Robert Preville is a serial entrepreneur and investor constantly on the move, having founded and led several high-growth companies in the B2B arena before leading APPROVE, an embedded finance software. Earning this year’s Disruptor Icon award, Preville’s approach to leadership and equipment finance as well as his uncanny background are what differentiates him and his company from others in the equipment finance space.
Starting his career fresh out of school with an engineering degree, Preville began working as a technical sales representative working for a firm that built software solutions around industrial industry clients’ needs. It was here Preville discovered his interest in not only industrial equipment but being the intermediary between buyers and sellers. Not long after that first role, Preville’s career took him to a startup in Atlanta, where his team built an online marketplace for manufacturing services. After years of success, Preville and his partners sold that company, MFG.com, to Jeff Bezos’ private equity firm and started his next company, Global Test Supply.
Introduction to Equipment
Global Test Supply is where Preville got in deep with equipment rentals — taking the company high on the Inc. 5000 list before selling it to another industry participant. While at Global Test Supply, Preville discovered the world of niche equipment rentals. Figuring there were hundreds of similar equipment rental companies also struggling with relevance and recognition, often being buried within their larger organizations, Preville started a marketplace to cater to those smaller divisions, teams and companies. That marketplace, which evolved through a series of procurements of processes and technologies catering to an otherwise chaotic space, became KWIPPED.
While at KWIPPED, Preville and his team realized clients often confused the meanings of renting and leasing, thinking they wanted one when really, they wanted the other. “What we realized was that if customers wanted to use the equipment and return it in some period of time, we would define that as a rental, and it’s a two-party transaction between the supplier who owns the equipment and the customer that wants to rent it,” Preville explains. “But if they wanted to rent it as a path to ownership and they were using leasing as a financing vehicle, then it really was a very different transaction and it required the third party, that being the lender.”
To meet the need for equipment lease transactions, Preville and his team built a third leg onto KWIPPED. Using his nontraditional background, Preville wanted everything to make sense from a vendor’s point of view. Drawing on his previous experience as a vendor, one challenge Preville often faced was being cautious about which clients he would send to the leasing company he worked with for financing. He remembers the potential threat of causing friction in his sales process if the customer wasn’t qualified, if he thought the process may take too long or if the cost of financing turned out to be too expensive for the customer.
Creating a Marketplace
In setting out to solve this problem for vendors, Preville’s team realized that due to the sheer number of lending companies, each with various strengths and weaknesses, lenders had no way of connecting with their ideal customer and customers had no way to find their ideal lender. “We said, ‘well, what if we just bring all these people together on one marketplace platform so that we can match the customer up with the ideal lender as quickly as possible — and we can maximize the approval rates while minimizing the cost of financing? That would really incentivize the vendors to embrace equipment financing in a way that maybe they had not embraced it before,” Preville says.
Seeing great success in the marketplace, KWIPPED caused a lightbulb moment in Preville’s mind after clients would repeatedly ask, “We like the way KWIPPED’s financing works, can we use it with our own direct customers off the KWIPPED platform?”
Fast-forward to today, KWIPPED has become the SaaS-style fintech software product known as APPROVE, which allows manufacturers and distributors to embed equipment finance, or virtual equipment finance programs, into their own points of sale and leverage the technology and benefits developed for internal use.
Evolving Equipment Financing: The Points of Influence
APPROVE’s tagline is “Equipment Financing Turned Upside Down,” which refers to the idea that the company eliminates many of the regular pain points and objections that have existed within vendor channels. The tagline is pertinent because it signifies the company is more interested in being a partner to vendors rather than just a lender. In creating that image for vendors, Preville seeks to influence long-lasting partnerships through embedded finance.
To many, embedded finance translates to widgets and applications — extensions that plug in to existing processes, like an e-commerce shopping cart — a software with a specific function. To Preville, embedding finance is the buyer journey. And the buyer journey, in a B2B sense, starts as early as recognizing there is a problem needing to be solved. This is all long before the transaction, where most equipment finance companies try to find a home, takes place. This is also where APPROVE thrives — because affordability has become part of its design, which has a direct impact on the solution outcome as well as on the vendor who may not have considered cost until that initial point of contact.
It’s owning that first interaction and remaining relevant that intrigues Preville, because he sees a need for the industry to evolve to meet its little-known arch-rival: merchant service and credit card companies. “So many transactions in this small to micro ticket range are getting put on credit cards, when that is not preferred by the customer,” Preville says. “[And] it’s not necessarily desired by the vendor due to the merchant service fees. The reason it’s being done is because the merchant service industry has done a much better job of embedding themselves into the buyer journey than the equipment finance industry has.”
The answer to reclaiming this lost ground is technological innovation integration. “The industry, I think, has built itself in such a way that it’s not very efficient to take advantage of that opportunity, but with technology and innovation, the efficiencies can be achieved, and those transactions can start flowing.”
In a similar sense, Preville says equipment finance companies need to realize and harness the fact that they’re mostly taking a backseat to the minority part of an organization’s business — equipment might be a part of what a client does, but it’s not all they do. Equipment tends to be a customer acquisition tool because the equipment is an infrequent purchase. Since there is no way to gauge how often that customer will come in to lease more equipment, it forces companies to think of ways to continue that relationship.
Preville suggests thinking outside of the box and contemplating ways to help the entire business rather than just the segment in need of equipment deals. That may involve finding synergies between equipment finance and working capital or asset-based lending, trade credit solutions or merchant solutions, but the point is equipment finance companies need to take on more of a partner role to the vendor in its entirety rather than to just one aspect.
“A lot of equipment finance companies are thinking this way, but I also think there’s a pretty big opportunity and market acquisition opportunity, because for those companies, equipment is only a small fraction of their total business,” Preville says. “That’s where they’re primarily taking credit cards for those equipment purchases.”
It’s here where equipment finance companies can thrive on the opportunity of becoming a bigger part of their vendors’ businesses. Until the industry snaps to this concept, revenue and small transactions will continue to flow to merchant services and credit card companies rather than equipment lessors, according to Preville.
“Robert’s innate understanding of supply chains and ecommerce has enabled him and the APPROVE team to create solutions tailored to each sales channel,” Patricia Voorhees, director of fintech strategic consulting and M&A advisory at The Alta Group, says. “I have participated in sessions with manufacturers’ who are long-term users of equipment finance as well as dealers who haven’t used financing based on a belief that it makes the sales process harder. In each of these unique cases Robert and the APPROVE team were able to make seamlessly game-changing integrated ecommerce financing solutions come to life.”
“Robert and his team are curious innovators, through and through. They are just what is needed to preserve and evolve our industry,” Denis Stypulkoski, founder and principal at Reimagine Advisors, says. “Robert is never content — he ideates, he experiments, he creates offerings. He evolves them, rapidly. This is the hallmark of an iconic leader.” •
Ian Koplin is an editor of Monitor. Rita E. Garwood, editor in chief, interviewed Robert Preville for this article.
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