feeling, that is a fact that is echoed across our finance community. While Bette was building Pacifica Capital and shattering the glass ceiling for women, she was also paving a road on doing business the right way, with integrity and ethical business practices. Bette is a mentor and cheerleader for everyone. She inspires and encourages people to embrace entrepreneurship, or simply be the best versions of themselves in the roles they are in. Bette is a true source of inspiration, and she deserves this recognition for the immeasurable impact she has made and continues to make. She is humble, devoted and so kind. When I grow up, I want to be like Bette.”

A Humble Legacy

Kerhoulas, who received her Certified Lease & Finance Professional designation in 1999, when it was known as the Certified Lease Professional designation, believes education is vital in the equipment finance industry, especially since people don’t go to college to learn capital asset financing and leasing. “When I got into the industry, I was reading everything I could get my hands on and talking to industry icons every chance I got just to educate myself and make sure that Pacifica was doing things correctly and moving in the right direction,” Kerhoulas says.

Kerhoulas hopes to see this drive for education ripple through the industry as young leaders continue to enter it. Kerhoulas’ advice to these aspiring leaders is to “have integrity, be humble and do unto others as you would have them do to you. Conduct yourself in every situation as if there was a spotlight on you and everyone can see what you’re doing behind the scenes. Do what’s right. If you do what’s right and work hard, then you’ll be successful,” Kerhoulas says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brianna Wilson is editor of Monitor. Rita E. Garwood, editor in chief, interviewed Bette Kerhoulas for this article.

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