Building Relationships: Bullen Outlines a New Strategy for Key Equipment Finance

by Rita Garwood 2023
Key Equipment Finance (KEF) is becoming laser focused on relationships. Peter Bullen, recently appointed EVP and group head, outlines a new strategy that will continue KEF’s role as a dominant force in equipment finance.

Peter K. Bullen,
EVP & Group Head,
Key Equipment Finance

Supporting bank relationships is the centerpiece of Key Equipment Finance’s new go-to-market strategy, which fueled the bank’s recent decision to exit its commercial and municipal vendor finance business.

“We had a very successful commercial vendor business that had been with us for many years,” Peter Bullen, recently appointed executive vice president and group head of Key Equipment Finance, says. “We had grown that business, it was profitable, we had some great clients, but we were basically using our balance sheet for our vendors’ customers, and we were not driving broader bank relationships.”

Bullen adds that shuttering the vendor channel, which contributed 23% of Key Equipment Finance’s new business volume in 2022,[1] was a “difficult decision.” However, Bullen says recent rumors that KeyBank is exiting the equipment finance business “could not be further from the truth.”

“We’ve got a very vibrant group. This is going to be a multi-billion-dollar originations channel in terms of new business going forward,” Bullen says. “We’ve got a large balance sheet that we’re still managing, and this business has all the capabilities, product solutions, and support partners to continue to be relevant with our clients. In addition, we are going to continue to be a voice within the industry.”

Bullen says KEF will continue to take an active role in the industry in terms of participating in the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association. Bullen is serving as the incoming treasurer of the Equipment Leasing and Finance Foundation. “You’re going to continue to see Key Equipment Finance colleagues out there with a variety of ELFA responsibilities,” Bullen says. “We continue to be a dominant force in this industry today, and we will be tomorrow.”

A Four-Pronged Strategy

Bullen says Key Equipment Finance will be comprised of four relationship-centric revenue channels:

Bank Channel. Focused on providing equipment finance solutions to bank clients and prospects in the middle market and large corporate space. The sales team will continue to sit with KeyBank’s commercial bankers in the market and will support their clients.

Clean Energy. As the name suggests, this group is focused on financing clean assets, such as solar, fuel cells, electric commercial vehicles and energy efficient solutions. “This is a business that’s going to grow dramatically over the next five years, and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Bullen says. “We have a number of new products, ideas and momentum. The Inflation Reduction Act has really turbocharged this industry, and we are excited to utilize our unique platform to grow and support our bank clients who need help managing their carbon footprint.”

Key Government Finance. While the portion of KGF that supported vendor business will be discontinued, the business will continue to support public sector clients of Key such as municipalities and nonprofit hospitals that need tax exempt financing. “KGF has always been able to support those relationships, and will do so going forward,” Bullen says.

Capital Markets. Providing support for the three other businesses, Bullen says is the capital markets team, which will be led by Shawn Arnone, and allows KEF to “play bigger” and manage risk. “We have created, I think, one of the best Capital Markets groups within the equipment finance industry,” Bullen says. “We will originate much larger transactions, agent the deals and engage our capital markets team to syndicate to investors that appreciate the risk and return profile of those transactions. That’s a big way to manage risk, meet the needs of our larger clients as well as generate revenue for the bank.”

From Intern to Group Head

Although Bullen may be the new group head at Key Equipment Finance — taking the reins from Adam Warner, who has led the business since 2009 — he has devoted his entire career to KeyBank and its predecessors. Starting off as a summer intern between his junior and senior years in college, Bullen joined a commercial lending training program where he learned the ins and outs of commercial real estate, asset-based lending and equipment finance.

When an opportunity arose in the equipment finance group, Bullen jumped at the chance and never looked back. Bullen cut his teeth in direct originations for small business, mid-ticket and large corporate before becoming a sales manager in 2009. After 18 months in management Warner asked Bullen to take on a greater role in KEF, managing the entire direct sales group, including small business, clean energy and KEF’s Canadian operations.

“The commonality is that I’ve always been working primarily within the bank ecosystem with relationship clients,” Bullen says. “That’s always been my role, providing direct financing to broad base relationship clients of Key and predecessor banks.

In his new role, Bullen will report to Institutional Bank executive vice president and group head Derek Chauvette and manage a team of approximately 55 to 60 people, reporting through the four revenue channels previously outlined comprising a combined KEF portfolio of approximately $8 billion. Bullen’s purview will be slightly different than Warner’s, which included the discontinued vendor channel and a thriving specialty finance lending business, which will now report though another part of the bank.

“I’m excited to be part of Derek’s world,” Bullen says. “He has a good understanding of Key Equipment Finance and, specifically, of Key Government Finance since it provides financing solutions for many of his team’s public sector customers. As we begin to better understand each other’s businesses we are seeing a number of synergies, which is exciting.”

A Collaborative Approach

Looking back, Bullen credits Warner as the mentor who made the biggest impact on his career. “Adam’s been with me during my management journey,” Bullen says. “He is a major leader within our industry and Key, and he’s always had a very strategic mind and a great risk mindset. I’ve learned from Adam that part of being a successful leader is creating a collaborative environment where you show empathy and as a result you can get the best out of your team. I’ve taken a lot of those traits to heart, and I think I lead in a somewhat similar manner.”

As a leader, Bullen seeks diversity of opinion, appreciating the value that different experiences can offer. He values honesty, integrity, transparency and making decisions that are aligned with the broader strategy of the bank.

“If you don’t have honesty and integrity, you don’t have respect from your team, and you’re not going to be in this business very long, especially in financial services,” Bullen says.

Aligning the Team for Growth

As with any major transition, Bullen’s short-term goals for the team include helping everyone level set, understand KEF’s new strategy and get comfortable with embracing change.

“If you’re in financial services, heck, if you’re in business, you’re used to change,” Bullen says. “And we’ve got a pretty resilient team. They’re excited that they’re part of the future and understand that Key Equipment Finance’s strategy fits firmly with the bank strategy.

Bullen’s long-term goal for KEF is growth. “We’ve shrunk, but we’re going to grow again,” Bullen says, noting that the bank is examining its pipelines, revenue streams and fee opportunities for 2024. “Key Equipment Finance is going to be a big part of that going forward. So I’m looking forward to putting the pedal back on the gas and getting the business moving again, which will occur in 2024.”

In 2024, Bullen plans to prioritize reminding team members, customers and stakeholders of KEF’s purpose as a relationship equipment finance business. “We’re not here just to build assets,” Bullen says. “Anybody can build assets. We want to be strategic in how we use our capital, and studies prove that your greatest returns are with relationship clients that value what you have to offer. Our focus is to work with companies that know Key, that value Key and that are willing to work with us based on what we can offer and the ideas that we can provide.”

[1] “The 2023 Monitor 100,” Monitor. Vol.50, No. 5, 2023.

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