Still the One: Peterson Keeps a Diversified TCF Going Forward
by Phil Neuffer July/August 2016
In the last year, TCF has taken on a new look in more ways than one. Gary Peterson, the newly appointed president and CEO of TCF Equipment Finance, explains how he rose to his new position and how TCF uses diversification and unification to grow.
Rebranding is a difficult task, but it can be an effective marketing tool used to illustrate changing priorities or altered strategies to current and potential customers. TCF undertook a rebranding campaign more than a year ago and, in the many months that have followed, it took on a whole new look.
This transformation went far beyond changing the header on the company stationery or the logo on its website. The rebranding included making big changes to the company’s leadership and its subsidiaries, such as TCF Equipment Finance, which named a new president and CEO in February. Gary Peterson, who has been with TCF for more than a decade, stepped up to the role, following in the footsteps of William S. Henak, who was promoted to executive vice president of Wholesale Banking in November 2015.
Peterson is a 38-year veteran of the equipment finance industry and a former employee of both CIT and GE Capital. He started his career with CIT, just weeks after graduating from college; there he learned important lessons that have carried him through nearly four decades in the industry.
“CIT gave me the early training that I really needed and use today,” says Peterson. “[I] came in, and I was responsible for issuing the documentation. [I] had to learn it first, submitting deals to credit, negotiating with credit, developing my legal understanding and, of course, working with the sales reps. It provided me with a well-rounded background about how the equipment finance industry really works.”
Next, Peterson joined GE Capital, where he stayed for 16 years. He spent two of those years in the municipal leasing sector, an area Peterson had not worked in before but was very interested in pursuing. In the subsequent 14 years, Peterson managed various GE Capital Fleet Services markets or segments. While at GE, process examination was something he learned to value.
“The biggest takeaway I got out of GE Capital was the experience around strategic thinking, strategic planning and how to use process improvements and tools in particular, like six sigma, to help companies grow, take out unnecessary work and become a productive, profitable company by ways of looking at your process,” says Peterson.
While he was working at GE Capital, Peterson noticed that TCF was siphoning off a fair amount of talent, which prompted him to reach out to Craig Dahl, who is now the CEO of TCF Financial.
“I called Craig Dahl and said, ‘You’re hiring my top people, you might as well take my portfolio,’” says Peterson, who did, in fact, sell a sizable portfolio to TCF in 2003. Quite frankly, the portfolio did not fit within GE Fleet Services core operations but fit nicely into TCF’s diversified niche market strategy. “I bonded quite well then with Craig Dahl and Bill Henak, so the recruiting continued past that.”
That initial phone call has led to a 12-year working relationship between Dahl, Henak and Peterson built on similar values and goals.
“I’ve worked closely with both of those guys for much of my 12 years,” says Peterson. “I do share their vision about diversification, strategic growth, employee development and working to create a culture that builds upon trust, accountability and commitment. We’re pretty much in lockstep.”
Both Dahl and Henak come from equipment financing backgrounds, which further cements the strong bond Peterson feels with TCF’s leadership. That bond enhances the interplay between the parent company and the equipment finance arm.
“All these leaders came from the equipment finance business, so we have a parent that we believe has a deep understanding of what we do in equipment finance and what we can do in the future,” says Peterson.
Having such a harmonious connection between the executive leadership and the heads of individual units like equipment finance lends itself to what Peterson calls the “One TCF” strategy. That strategy aligns the different business units in TCF to collaborate in new and beneficial ways. It is built on something that permeates throughout the TCF brand, not just the equipment finance unit. The diversification pillar keeps a consistent philosophy across the company and allows different businesses to cross-sell products.
Looking at equipment finance alone, TCF’s diversification strategy is alive and well. Peterson says that the equipment finance unit has 10 distinct segments, including construction, healthcare and manufacturing. Those segments are further diversified into 35 different markets.
Any one of the markets that TCF currently serves was meticulously examined and evaluated before the company even considered entering the fray. The same goes for new segments it is considering.
“We’re always looking for new markets,” says Peterson. “We don’t exit too many from a risk standpoint because we do a pretty good job of assessing that before we go into it.”
When Peterson says TCF is constantly looking for new markets, he is not exaggerating.
“Every year, we go off-site for a couple of days, and each of our sales managers is charged with coming up with a new idea or two for strategic growth. Each functional group, like an operations team, portfolio, credit or legal, will come up with ideas to support that growth. Out of that comes numerous initiatives, and then we end up drilling down further, vetting each initiative. Some of those might be in conversation for a couple years before they launch,” says Peterson. “So we take a long methodical approach before we enter those markets.”
Peterson says the discipline and dedication to diversity are what have helped keep TCF successful, even in times of distress.
“I’m proud that we held to our diversified market strategy which is what the company has today,” says Peterson when describing how TCF weathered the storm of the Great Recession. “We stayed within our credit philosophies and prospered.”
Diversification alone has not kept TCF on an upward trajectory. Having relationships that span decades and personnel with the experience to match means TCF can handle most challenges.
“When times get tough, they know the industry very well. They know where to sell the equipment. They know how to sell the equipment. They know the parts of equipment,” says Peterson of his sales team. “At the end, we look for that kind of expertise and that kind of growth. So we don’t really exit too many of those marketplaces, and our customers appreciate that.”
Speaking of customer appreciation, maintaining a strong customer-centric approach is yet another aspect that Peterson, and TCF by extension, emphasizes greatly.
A recent example of TCF’s multiple strategies working as one involves a bus customer from Chicago. The customer was in California and needed to buy a bus and get back to Chicago in 24 hours. TCF needed to get the customer’s updated financial statements. After getting the customer’s information and documents during the afternoon, TCF approved the deal by 8 a.m. the next morning, and the customer drove off in a bus by lunchtime.
“We followed every single discipline we have to get that deal done,” says Peterson. “Everybody chipped in. Credit, sales, operations, legal, everyone. That’s the culture we want to have for every deal we do. So it’s not about why can’t we do it every time, but how can we?”
Prepped for What’s Coming
As Peterson prepares for the rest of 2016, he is happy to report that TCF has had a strong start to the year. With record growth in every month of the first two quarters of 2016, despite the economy running at 1% or less, plus double-digit growth in originations year-over-year, he is proud to say TCF Equipment Finance has had success without sacrificing the credit box. Now the key will be to keep it going this year and in the years to come.
“Our strategy is to stay with our core originations and our methodical approach to strategic business development,” says Peterson, who is also dedicated to TCF’s continued transformation from a consumer retail focus to an emphasis on lending. “Today, we lend over 85% of our assets whereas some of our banker peers are at 65%. We continued lending during the last recession as our customers continued to buy equipment, produce revenue and employ people. So that’s really our goal for the next five years.”
Peterson’s depth of experience also makes him keenly aware of some of the more seismic shifts occurring in equipment finance and the finance world as a whole. Gone are the days of blue books, factor tables and sending out handwritten billing invoices, which were commonplace when Peterson first got into the industry. Increased regulation, low commodity and energy prices, the protection of customer data, improved online capabilities and technological upgrades such as e-signatures are all at the forefront of Peterson’s mind when it comes to challenges and drivers of progress for the future of the industry.
Regardless of what is coming, Peterson will continue to navigate his team down the proverbial road, one TCF at a time.
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