Sprinting A Marathon: Reuben Embraces the Business of Disruption
by By Phil Neuffer
The equipment finance industry is changing and nobody is leading the charge for the industry’s evolution quite like Deborah Reuben, CLFP, founder and CEO of TomorrowZone, who is hyper-focused on keeping up with rapidly shifting market dynamics through creative collaboration.
Deborah Reuben, Founder and CEO, CLFP, TomorrowZone
Deborah Reuben is an icon in the equipment finance industry, but she is really in the business of disruption. Her company, TomorrowZone, a future-focused consulting firm, not only helps companies adapt to evolutions in their sectors but to create their own innovations.
But the TomorrowZone of today is drastically different than the TomorrowZone of yesterday and, if you’ll pardon the pun, it will likely be different again tomorrow. When Reuben first pitched the idea for TomorrowZone in 2019, she envisioned a business that would lead pop-up learning labs to explore future developments like technology innovation. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Reuben had to practice what she preaches and effectively reimagine her entire business plan.
As part of this new vision, Reuben identified six possible future scenarios for her business, with each revealing the need to deliver TomorrowZone’s offerings in a digital-first world. Expecting at least two years before she would be able to fully continue collecting from her normal revenue streams as a speaker at in-person events, Reuben had to distill TomorrowZone’s purpose down to its most basic elements.
“Instead of trying to take the way that I had done things in person in the physical world and just paste that onto digital tools, I started to instead reimagine and think about what is it that we’re trying to do when we get together to innovate and to collaborate,” Reuben says. “And I’ve discovered that there’s a lot that you can do digitally that you couldn’t do in person.”
In its current form, TomorrowZone provides advisory consulting, strategic problem solving and speaking and creative content services to clients from a range of industries, including equipment finance. All of these services are currently delivered digitally, including the four to six UnConference virtual events the company produces each quarter.
“The UnConference is all about virtually creating a space to escape status quo,” Reuben says, noting that all of TomorrowZone’s offerings put a premium on the collaborator experience. “We create a safe, engaging space where wild ideas are welcome. We like to say this is not your grandfather’s webinar.”
Reuben’s passion for navigating toward the future of equipment finance and technology is built on years of experience on both sides of the equation. Reuben, who previously worked in equipment finance at Wells Fargo and TCF and in software at Linedata and HCL, is a Certified Lease & Finance Professional and a member of the board of directors of the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association and the CLFP Foundation. In addition, she penned the sixth, seventh and eighth editions of the CLFP Handbook.
“When rewriting the CLFP Handbook, Deb somehow managed to wrangle over 30 subject matter experts and author an almost 400-page book in a matter of months,” Reid Raykovich, CLFP, executive director of the Certified Lease & Finance Professional Foundation, says. “There are two main reasons why I think she’s so successful at what she does. One is her ability to remain hyper-focused on a project and the other is her acceptance and knowledge of automated processes.”
Reuben understands that disturbances are a reality whether an industry and its participants like it or not. Sometimes those changes are slow, while others are lightning quick, such as what has occurred since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
“The acceleration of disruption is the thing we need to pay attention to now because I don’t think this is the last disruption,” Reuben says. “I think they’re going to be coming faster and faster and more often, and you need to build a capability to be able to deal with it.”
With the rapid adoption of remote working models and tools, the accelerated rise of e-commerce and the growing demand for things like virtual signatures and e-documents in equipment finance, traversing the business world has reached a new level of difficulty.
“I’ve sometimes referred to business and work as running a marathon at a sprint pace,” Reuben says. “But now that marathon course is more like a parkour course; you’ve got to be able to anticipate and respond. And being agile isn’t enough; you’ve got to be anticipatory.”
Speaking of anticipating, Reuben expects the future of the equipment finance industry to feature a continued and rapid adoption of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence, 5G (and eventually 6G) and blockchain applications. Reuben also expects there to be an unbundling of capabilities in the industry comparable to what has occurred in banking, leading to “a totally revolutionized customer experience.”
Getting to the future that Reuben imagines will take consistent dedication to anticipating what’s next, creative thinking and cultivating ideas from diverse sources. Reuben specifically advises using a strategy called “habit stacking,” which simply means adding new habits to those you already practice. For example, Reuben suggests scanning for technology trends each day on top of your regular reading or newsfeeds. Reuben also says it is important to consistently step back and see how you can use the information you’re gathering.
According to Reuben, visualization can be a particularly effective technique, as she frequently creates simple storyboards to envision potential futures for customers, partners and the industry. This helps her stretch her imagination and generate ideas. In addition, Reuben recommends getting hands on, especially when it comes to technology, which can be particularly fear-inducing for those in the very risk-averse equipment finance industry.
It isn’t just the people at the top that need to participate in building for the future. In fact, according to Reuben, by “listening to the people at the edges who are closest to the customers,” you can act on emerging trends before your competitors. Reuben also recommends collaborating with professionals from outside your given industry to help find ideas you may miss otherwise.
“[Deb] has assisted me in understanding broad trends that are impacting the equipment leasing and finance industry and opened the door for innovative thinking and innovation practices; we consistently access her network and expertise through the TomorrowZone UnConference,” Rafael Rosato, chief innovation officer at DLL, says. “Deb has made many contributions to our industry and I am proud to call her a colleague and friend. She is a true icon.”
To help enhance collaborative practices in a digital-first world across multiple industries, Reuben says she will soon be launching a virtual digital collaboration master program and a mini-course on adopting a future-focused mindset through TomorrowZone.
“When you work with Deb in any capacity, you can expect to have the box you may exist in be destroyed,” Raykovich says. “Too often, we stay in a rut because we remain doing what has been successful, but her gift is to think beyond what has been successful and think about what can be awesome.” •
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