Crit DeMent, chairman and CEO of LEAF Commercial Capital, started in equipment finance — like most — by chance, entering the industry while working at a car dealership fresh out of college. When the dealership’s finance professional left, leaving the role vacant, DeMent’s boss suggested he give it a try. Ready to ditch selling cars and trucks, DeMent jumped at the opportunity and soon discovered the satisfaction of making deals financially feasible for customers in need of vehicles.
After learning the ropes, DeMent moved on to a fleet leasing company in Houston before accepting a field salesman role with Master Lease, which became Tokai Financial Services and later DLL — a role DeMent considers his first real foray within the equipment leasing industry. At Master Lease, DeMent landed a large account with a company connected with Harris and 3M and was soon offered an opportunity within Master Lease’s national account business development team, located in its Philadelphia office. In that role, DeMent learned an incalculable amount of industry insight from Abe Bernstein, his mentor and former boss at Master Lease.
“My old boss from the Master Lease days was this formidable guy named Abe Bernstein, who used to talk about ‘raising the building,’” DeMent says. “What that means is responding to a crisis — or even an outstanding opportunity — with total focus, using every person on the team. Abe’s philosophy was if it’s a big deal, you throw everything you’ve got at it, and you work the problem until you solve it. We’ve been able to solve a lot of difficult problems and drive a lot of change in the industry using that approach over the years. But you can’t accomplish that without a great team of people.”
“Two things Abe said have guided me throughout my career. The first is that you can compete on a lot of things in this industry, but don’t compete on credit. You can’t outrun bad credit,” DeMent says. “No matter what, you don’t compromise your portfolio because along with your people, it’s the bedrock of your continuing success. Another thing Abe always said was that you can have the best ideas, the best products, the best everything, but it’s nothing if you can’t sell it, if you can’t market it. That’s why throughout my career I have always placed heavy emphasis on developing a compelling brand and clearly communicating our brand promise to the marketplace.”
Making a Mark
Back in the 1980s, the equipment finance industry was full of young, bright-minded individuals with plenty of ideas for providing financing to businesses in need. DeMent and his colleagues would kick around new ideas and approaches to financing situations, convincing DeMent his calling was to leave a mark in equipment finance. Brainstorming on great ideas led DeMent and Miles Herman, a friend he met at Master Lease, to Fidelity Leasing, where they continued to postulate on new approaches and solutions to the industry’s puzzles. The two eventually decided to found LEAF in 2001 to put these ideas to use.
“Crit is as competitive as anyone, but he balances that energy with a dose of reality,” Herman, who is president and COO of LEAF Commercial Capital, says. “From his beginning in sales, Crit has become an industry leader who applies reasonable risk management principles with a high degree of expertise. But it’s more than just numbers — Crit is a great mentor and teacher who takes time to personally share what he’s learned with up-and-coming leaders.”
“When we started LEAF, Miles and I wanted to build a large, successful equipment finance company that embodied the vision and business model we’d been cultivating since back in the Master Lease days. And we also wanted to share what we found so exciting about the industry by giving meaningful careers to as many people as possible and providing an environment that empowered them to do their best work and grow as professionals,” DeMent says. “I think we’ve done that, and though I’m pleased with all we’ve achieved as a company, we’re always moving the goalposts and enlarging our vision of what’s possible for LEAF.”
DeMent credits LEAF’s continued success to the team it has assembled, “We truly believe we’ve got the best team in the industry, and many of our people have been with us for the better part of their careers. That has huge benefits in terms of things like the depth and breadth of our institutional knowledge and the strength of our culture,” DeMent says.
Lessons for Success
Having done business through several economic cycles and weathered fluctuating markets, DeMent offers three key takeaways to guide up-and-coming leaders:
1. Take care of your people. Your company is your people, and when the cycle comes back, your people will put you in the best position to take advantage of the rebound.
2. Take care of your portfolio. A solid portfolio can get you through a ton of economic cycles and downturns, including, as we are currently discovering, a worldwide pandemic.
3. Put a fence around your problems. Isolate and eliminate problems within your company and within deals, but don’t take your eye off of what’s important or affect your success in other parts of the business.
“Belonging to any number of organizations and associations within the equipment finance industry also helps keep you ahead of the curve,” DeMent says. “Trade associations can be tremendous resources for insight, advocacy and connections between industry leaders, policymakers, thought leaders and others. LEAF has greatly benefitted from our participation in a variety of trade associations, including the [Equipment Leasing and Finance Association]. Our team members have benefited as well, and we encourage as many of our people as possible to participate. It helps them grow and develop in their careers. The key thing to remember is that you get out what you put in.”
DeMent has applied a consistent business philosophy throughout his career, including in his work with People’s United Bank, of which LEAF is currently a subsidiary. According to People’s United Bank president Jeff Tengel, DeMent’s contributions have been substantial.
“Crit is a results-oriented leader who knows when to take a risk. He’s also a very good communicator and a great partner who’s helped the bank in myriad ways,” Tengel says. “It’s hard to pick just one example of how we’ve benefited from his leadership, but overall, it’s the depth of equipment finance expertise Crit brings to the table, along with the infrastructure he and his team have built and the unique culture he’s instituted and nurtured over the years.”
Adapting to change in the industry and economy is paramount to survival. When DeMent first started out, equipment finance was a very proprietary, tight-lipped industry where you played your cards close to your vest because there were tons of “perceived” trade secrets that translated to success for the firms lucky enough to wield them. DeMent says companies wouldn’t even let their employees join associations in fear of losing industry secrets or employees. Those days are long over, however, as DeMent applauds his peers for their long-term efforts to embrace the “we’re all in this together” mentality that embodies today’s equipment finance industry.
“We finally figured out we’re all in this business together, that we’re stronger as an industry together and that we can all learn from one another. Associations like the ELFA are a big part of facilitating the kind of collaborative spirit the industry enjoys today,” DeMent says.
DeMent is a unique leader in the industry due to his approach to business, which balances a determined focus on results with an unflagging sense of humor and humanity. Speaking from experience, Herman recalls a time when DeMent’s forward-thinking attitude defused a tense moment and contributed to the eventual success of a large vendor program.
“As you might guess, Crit’s also got a great sense of humor,” Herman says. “He also has a knack for helping people maintain their balance and perspective through even the most hectic and challenging times, something that’s been central to the company’s culture and continuing success across all economic cycles. One example of that comes from a program rollout, one that taxed everyone to the limit. Some of us were in a van with Crit at a particularly demanding point in the project on our way to an important presentation. All were stressed about getting everything right. Then out of nowhere, Crit starts cracking jokes, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room. You could just feel the tension evaporating in that van. It wasn’t long before you couldn’t hear anything for the roaring laughter. In the end, the program was rolled out successfully, and I think it was all the more successful with Crit’s vision, drive and unshakeable good humor leading the way.”
Speaking to the industry’s leaders of tomorrow, DeMent says having a vision is as important as having the courage to follow it even when the world has other plans — because it almost always does. If you want to lead, DeMent says, you need to get out of the passenger seat and take the wheel. Be willing to challenge the status quo when it needs challenging.
“In addition to being firm in your convictions, I’ve also learned that it’s essential to entertain new ideas and change your mind when you need to,” DeMent says. “Surround yourself with people smarter than you are. Encourage them to speak up and disagree with you. Listen to them. And if they give you a compelling reason to do things differently, then do things differently.” •