Going Global and Blazing a Trail of Innovation: Stephenson Reflects on 35 years with DLL
by Rita Garwood 2021
This week, Bill Stephenson, CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board at DLL announced that he will retire from his role at the end of 2021. In an exclusive interview with Monitor, Stephenson reflects on the biggest accomplishment of his career, emphasizes the importance of the customer in every business decision and shares leadership advice.
Bill Stephenson, CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board, DLL
You’ve been with DLL for 35 years of your career. Let’s go back to the very beginning of your career. What were your goals as a young professional?
Bill Stephenson: When you go back to the start of this great organization Master Lease, primarily it was in the mid-1980s, I was a young kid right out of college. I worked for Lanier Business Products selling office equipment door-to-door in Houston, TX where I mastered the art of rejection and the sales process itself. Master Lease was a sales and marketing company that utilized leasing and financing as its product. It fit my background and I was pretty excited about it. We had a tremendous leader, Abe Bernstein, a visionary that really carved the way. I view him as the founding father of vendor finance leasing.
I was fortunate to work underneath him. I saw his vision and his commitment to the customer and his vision of how it’s all about sales and creating value regardless of the product. When we were acquired by Tokai Bank, that gave us the capital and the funding to broaden our footprint and compete with the big players. I think that really was a catalyst for the company that we are today. Then of course the Japanese financial crisis occurred, and we were acquired by Rabobank in 1999 and were able to take the vendor finance model to Europe and create the global company that you see today.
Looking back to when you first got into the business and comparing it to where you are today, what changed as you learned more about the industry? What continued to be important from those early days and what fell by the wayside as you grew?
Stephenson: I get this question a lot. With the young professionals that are coming in here, obviously technology speed — by which we are able to service our clients and our customers and get that approval and get the funding — has continued to evolve. The ‘how’ of what we do is constantly evolving, but the ‘what’ of what we do has remained consistent.
In every board meeting, every policy decision, every question that we have in meetings, the first question I ask is, “What’s the impact of this decision on the customer?” You’ll be surprised, how many times young professionals today are so internally focused on decision-making and policymaking to cut costs or create efficiencies, they forget to ask that most important question: “What impact is that truly going to have on our customers?” If you can’t start with that premise, you’ll never ever achieve the success that your company or your personal situation could, because without customers, we don’t exist. If you put the customer in the center of everything you do, everything else will fall into place.
You’ve held a variety of roles with DLL. You worked all the way up the ladder. If you look back across your career, what brings you the most pride and sense of accomplishment?
Stephenson: Besides my family, the most pride was when Rabobank acquired us. At the time they were looking at having two regional leasing companies, the Americas and Europe. I had a vision and was saying, “We are one of the few global vendor finance leasing companies. Why aren’t we exploiting that? Why aren’t we selling that?” Because we ended up competing on global program agreements against each other.
I’ll never forget negotiating a program agreement with a customer who pointed out to me that our Europe entity was offering things that I wasn’t offering and vice versa. We were competing against ourselves. I think that that separation and fragmentation was the genesis of the Global Business Unit (GBU) model that I brought to DLL. At the time, the Board didn’t want it. They wanted to remain regional, but our CEO, Karel Schellens at the time said, “Look, if you believe so much in this, why don’t you come to Europe and let’s turn the office equipment GBU into your model and let’s see how you do.”
At the time, we lost a couple million dollars in the OE business unit. Then after three years we were making over $9 million, $10 million profit in that unit. Then the entire organization switched to the Global Business Unit model where we have vertical business units. We have one throat to choke, which is the GBU President. We have one P&L, a global P&L for profitability. It enabled us, if we want to take a loss in France, but we can make up for it in Canada, and overall it’s a profitable relationship with that vendor, because that’s a market they want to be more competitive in, I believe that gave us a sustainable, competitive advantage that no other company has been able to duplicate at this point in time. I’m most proud of that. That has sustained through the 2008 and 2009 crisis and has sustained through COVID. I think our strategy in this area has been proven and I’m most proud of that.
Lots of young employees are coming up the ranks. What advice would you give them if they’re just beginning their career?
Stephenson: You have to put the customer in the center of everything you do, but understand the wants versus the needs of a customer. The mid-career professionals really focus on what the customers want. Everybody does that and they ask them what they want. But if you truly want to separate yourself and have differentiation in your product, your services and your relationship, understand what your customers really ‘need’, and then provide solutions for them to achieve that.
I know that’s a difficult concept for people to understand, but if you really think about it, that’s the case. I’ve been in this business 35 years. If I sent a survey out 35 years ago and a survey out tomorrow, and I asked our customers what they ‘want’, they would say low rates, high approvals, fast funding and excellent service. I guarantee you. That hasn’t changed in 35 years.
But what they ‘need ‘is very unique to every single customer. That requires you to really understand their business, their strategy, their market differentiation, and how you can unify financing, which is a core concept of the success to all of these organizations in many different ways for them to achieve that. That would be my advice. Stay away from the ‘wants’, find the ‘needs’, and you will be successful.
What about mid-career professionals who have their eye on the C-suite? What’s your advice for them?
Stephenson: It’s about management and leadership at that point. You’ve already created differentiation. You’ve proven yourself to be successful. That’s why you’re promoted. Now you have to be a leader and you have to build a team. I always tell everybody, a couple easy concepts with the C-Suite is never, ever make exceptions. If you make exceptions in a compensation plan with an individual, if you make exceptions with another person and you don’t do it for everybody else, don’t think that it’s not going to be known. Then you’re going to be known as a leader that’s not trustworthy because you make an exception for somebody, that means you had to say no to other people. Stay consistent. Now, if the exception keeps popping up, be open to say, “Well, maybe the policy’s wrong,” and then adjust the policy and make it fair for everybody else. But start with consistency.
Secondly, start with transparency and trust and never ask your people to do anything that you haven’t or won’t do yourself. So many leaders demand things of their team, yet they know deep down that person has never done it. Don’t be afraid to be absolutely open and admit failure. Don’t be afraid to say, “You know what? I don’t know.” Show a degree of vulnerability. I think vulnerability isn’t a weakness. I think it’s a sign of strength, because that empowers your people to come up with solutions.
I will tell you the last thing, when you’re around a group trying to make a decision, never, ever give your opinion first. Be the last one to speak. That way you’ll allow people to really voice where they are and listen.
Where do you see the industry heading in the next five to 10 years?
Stephenson: I think the most successful vendor finance companies are going to be the ones that really embrace the asset management piece in really secondary and third markets and find ways to just optimize that asset to keep it working, and then work with our manufacturers to totally take the asset apart when it no longer has a useful life and extract the items that could be reused.
We’ve done that. We’ve done that with our technology companies. We’ve done that with some copier companies. We’ve done that even with some trailer companies and transportation. That will be the future. Pay per use really will require an entirely new thinking in underwriting and risk management. I think that’s something that’s there, but you’re going to see it. You’re going to see it everywhere, and if you don’t really understand the asset in the secondary life and you repurpose it constantly, you’re not going to be able to compete in that. You’re going to be stuck on five year straight amortization and trying to get your return, but that’s coming and that’s coming quickly. I’ll be honest with you, DLL is driving it. We’re already seeing that.
What’s next for you? What does your next chapter look like?
Stephenson: The COVID pandemic, I think for everybody, opened our eyes about the future. For 35 years I averaged 190 nights a year in a hotel. I was a top flying person with millions of miles. Not that it ever really bothered me, but this extended period at home and without travel, it allowed me to reflect.
I’m retiring from DLL. I tell my people, “When you wake up every morning and you don’t feel challenged, or you don’t have a little butterflies in your stomach, you don’t feel uncomfortable. When you haven’t mastered what the company is asking you to do, you’re in a prime position. That means you’re nervous. That means you’re afraid to fail. That means that you’re learning, you’re developing, you’re growing as an individual.”
When I look at where DLL is today, and I ask myself, “What else is it that I can contribute to this company,” it caused me pause. I said, “I’ve got great leaders. We have a great business model. We have a fantastic shareholder. The company is in prime position for trajectory in the future and they’ll do that without Bill Stephenson.”
I just turned 60 this year. I still have a lot of runway in front of me. I don’t know exactly what my future will entail from the sense of what it will look like 10 years from now, but I can assure you whatever I do decide to do, it’s going to be motivating and challenging. It’s going to make me a little uncomfortable. It’s going to put little butterflies in my stomach and allow me to continue to grow and develop, even at 60. So that’s my plan.
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