Building the Amazon of Equipment Finance

by Rita E. Garwood October 2020
True disruption involves creating a new business model that will forever change the way an existing industry operates. Bill Verhelle is quick to admit that Innovation Finance has yet to achieve this feat, but the platform his team is building — centered on a simplified and transparent customer experience — is on its way to transforming equipment finance.

Bill Verhelle,
CEO & Founder,
Innovation Finance

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same… 

“If” by Rudyard Kipling was a favorite of Bill Verhelle’s father, William Verhelle Sr. The poem was a summary of the values Verhelle Sr. believed were most worth cultivating in life.

“He was a great human being and a great father,” Verhelle says. “He had a big impact on my philosophy and beliefs, and I think about him every day.”

When Verhelle was nine years old, his father lost his job as president of a small Detroit area bank that failed shortly after the 1973 oil embargo, and his family had difficulty making ends meet for nearly a decade. But even though he lost everything, Verhelle Sr. lived by the advice of his favorite poem. He never mentioned his earlier successes or complained about his changed circumstances, and he continued to serve his family, friends and community.

“Even though I never suffered any significant hardship as a child, the impact of our family struggling financially from the time I was about 10 until I moved away from my parents at 17, made an impact,” Verhelle says. “I wanted to learn how to be financially independent and how to gain control over my life. I thought about money in different ways than my father did. I tried to reconcile my father’s beliefs — which I respected — with my life and my future opportunities, which I wanted to be different in some ways.”

To Verhelle, education and entrepreneurship were tools he could use to create a great life. During his first year at Cornell Law School, Verhelle was approached by his friend, Guy Klinger, about founding First American Equipment Finance. Looking back, Verhelle recalls being so concerned with surviving his first year of law school that he didn’t fully appreciate the implications of simultaneously launching a startup.

“Sometimes you have to burn your bridges and put yourself at risk,” Verhelle says. “I’ve always felt tremendous excitement and energy during the planning and organization phase of a new business. There is also always a period of doubt and fear that follows, but that is natural following any big life decision.”

Verhelle says Klinger was the “biggest positive factor” in the successful First American launch, as he raised the starting capital and generated sales for the first two to three years. “If Guy Klingler ever asks you to start a business with him, do it!” Verhelle says. “We couldn’t be more pleased to have Guy as an investor and advisor in our new business.”

Innovating Since 1996

Monitor’s board awarded Verhelle this year’s Disruptor Icon Award for a good reason. His career has been centered on creating companies that approach equipment finance from a new direction.

“Challenging the status quo is not only expected, it is celebrated with Bill,” Courtney Dioguardi, SVP of Innovation Finance, says. “He has a keen eye on evolving client buying preferences and encourages his teammates to make bold moves. When a great idea surfaces to Bill, there is no red tape or bureaucracy — a team is simply mobilized to implement the idea.”

“I have known Bill for almost 30 years. Even when we first met, he was keenly interested in utilizing technology to improve efficiency and enhance the customer experience,” Chip Hainley, SVP of Innovation Finance, says. “With each successive role in the equipment finance industry, he constantly pushed the boundary of status quo and empowered people to think creatively.”

“Differentiation is a highly effective business strategy,” Verhelle says. “It worked for us at the outset at First American, so we made ‘being different’ an intentional component of our business strategy. It’s also more fun than optimizing an established business strategy for cost reduction.”

Launched in 1996, First American was innovative for its time. The company conducted business over the phone instead of in person, implemented CRM systems and video conferencing software before the practices became mainstream, and introduced elements of transparency and standardization to accelerate the process of purchasing equipment.

“At First American, we tried to innovate and differentiate as much as possible, but all the innovation was within the existing business model,” Verhelle says.

Building from the Ground Up

With Innovation Finance, launched in 2018, Verhelle had the opportunity to start from scratch. Its QuickFi technology incorporates artificial intelligence, blockchain, facial recognition and other new technologies into a mobile, cloud-based, 100% digital, self-service business model. But Verhelle also learned that another consideration was just as important as the new technology. “When we started this company, we realized that there is really no path to get from an existing business model to a new business model,” Verhelle says.

To illustrate this idea, Verhelle points to Amazon and its retail competitors. Using technology, Amazon created a new way to do business. Led by people with expertise in all facets of complex retail business, the firms that previously dominated retailing struggled to compete with Amazon. For these firms, there was no easy way to migrate from the long-standing, prior business model.

“When you have an established business, everything you’re spending time and money on is designed to optimize the way you’re doing business now,” Verhelle says. “Nearly everything in running an established business is about optimization.”

To disrupt, leaders must say, “What we’re doing now, and what worked for us in the past, might not be successful in the future. Maybe we should do it entirely differently,” Verhelle says. “But it’s nearly impossible to change the business model. You never have a meeting in your company where you say, ‘OK, if we were going to do it in a completely different way, let’s spend a few hours discussing how we would do business in a manner that is totally different than the way we do business today,’ because, among other things, you’re just too busy.”

Verhelle says last year’s winner of the Monitor Icon Disruptor award, Mark Tomaselli, has been a huge advocate of building Innovation Finance’s new business model. “Mark has a deep understanding of strategy and technology, and he often says, ‘This is our one chance to do something really big and different,’” Verhelle says.

The QuickFi platform Innovation Finance is building delivers transparent business equipment financing, which previously took days or weeks, in fewer than three minutes on a mobile device, in a self-service environment, with availability every hour of every day.

“Every aspect of our QuickFi offering is different compared to the current equipment financing business model,” Verhelle says. “If we are successful with QuickFi, we might go beyond innovation and we might have the potential to disrupt.”

Striving for Simplicity

Transparency is important to Verhelle and has been a focus at both First American and Innovation Finance. “I hate needless complexity,” Verhelle says. “I have always sought to simplify. “Perhaps one of the most important business trends of the past two decades is dramatically increased transparency,” he says. “This trend has improved the borrower experience, but it has also reduced friction, lowered costs and improved the standard of living in society.”

Verhelle says QuickFi takes borrower transparency to a new level. All loans include a disclosed interest rate, even though such disclosures are not required by law and are rarely made by QuickFi competitors. “QuickFi also commits to charging no hidden fees or costs,” Verhelle says. “If payments are paid timely, QuickFi borrowers will never incur a documentation fee, a UCC fee, a return fee, or any other type of fee. No fees. Period.”

Verhelle says the global manufacturers that partner with QuickFi love what his company has created. “The most respected brands in the world put great importance on the customer experience,” Verhelle says. “The transparency and simplicity of the financing experience impacts the manufacturer’s brand. QuickFi represents the safe choice for global manufacturers wishing to provide their equipment customers with the lowest cost, most transparent and borrower-friendly financing available.”

QuickFi currently partners with global manufacturers to provide technology for borrower self-service, direct and dealer sales channels, and manufacturer web shopping cart integrations. But Verhelle’s long-term vision includes serving captive finance companies and banks as well.

“Eventually our objective is to become a platform,” Verhelle says. “Amazon had to prove it could sell books before it became a platform for independent sellers. Right now, with manufacturers that outsource their financing to third parties, we are demonstrating what QuickFi can do. We eventually anticipate making the platform available to others.”

Leading by Example

Verhelle’s love of transparency carries over to his approach to leadership. “I’m very fortunate to have started my professional career many years ago at a firm Bill co-founded,” Dioguardi says. “He set the example for transparency and the importance of each and every role. Very early on in my career — and throughout — I have been afforded opportunities to learn, grow and make an impact because of his leadership.”

“Bill is an incredible leader because he encourages everyone to challenge themselves by providing opportunities that require development of new skill sets and critical thinking,” Hainley says. “He consistently expresses his confidence, support and appreciation of you as a person and member of his team. Bill leads by example and is very professional, honest and genuine, which translates into extremely motivated and innovative thinking from members of his team.”

To other would-be disruptors, Verhelle’s advice is clear: “Burn your bridges. But be patient,” he says. “Amazon was an overnight success which took over 20 years to ascend to retail dominance. Creating something new is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it already.”

A few years ago, Verhelle ran into a law school classmate who had transitioned into the software industry. As Verhelle told his friend about Innovation Finance’s early plans, his friend asked questions about cost and timing. “He laughed at me and said, ‘Bill, you have to double all the time periods and double all the cost estimates, that’s just a rule. No one knows why, that’s just the way technology development works.’” Verhelle says. “I remember politely laughing and hoping he was kidding.”

But Verhelle soon realized that his friend wasn’t kidding. Despite the myriad challenges inherent in starting anything new and worthwhile, Verhelle says that QuickFi, which he says remains far from successful at this current early point, is without a doubt the highlight of his business career.

“I’ve never worked on a bigger, more meaningful project with people I like and respect more,” Verhelle says. “Every day I wake up feeling like every challenge that I experienced in my entire life has uniquely prepared me for this opportunity. I’ve never done anything more important or more enjoyable. If you are thinking about doing something big with your career, do it now. There may never be a better time.”

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