62nd ELFA Convention: A 360 View of Equipment Finance

by Polly Garwood Nov/Dec 2023
The Future 360 theme was fitting for this year’s ELFA Convention. From the retirement of Ralph Petta to the announcement of his successor, Leigh Lytle, coupled with presentations on the implications of AI in equipment finance and the world at large, the event focused on what’s to come — and how to prepare for it.

Polly Garwood,
Freelance Writer,
Philadelphia Area

The Equipment Leasing and Finance Association’s 62nd Annual Convention took place at the JW Marriot Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort in Arizona. With attendance numbers totaling 1,030, the highest recorded since the global COVID-19 pandemic, the convention was brimming with energy. Attendees had the opportunity to pursue 41 exhibitors, three general conference sessions and 14 breakout sessions.

In traditional fashion, participants could choose from several volunteer and charity events. ELFA partnered with Urban Farming Education to organize a Community Garden Cleanup, in which raised garden beds were constructed and filled with edible plants. The association also hosted the Jim McGrane Charity Bike Ride, partnered with the Arizona ASPCA, and organized 70 volunteers to build houses for dogs in need. Thanks to the generosity of member sponsors, ELFA made a financial donation of $13,000 to Urban Farming Education and $13,000 to the ASPCA.

Taking the Lead

Robert Neagle, outgoing chair of the ELFA and president and CEO of Finova Capital, opened the general session on Monday with a recap of the year’s achievements — namely, their focus on promoting diversity within the industry and mentoring new talent.

Neagle outlined the association’s third-party assessment of current ELFA programming and future multi-year investment in new technology for the ELFA community. Neagle also introduced new CEO and president of the ELFA, Leigh Lytle, who will assume the role on Dec. 4, 2023. Lytle’s diverse experience includes 15 years of executive service in the Federal Reserve bank system, leading North American Policy at Plaid and serving as chair of the board of directors of the Financial Technology Association.

Neagle then highlighted the theme of the convention — a 360 view of what the equipment finance industry is all about. He shared how his unique path led him to a 40-year career in the industry and explained why the best leaders are also the best listeners. “A man and a woman’s reach should exceed their grasp,” he said, paraphrasing a poem by Robert Browning to encourage attendees to take risks, embrace change and inspire others. “Even a tenured professional needs inspiration. Everyone needs inspiration, no matter where they are in professional growth,” Neagle said. He concluded by congratulating Ralph Petta on his retirement and thanking him for the excellent work he has done with the ELFA.

Jason Turner, chief investment strategist of Great Lakes Advisors, was next on the roster, tying in his love of Jimmy Buffet along with economic insight. He underscored the economic importance of recessions and broke down the numbers behind the inflation percentages so inherent in the headlines, all while accompanying these ideas with lyrics from the Buffet’s repertoire. According to Turner, it could be 2025 or 2026 before we get back to a 2% inflation rate. However, “despite the outlook you just heard, despite all the noise for your seat, no matter how you’re doing . . . everything is trending up,” Turner said. He noted that even if the next few quarters are rough, there is reassurance in the long term for the market to steady out.

A Bright Future for the ELFA

Tuesday’s session opened with Petta greeting attendees with his usual professional candor. He started his speech by highlighting the association’s many successes over the course of his 36-year career in the industry.

Petta took listeners on a journey from the past to the present and future, recalling the drastic changes that have taken place since he joined the association in 1987. He shared the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation’s newest initiative with the Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business, which will create new curriculum in equipment leasing and finance that could be offered as early as spring 2024. Praising changes achieved through advocacy and a renewed focus on diversity, through programs like the Women’s Leadership Forum, Equity Forum and initiatives designed to embrace emerging talent, he discussed the bright future of the industry, as more young and diverse people assume leadership positions.

Though his tenure comes to an end this winter, Petta is certain that the ELFA will continue to create value for its members while adapting to change, ensuring that members will receive what they need for success. After Petta thanked the volunteers and staff he has worked with over the years, Neagle stepped back on stage to share video messages that board members and Petta’s wife recorded in his honor to celebrate this big milestone.

Neagle closed with a heartfelt gratitude for Petta, “Around 36 years . . . hundreds of board meetings, thousands of friends, all of them hold you in high regard for what you have done.”

Investigating the Scope of AI Advancement

Tim Urban was up next, delivering his keynote address regarding artificial intelligence and what it means on a broader scale. Urban, a blogger, author, illustrator and speaker, has a massive online following for his series “Wait But Why?” and is a producer of dozens of viral videos. He asked the audience to consider human history as a 1,000-page book and mentioned how doing so changes our perspective on time. Even the most ancient of history appears modern from this scope. For instance, if George Washington traveled 250 years ahead, into our current time, the changes in the world would be dizzying to him. On the flip side, our current time will seem just as simple to people 250 years in the future as Washington’s time appears to us.

Urban used these examples to explain the idea of paradigm shifts, or massive jumps in technological advancement, and how the advancement of AI technology will only enhance these shifts and make them more dramatic. AI was once perceived as being too limited to learn complex games such as chess or GO — lacking the ability to learn from experience and only having a small pool of knowledge to choose from. However, it has already progressed to the point of beating the world champions of both games in ways previously thought impossible.

This, Urban urges, is proof that our future is likely to contain an intelligence that is smarter and better than humans. It is limitless and can build on itself. “We’re like children playing with a bomb — they don’t quite understand the implications, possibilities or consequences.” Urban then answered a slew of questions from the audience, from ways to improve business proficiency, to the idea of AI consciousness including its possible implications and limitations. He closed by discussing the many ways that AI can positively impact creative processes and uplift humanity with the right approach.

One Last Performance for Petta

Amidst the programming, industry band The Financial Statement performed two songs, “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and “Tulsa Time” by Don Williams. The band, between both sets, featured ELFA members Nate Gibbons of Quickfi by Innovation Finance USA on drums, Mike Coon of Hanmi Bank on guitar, David Weiner of The Alta Group on harmonica, Chris Enbom of AP Equipment Financing on bass, Alexa Carnibella of ELFA on vocals and retiring ELFA President and CEO Ralph Petta on keyboard — “Tulsa Time” marking his final performance.

The conference included multiple other sessions. Sustainable Innovation shared clean energy and climate research from the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation and informed attendees how companies can profit on sustainable energy transitions. Customer Obsession: Insights, Data and Best Practice allowed marketing representatives from across equipment finance to discuss understanding customers, engaging with them, the importance of consumer data and methods to improve engagement and revenue. AI 2.0., A Panoramic View of its Role in Equipment Finance informed attendees of AI’s transformative role in equipment finance, exploring productivity advancements as well as possible legal and technology drawbacks, demonstrated via real-life examples and data from the industry.

With its keen focus on past performance, present conditions and future advancements, the ELFA is sure to promise equal engagement and knowledge at the 63rd Annual Convention, which will be held in Austin, TX on Oct. 27-29, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Polly Garwood is a freelance writer and artist from the greater Philadelphia area. Rita E. Garwood, editor in chief, contributed to this article.

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