After a glittering career at the very top of the asset finance sector, Bill Stephenson has put retirement on hold, opting instead to seize the opportunities cloud-based technology offers for innovation to create a new world-leading independent finance provider.
Addressing an Asset Finance Connect webinar, the latest in a series sponsored by Solifi, Stephenson laid out his ambitions in his new role as CEO of HPS Global Leasing, which include PEAC UK and PEAC Europe.
The record audience of 250 delegates from 30 countries heard Stephenson explain that a period of self-reflection during Covid had encouraged him to look for new challenges.
As he observed: “Let’s face it, there hasn’t been a new global competitor entering the marketplace in over 20 years. My aim is to build the largest global independent brand with a very strong differentiator.”
And for Stephenson, that means not working with a bank; a strong growth and acquisition strategy; and a global rather than regional presence.
Hear Bill talk about re-igniting the feeling of waking up with “hunger in the belly”.
As Stephenson acknowledged, one of the biggest challenges for bank-owned lessors right now is the impact of regulation, with compliance issues taking up senior management time that could be spent finding better ways to serve customers. During the 2008 financial crisis, a bank’s leasing arm was left often fighting for relevance as it was previously viewed as little more than a conduit for excess profits from its parent. Not any more, though, as leasing operations are now embedded as a vital part of the bank’s business.
“But the problem is that the regulators don’t understand the difference between consumer loans or mortgages and leases. All those rules that are being forced on the industry are disruptive to customers – banks are losing 5% of customers at the onboarding process as it’s so cumbersome,” Stephenson pointed out.
Hear Bill discuss how independent lessors are set to challenge the banks’ market domination.
Stephenson also predicts that in the future, successful lessors will be those who offer additional services, including maintenance and refurbishment, and who control the asset lifecycle, which will prove a further barrier to banks, particularly when it comes to new concepts such as pay-per-use.
Stephenson told his audience that a major frustration over the last ten years has been around IT, and in particular high costs and limited flexibility. The aim at HPS is to come straight out the gate using the latest cloud-based technology and APIs for direct links with clients.
“The challenge with legacy IT systems is that you can’t just delete what you have and add a new function, in the same way as you add or delete an app on your phone. Instead you need to rebuild and then when you fix one thing, something else breaks,” he maintained.
Listen to why Bill sees cloud-based systems as the future.
In Stephenson’s eyes, all transactions need to take place at the point of sale, rather than being taken back to the office to be completed. “In a recession, there are going to be fewer transactions and that means more and more people competing for each customer. The only differentiator is how well you service that customer, and the most seamless way is to close at point of sale,” he explained.
Bill explains the changing role of the salesperson.
HPS’s current focus is on business in central and eastern Europe, the Nordics, the US and Canada, and while keen to avoid over-expansion at an early stage, Stephenson said the company is not done with acquisitions in order to build market share.
“There’s not a lot of organic growth, so we will be looking to take market share through our value proposition, which is based on the principles of service, trust, transparency and true partnership, and not on price, rebates, false residuals or fake approvals,” Stephenson declared.
In competing against bank-owned lessors, much of the “secret sauce” for success is down to creating the services customers want, innovating quickly and flexibly, and product development, all of which is driven by technology.
Acknowledging that sustainability issues are coming to the fore in both Europe and the US, Stephenson cautioned that there is no “big switch” to force compliance with a new green approach, but that lessors should work with their customers to develop the right strategy.
“There is no one silver bullet solution, and we need to be there to support vendors and clients and to help them through the transition, rather than dictating what we will or will not fund.
“We need to get the industry to move away from a ‘sell and go’ approach, as there is so much we can do around the circular economy which will impact ESG. We can help companies take product through all possible lifecycle stages and refurbishment and, at the end, extracting rare earth materials so that they can be re-used. There is only so much of that on the planet, so salvaging what we have is important,” he explained.
Hear Bill outline lessors’ roles in the second and third life of assets.
Looking to the future
In response to audience questions about the risks for lessors of being left holding “dirty” assets which had lost value because of sustainability concerns, Stephenson pointed out that the supply chain crises provoked by Covid, and subsequently conflict in Ukraine, had underlined the value of lessors controlling the entire asset lifecycle.
“We’ll see this evolve more towards a focus on selling services, maintenance and refurbishment, as opposed to the usual idea of ‘build it and burn it’,” he argued. “And one of the advantages of being a global entity is the ability to move those assets on. There is a natural transition and move towards green equipment, and that will happen.”
But for the immediate future, Stephenson is clear that utilising the latest technology to create genuinely frictionless customer experiences and to innovate new products is the way to go. With lessors able to control the whole lifecycle of an asset, the circular economy is becoming a reality for those with the flexibility to respond.