Committed to a Global Footprint: DLL’s Vendor Finance Mandate
by Rita E. Garwood July/August 2016
Only a few months ago, the future of DLL seemed uncertain amid rumors that its parent, Rabobank, was in talks to sell the vendor finance company. Today, Rabobank has not only reaffirmed its commitment to DLL, but also mandated the company to find independent avenues to raise capital for its growth. In a Monitor interview, DLL CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board Bill Stephenson discusses DLL’s evolution over the past 30 years and its bright future in the global marketplace.
Rita E. Garwood, Editor, Monitor
When DLL announced the sale of Athlon Car Lease International to Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Nederland, a part of the Daimler Financial Services global network, there was more to the story than the sale.
In early 2016, questions were raised about the future of DLL thanks to a Bloomberg article in which an anonymous source reported that Rabobank was in preliminary talks to sell its leasing unit, De Lage Landen International BV. This story led to a wave of speculation — even Monitor jumped on board by broadcasting the story while writer Dexter Van Dango penned “Chaos Ensues: DLL, FirstMerit and Increasing M&A.”
As soon as the Athlon sale became public knowledge, DLL parent Rabobank was quick to quash these rumors by reaffirming its strong commitment to DLL as “an important contributor to the strategy of Rabobank.”
“Rabobank has never relinquished its commitment to DLL,” says CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board Bill Stephenson. “When you understand how the sale of Athlon played out over the past year, within the context of an overall business review process that was being undertaken by Rabobank, it is easy to see how some could speculate. That aside, DLL is core to the bank, and DLL will remain core to the bank.”
So how did these rumors begin? Stephenson says it began more than a year ago, when Rabobank’s chairman and CEO outlined a strategy to redefine the bank and shrink its balance sheet by roughly €150 billion ($165 billion). To achieve this goal, the bank began a process of evaluating all business lines in the organization for strategic relevance, core value and overall contribution to the bank.
“Of course DLL was not exempt from this process,” Stephenson explains. “But as a major contributor of profitability — occupying approximately 6% of the balance sheet and delivering almost 25% of the profit of the bank — the importance of our contribution to the bank was never in doubt to me or the leadership team at DLL.”
Athlon Car Lease Sale
Another DLL business line subject to this evaluation process was Athlon Car Lease, a Netherlands-based European car leasing company.
“It became clear more than a year ago that in order for Athlon to maintain its track record of growth, it would require significant investments to support international office expansion and further development of online products and solutions,” Stephenson says. “After discussions with Rabobank, we concluded that such large investments were not in line with the strategy of the bank, so we set out to find a parent that would provide the necessary capital and resources to expand the brand. We were very fortunate to reach an agreement with Daimler.”
The sale to Daimler Mercedes-Benz was a great match, as DLL had a history of partnership with the company in a few countries. “It brings to conclusion a very good, long journey that is not only in the best interest of Athlon’s people, resources and brand, but will provide Athlon customers with even greater value in the future,” Stephenson says.
From Reactive to Proactive
In the Athlon sale announcement, both Stephenson and Rabobank CEO Wiebe Draijer mentioned a commitment to creating greater synergies between DLL and its parent bank.
“Rabobank is an international bank with a broad footprint predominantly focused on food and agriculture, and DLL has a very strong food and agriculture division as well,” Stephenson says. “Both organizations believe strongly that customer-facing roles should remain separate and specialized. However, we are going to explore whether opportunities exist to create operational synergies in certain back office functions, particularly if these changes can strengthen each brand’s offering and deliver enhanced value to our respective customers.”
Stephenson says the Athlon sale comes with a mandate that will enable DLL to “focus all of its resources, investments and innovations” toward its vendor finance business.
“The new regulations governing capital ratios continue to place further pressure on banks and financial institutions to not only manage their balance sheets more closely, but to also take a more disciplined approach toward the deployment of capital,” says Stephenson. “We are consistently exploring new ways to raise capital, aside from direct reliance on our parent. This is going to create a lot of financial opportunities for DLL in the future and will further supplement our organic growth.”
Since DLL is already a top vendor finance company in the U.S., what type of growth will the company strive for in the future?
“We don’t necessarily want to be the biggest. We want to be the best,” Stephenson says. “Our strategy is having a global footprint and accountability in our business lines across Europe, Asia and the Americas. There is one P&L, and this gives our global business unit presidents the autonomy to run their businesses efficiently, with the customer at the center of every decision they make.”
DLL’s commitment to its customers and their growth will continue to be the company’s primary focus. Stephenson’s ultimate goal is to have a customer net promoter score (“NPS”) close to 60, a reflection of DLL’s true partnership with its vendor clients. “We already have strong results in many of our core markets with NPS scores ranging from 25 to over 40. Loyalty is something built over time, and many of our vendor partnerships have existed for 15 to 20 years or longer. We’re going to continue supporting our customers for many decades to come,” he says.
Efficient & Effective Evolution
Stephenson has been with DLL for nearly 30 years. He has always said that DLL is a sales and marketing company that happens to have money as its product. This core value has enabled DLL to have segmentation and specialization in the industries that it serves, expertise in asset management and underwriting and asset knowledge, including how assets can help the balance sheet and the P&L of a lessee.
“We have become extremely efficient and effective,” Stephenson says. “We’ve been able to evolve into new markets, which has given us even greater knowledge and opportunity in our business.”
Compared to a domestic single-geography type lessor, Stephenson says DLL’s global market experience is vast, which he believes is the company’s greatest evolution of all. This commitment to a global vendor strategy has been a hallmark of Stephenson’s tenure as DLL CEO.
“Over the last two years, we’ve reconfirmed our commitment to a global vendor strategy, while the financial crisis forced a lot of leasing companies to revert back to a regional approach,” he says. “The fact that we remained committed to our global footprint has been our greatest accomplishment. Not only has it been proven on the bottom line by record returns for Rabobank, but customer satisfaction is also at the highest level it’s ever been.”
Stephenson says DLL’s global network is important to its customers. “We talk to our customers, and the number one reason they say they do business with us is our knowledge and experience of their industry and the fact that we have a single point of contact for all of their needs on a global perspective,” he says. “They don’t have to deal with regional or local relationships in the context of their global strategy, so we really align well with them.”
Preparing for Brexit
As a global player, DLL is still evaluating the impact of Brexit on the industry.
“Like many others, I am still personally assessing the impact of the UK referendum,” Stephenson says. “In the days following the vote, it became clear that some of the fiscal benefits put forth by the ‘leave’ camp might not be realistic. That situation appears to have created a heavy cloud of remorse with many in the voting public. Let’s not forget the outcome of the vote represents the ‘voice and will of the people,’ so it is still too early to determine how this will manifest itself in terms of actions taken by the British government or what those actions could potentially mean to our industry.
In the near term, what we cannot ignore is the potential for continued market volatility, just as we saw in the initial weeks following the vote, as well as a plunging British pound, particularly if the Bank of England cuts rates this summer. What this could mean to banks, leasing companies and the many equipment manufacturers that supply the assets financed by the industry is still an open question. We should be cautious in allowing ourselves to rush to conclusions. It is my understanding the British government must first invoke Article 50 with the EU, which triggers a two-year period of negotiations over the terms of withdrawal. This will be a drawn out affair, and talks of trying to ‘walk back’ the ‘leave’ decision are already being put forth by several parties, both public and private. Stay tuned.”
Though the global market may be in a period of uncertainty, DLL’s five-pillar commitment to its customers has not changed. The company continues to focus on long-term sustainable partnerships, specialization in certain key equipment markets and expert asset management and credit underwriting capabilities, all supported by a comprehensive global network and an engaged workforce. This approach has continued to provide DLL with significant differentiation in the market and ongoing success. “I hope that is the legacy I leave behind,” Stephenson says. “Honestly, seeing our people grow with the company — the average tenure of our managers is over 20 years with DLL — is my greatest pride as CEO because it truly is a family, a culture of commitment and trust. And that, to me, is the driving force behind everything.”
Overall, Stephenson is very happy with the out-come of the Athlon sale and the prospects that it will provide Athlon customers, employees and their families. Reconfirming DLL’s commitment to the vendor finance industry after the sale announcement was an added bonus.
“DLL vendor finance has a very strong parent and is an integral part of the Rabobank family,” Stephenson says. “Now that we have announced the Athlon sale, we can absolutely put an exclamation point behind our continued focus on global vendor finance. This should eliminate all speculation that’s been floating around over the last year and let our people and our customers in the marketplace know that it’s time to get back to work.”
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