Petta Reflects on 36 Years of Success at the ELFA

by Ian Koplin 2023
Ralph Petta, the outgoing president and CEO of the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association, sat down with Rita Garwood, editor-in-chief of Monitor, to share his perspective looking back on nearly four decades of success. Petta’s secret? A mixture of continuous learning perseverance, but also keeping an open mind.
Ralph Petta, President and CEO, Equipment Leasing and Finance Association

After 36 years, Equipment Leasing and Finance Association (ELFA) CEO and president, Ralph Petta has announced his retirement. Having seen nearly four decades at the ELFA, once known as the American Association of Equipment Lenders, Petta admits he hadn’t the slightest inkling of a vibrant and successful career in finance when he graduated Syracuse University in 1974 as a political science major. The scene for a fresh college graduate was much different back then, as Petta recalls, citing the recession and tough job market at the time.

For Petta, not having a five- or 10-year plan was his plan and that plan served him well as it allowed him to keep an open mind and accept opportunities and skills as they came rather than being cubby-holed into a corner. This led him to Washington D.C., where, as he puts it, he got lucky in finding a job working for former U.S. Democratic Senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn. “I was just a regular college graduate, who moved to Washington D.C. armed with a political science degree. I had an idea of the way the Congressional system worked, and I just learned as much as I could about the legislative process working for the senator. ”

After nine years of working for Senator Nunn, Petta worked his way into the role of legislative assistant and handled legislative activities in certain functional areas for Nunn. “The senator was a member of the Armed Services Committee, so he had a separate committee of staff people that was focused on foreign relations and defense policy issues,” Petta recalls. “So, I did a lot of the other stuff, including transportation and civil service-related issues.”

Petta was approached by a lobbyist for IBM who spoke about a position in an organization known as the American Association of Equipment Lessors (AAEL). Petta remembers not even knowing the definition of the word lessor, let alone what equipment finance was. The lobbyist mentioned that his colleague, Mike Fleming (former president of the AAEL), was looking for someone to fill a state government relations role. Petta followed the trail of breadcrumbs, taking the offer and found the job to be more about running data collection surveys as well as starting a state government relations program. Looking back, Petta says he wanted to take the risk and jump into something new, having no idea where it would take him — or for how long. “I thought I would learn about business, maybe use what I learned on Capitol Hill in my work, and then move on. Well, here I am 36 years later and I’m ending my career now with the ELFA.”

Lessons from Experience

Petta has touched many careers in his time at the ELFA, and two of his most prestigious accomplishments, from his perspective, have been the ability to foster a positive culture at the organization as well as championing diversity in equipment finance. “Promoting and preserving the culture of an organization is asking how you make sure the individual fits into the organization? That was a big thing for me,” Petta says. “Even when I hired people early on in my career, we were always looking for people who were going to be a good fit. You can teach them about the equipment finance industry, but they had to be able to ask members what they wanted and figure out ways to deliver on the value proposition to them .”

On the topic of industry culture, Petta says the association is unique because it is brimming with professionals who are clamoring to help one another succeed. Whether it’s helping others develop a program, a product, or some sort of initiative, the ELFA is attentive and ready to assist its members. It’s something relatively unseen in other industry associations where competition is maybe a little bit more cutthroat, Petta says. “I always tell people, and this is really true, there is so little palace intrigue in our association and politics doesn’t play much of a role in decision-making, which happens in a lot of other organizations like ours.  We have a willing, smart, capable, professional staff – people that work well with the volunteers and vice versa. So, it just works, and the idea is to keep attracting good people to the organization,” Petta says.

Likening the equipment finance industry to the famous folklore location, the Hotel California, Petta says you can check out any time, but you can never leave. That would only be a problem, Petta says, if industry professionals didn’t get along together so well. “There’s this environment of camaraderie and collegiality,” Petta says. “If industry members move around, they may move to other companies and organizations, but, by and large, they stay in the industry. There’s a lot of smart people, friendly people and I think they find a home here.”

Petta also looks to his cornerstone achievement of leading the ELFA’s efforts to influence FASB’s lease accounting standard. “Mike Fleming, the president of the organization at the time, really spearheaded the project back 25 years ago when the standard setters were considering changing FAS 13,” Petta says of the lease accounting standard. “And I inherited running the project when Mike retired.  My job was to marshal resources, put together a core of subject matter experts to influence the FASB in its work.  These were the famous Three Amigos — Rod Hurd, John Bober and Bill Bosco — who basically spearheaded the effort with my help. I was the conductor of the orchestra and they were the ones that actually knew how to play the instruments.  My job was to make sure that everyone played the same notes and that the song sounded good at the end.  The volunteers did a lot of the heavy lifting and provided the technical expertise. It was a tremendous experience.”

Lessons for Newer Players: Learn from your Failures and Persevere

Petta says his career wasn’t planned, he followed his gut in search of new knowledge, responsibilities and experiences. He says it worked for him and recommends younger equipment finance professionals embrace a similar mindset because it will allow them to expand their usefulness within an organization by not getting typecast in a certain role. “And, learn from whatever temporary failures or disappointments that might occur,” Petta says. “That was certainly the case in my career, where I just persevered. Maybe things weren’t going exactly the way I wanted them to, but I put my head down and tried to learn everything that I possibly could about the industry and just try to become more valuable to the organization. And it’s just by being a sponge and trying to learn as much as I possibly could that allowed me to succeed.”

Learning on the job is how Petta succeeded at the ELFA, as he recalls.  “I decided that if I took advantage of what was presented to me, the opportunities that were put in front of me, and if they were interesting and worth pursuing, then it was up to me to maximize the opportunities.”

This mindset allowed Petta to succeed, learning nearly all of the facets of the association, from being head of membership, head of state government relations, business development, research, and the Foundation.  When Petta was given an opportunity, he ran with it every time and that gained him the reputation for being able to handle any task thrown at him. “If you allow yourself to branch out and experience different parts of the enterprise and become more educated, they are going to look at you as a more valuable piece of the pie, and that’s only going to help you,” Petta says, tempering his advice with the cautionary tale of patience. Patience, Petta says, is a critical element of moving up the ladder.

On the Horizon

When asked what his next move would be after retiring, Petta said, “No second act, no third act. I’m retiring. I’m going to learn how to play the keyboard. I’m going to work on lowering my golf handicap, I’m going to play some tennis, travel, and I want to catch up on some reading.”

The ELFA, however, will continue chugging on under the strong leadership of Leigh Lytle, who Petta will be passing the torch to as he retires. Petta will work closely with Lytle as he transitions away from his role and into retirement. “She’s got financial services expertise. She’s worked at the Federal Reserve for a number of years. She’s led a staff. She has public policy expertise and monetary policy experience. So, I think she’s going to be successful. She’s the first woman to lead the organization,” Petta says with great pride.  She’s on board with a lot of the initiatives that the board has already articulated in terms of DEI, technology, and delivering professional development programming to early-stage employees within member organizations.”

Rita Garwood, Editor-in-Chief of Monitor interviewed Ralph Petta for this article and Ian Koplin, Editor of Monitor, wrote it.

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