10 Pieces of Wisdom from Adam Warner

by Adam Warner

Adam Warner is President at Key Equipment Finance.

As Adam Warner prepares to retire from his role as president of Key Equipment Finance, he shares 10 pieces of wisdom he has learned during his nearly 40-year career in equipment finance.

Adam Warner will be retiring from his role as president of Key Equipment Finance at the end of 2023, a position he has held since 2009. Looking back on his almost 40-year career in equipment finance, Warner offers 10 practical tips for creating a successful career in the industry:

  1. Consider opportunities that may be outside of your intended path.

In 1985, Warner began his career as an accountant at Sun Electric Credit, which was eventually acquired by McDonnell Douglas Finance where Warner catapulted his career into a controller role before becoming COO for the company’s Chicago business. After moving to an independent that was swallowed by Mellon Bank, Warner left his COO role to lead the bank’s sales organization.

“I loved accounting, and I thought I would ultimately be a controller, or a chief accounting officer, or a chief financial officer,” Warner says, thinking back to his entry-level self. “But the pivot for me was being in front of clients. I found it so energizing and fun that it pulled me in a different direction, which was really about revenue growth.

“I took roles that were different, and they broadened my area of expertise and knowledge,” Warner says. “It made me strong enough to know what I was good at and where I needed help, and how to hire the right people. Taking jobs, even if they’re lateral positions, that broaden your experience, are really, really important.”

  1. If possible, don’t limit yourself geographically.

When Mellon Bank decided to sell its leasing company to GE Capital, recruiters started calling, and in 2001 Warner accepted an opportunity at KeyBank in Albany, NY. He spent four years in Albany running Key’s small-ticket business. In 2005, Key acquired American Express Business Finance, which took Warner back to Chicago where he ultimately took on responsibility for corporate aviation, direct sales and international operations. In 2009, just after the Great Recession began, Key’s chairman at the time, Henry Meyer, asked Warner to relocate to Colorado to lead Key Equipment Finance.

“If you want to grow your career, be open to all new opportunities, even if they are in a different location,” Warner says. “Post COVID, things are different, and it’s not always a requirement that someone needs to move for the next new job. But sometimes it is, especially if it’s a people leader role. They might need you at their headquarters location — it’s getting comfortable with trying a new location.

“Every time I’ve moved, I found really great things about the experience that I wouldn’t have experienced had I said, ‘You know what? I’m never leaving Chicago.’ You limit your world. But if you are willing to consider other opportunities, nationally or internationally, you’re likely going to become more valuable over time to your current or prospective employer.”

  1. Research an organization thoroughly before making a jump.

Being open to new roles and locations is important, but at the same time, Warner is quick to point out how vital it is to do your homework before making a major career move.

“You’re going to want to do your best to vet out the organization in advance to make sure that it’s the right place for you,” Warner says. “Sometimes, there will be challenges, and you might find you ended up in a role that you didn’t like or that wasn’t a great fit for some reason. You’ve got to do research in advance. And that research is talking with current and former employees of that organization to make sure that, among other things, culturally, it’s a really good fit.”

  1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter Drucker coined the phrase, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ which points out just how important the human element of any organization truly is. Do members of a team share the same vision and values?

“We can train people on the technical aspects of what we do,” Warner says. “If they understand a little bit about finance, if they understand some of the aspects of banking, we can train them on the technical structuring skills. But culturally, it is important that they are a good fit in the organization. That culture starts at the top.”

  1. Great management begins with great hiring.

Warner compares his role as president of Key Equipment Finance to serving as general manager of a sports team. “If there’s one thing that I do really well, it’s hiring the right people for the right role,” Warner says. “And if you hire the right people for the right role, you win a lot of championships. I’m not the person who does the transactional work. I’m not the guy scoring on the other team. I’m the guy that is great at hiring the right people who can do those things.”

To hone his hiring skills as a general manager, Warner says the first step is to avoid taking yourself too seriously. “You try to create a collegial relationship with your team of employees,” Warner says. “You’re visible. You’re accessible. You say good morning to people. You create an environment where people like coming into the office, because it’s not an intimidating experience — it’s an exhilarating or inspiring experience.”

  1. As a leader, be aware of your shadow’s impact.

Small actions compound and create what Warner refers to as the ‘shadow of a leader.’ According to Warner, every leader must be aware of the shadow they are casting across an organization.

“What is that shadow showing employees?” Warner asks. “How are you behaving? What are other employees seeing about you? Do they feel like you’re approachable? Can you talk to them about new ideas? If you come up with an idea that doesn’t make sense for the organization, do you feel still encouraged by the fact that you came up with the idea, even if it wasn’t implemented? It’s important to have a very receptive environment to change and new ideas.”

  1. Seek candid feedback in one-on-one meetings.

For leaders who may not be fully aware of the shadow they are casting, Warner suggests collecting feedback during one-on-one meetings.

“There are times when you meet with all your employees, there are times where you meet with your leadership team and there are times when you meet with people one-on-one,” Warner says. “And it’s the one-on-ones where you can ask for candid feedback of, ‘How are folks feeling? Are there things that I could be doing differently that would help explain why we’re headed in a certain direction? Why we’ve chosen a particular market? Why we’ve said we don’t want to do something?’ And ask for that feedback, encourage it and then act on it.”

  1. Remember that financial services is a cyclical industry.

One of the biggest challenges Warner faced during his career is learning the hard way that financial services can be “quite cyclical” in nature. Warner says navigating economic cycles as a regulated entity requires achieving a certain level of understanding. He points to 2008 when Lehman Brothers failed, marking the start of the Great Recession.

“That was very hard on banks,” Warner says. “All banks were impacted. Banks ran out of capital, and we had the TARP program, things we haven’t talked about in a decade or two, where banks were encouraged to take federal money from the government so that it would shore them up and assure their clients that banks had enough capital.

“This year’s record number of interest rate increases has impacted banks in a material way. It caused several banks to fail.  In 2023, the pressure on institutions to make sure that they were managing their capital the right way and meet regulators’ requirements to hold more capital.

“Banking can be cyclical, and as an example, during these two periods of time — the Great Recession and this year — we were in growth mode. If you look at our Monitor rankings, you could see significant growth year-over-year for multiple years. But now we’re in what I would call a flat environment and looking for the winds to change for the U.S. macroeconomic environment. Because growth is so much more fun than shrinking.”

  1. Transparency builds relationships.

Through the ups and downs, Warner says it’s vital to maintain transparency with all stakeholders.

“You have to be transparent with your clients and your employees if you have challenges in the organization that will impact them,” Warner says. “You should explain to them why and what you’re doing to try to right the ship. You need to be transparent with everybody about what is going on in the organization, whether it’s perceived as positive or negative.

“I like to talk with our employees, whether it be in the hallways or in town hall meeting. I give my perspective on what’s going on in the economy, in banking, at KeyBank and at Key Equipment Finance. I found that our employees are very receptive to that.”

  1. Participating in community activities can underscore your legacy.

In addition to landing his current role and managing an international organization for Key, one of the career milestones of which Warner is most proud is the time he spent serving as chairman of the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association.

“Jim Ambrose, who ran GE Healthcare, nominated me to be chair of the ELFA, and in 2014, I did my annual convention in San Diego, and I really enjoyed that and running the board of directors,” Warner says. “I was also part of three different succession and transition committees that brought in the new presidents of the ELFA,” Warner adds, noting how “fantastic” it was to be on the ELFA committees that selected Woody Sutton, Ralph Petta and, most recently, Leigh Lytle, to lead the association.

As Warner steps back from equipment finance to embark on his retirement, he says Peter Bullen, was not chosen by chance to be the group head of Key Equipment Finance.

“Peter has been groomed for this role for quite some time,” Warner says. “He’s been on my succession plan because he is an extremely smart and very caring leader. People who work for Peter are very loyal to him, because he has their best interests at heart. He provides his team with valuable feedback.

“And I’ve watched Peter grow throughout his career. I remember when Peter was one of our top salespeople in the company year after year. And we asked, ‘How do we replicate this success?’ The only way you replicate it is by taking this top performer and have him teach as a manager. He became a regional sales manager, and then I promoted him to national sales manager. Peter kept taking on additional areas of responsibility because he was so good at it. Moving him into this role was well planned. He’s the right leader for the job.”

Rita E. Garwood is editor in chief of Monitor.

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