Commercial Finance Companies Address Work/Life Balance


In a market where companies are competing, not just for clients, but also for top talent, how are commercial finance companies meeting the needs of their staff?

Date September 2018

Originally featured in The Secured Lender - by Myra Thomas

The finance industry is not known for making work/life balance a priority. When the customer or client calls, they usually rule the day. However, times are changing somewhat in the industry, and the asset-based lending and factoring community is no exception. In fact, industry leaders argue that secured lenders are making significant strides when it comes to recognizing that their employees sometimes need the flexibility to deal with family matters, make time for volunteering, or pursue an outside hobby. While the job certainly needs to take high priority, the industry is coming to realize that the old adage just may be true, and that all work and no play doesn’t necessarily make for a productive and happy employee. 


It wasn’t too long ago that even talking about work/life balance was taboo in the finance world. Jason Hoefler, managing director, asset-based lending, at BMO Harris Bank, notes that it’s now much more acceptable to take time off to follow a passion or attend to family matters. "Everyone is much more thoughtful about it, and younger professionals have certainly made the issue front and center." Today, says Hoefler, people working in secured lending are much more comfortable approaching their managers about leaving early to attend their child’s soccer game, heading out for a doctor’s appointment, or devoting time to community service than they might have been five or ten years before. Employees might feel the need to periodically work from home, and that’s sometimes a possibility. "Maybe work/life balance is the wrong term," he notes. "It’s really about making sure people have flexibility on when and where they do the job. " And, more than ever before, there is a growing understanding that this flexibility plays into retaining employees.


Understanding the Nature of the Business

While there is certainly a reason to understand the personal demands of employees, there’s also a need to bring employees together in the office. There’s much to be gained from the exchange of ideas that happens when people spend time in the office working together, says Hoefler. That kind of interaction and creative process can’t be scheduled for a specific time. And, while working from home sounds like a great idea, it’s not always realistic when a client is waiting for an answer and the team needs a fellow team member in the office, he adds. "Financial services remains largely a transaction-based environment, and there are going to be deadlines." 


When things aren’t as time-sensitive, employers appear to be much more willing to be more flexible than ever before. "As long as the work is getting done, there shouldn’t be a major problem in working from home periodically or leaving a bit early, especially after the inevitable late nights are done and the deal is closed, " says Hoefler. He adds that not all professionals are productive working from home, and then it’s a manager’s call to make the decision about whether or not it is a possibility. 


Creating a Company Culture

According to Michael Frieze, chairman and chief investment officer of Gordon Brothers, the work of a secured lender is very high-pressured, and that can take its toll. "In lending and ABL, it’s very competitive and the nature of trying to land a deal is very stressful, " he notes. "If you don’t have work/life balance, the stress can get to you." Much like Hoefler, Frieze credits Millennials for pushing the discussion forward and making companies more aware of the need for time off. "I’m not necessarily sure if it impacts productivity; but, if people are happier at work, companies create loyalty and retain talented employees."


Flexibility and balance are also fast becoming a topic of discussion for recruitment too. And, with a gr aying of the industry, recruitment issues are at the forefront more so than ever before. "We work with companies that promote commitment to work/life balance in their recruiting," says Frieze. Of course, not all secured lenders are alike, and some value flexibility more so than others. "It’s really dependent on the leadership of the company," he adds. It’s about setting a tone and developing a specific company culture. Communication is the key, and the flexibility often comes when employer and employee trust and respect one another. "When new employees come onboard here, we talk about our culture and our community commitment," says Frieze. Gordon Brothers offers three days off with pay to do community service. "Work/life balance doesn’t mean you give up work," Frieze notes. There still has to be a sense of urgency about the business. But it does mean that employers recognize their employees have a life outside of the office. 


The Changing Gender Roles

Work/life balance was once an issue almost exclusively concerning female professionals. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, childcare and housework are still more at the forefront for working women than working men, and that can be difficult for female professionals especially. Additionally, more women with small children are working than staying home, so flexibility has to be a part of the discussion on the job if they are the primary caregivers.


However, women aren’t the only ones requesting flexibility to balance home life. Frieze notes that he has both male and female employees willing to approach management to care for family members. " Things do come up," he admits. "If you don ’t have that understanding, you can’t build loyalty in a firm. We have a very high expectation for work, but that doesn ’t mean that, when something serious comes up with the family, work demands take precedence." Firms that don’t have that commitment, he notes, are bound to lose their key employees.


With more women working than staying home, female professionals are also contributing more to the families’ income, so the gender pay gap is a very real concern, not just for employees, but also for employers too. Data from the National Women’s Law Center also indicates that single professional women without children still experience a pay gap from their male counterparts, though not as much as working women with children. "I still don’t think there is enough recognition for equal pay and talent," says Frieze. "It’s a work in progress for women and, hopefully, things will change. But bosses need to be more concerned about inequality on the job."


The Role of Female Leadership

Flexibility was a major motivating factor for Amrita Patel, national sales manager for Wells Fargo Equipment Finance, commercial vehicle group. "I chose to join Wells Fargo because of the company’s reputation for work/life balance," she says. " Throughout my interview, it became evident that Wells Fargo honors the health and happiness of employees, while still achieving results in a fast-paced environment." With two young children, Patel says she is committed to her family, but she also puts in the necessary hours and attention to her professional goals and to the organization. "With my first child, I truly thought my career advancement was over," she says. "Now, men and women equally ask for time off to handle personal or family matters, and the stigma about gender roles is beginning to disappear." Of course, there is still much work to be done, and not all organizations are as accommodating. "At Wells Fargo, there is an understanding that we all have different aspects of our lives outside of work that require attention," she says. Patel believes that more companies need to understand that employees can be committed to both career and family and succeed.


Management in the organization has to model and reinforce the idea that work/life balance matters. "I know that, as the leader on the team, I have to be prepared to pivot when people need to take time off and transition work to a peer," says Patel. She is also mindful of not flooding employees with email when they do take time off. "We have to respect that, and I have to set an example as the leader," she notes. That kind of support can mean a world of difference, especially for working parents or for employees dealing with a sick parent. "It also builds loyalty and retains employees," adds Patel. 


The Stress of a Time-Sensitive Business

Deals still need to get closed, whether it’s the quarter, month or year-end. "We create open communication to understand when we need to have all hands on deck," says Patel. But emergencies still happen. " The rest of the team has to push through and meet customer timelines," she adds. That’s where teamwork is an integral part of the equation. Market conditions also ebb and flow, and that can impact how people need to work. " The environment is different than it was five years ago," she says. "It puts a demand on us, and we need to continually position ourselves to know how we are going to win. A lot of that comes with strategy, recognizing the stress of the work and balancing resources accordingly. You have to roll up your sleeves and be prepared." There is no such thing as a leader hiding in the office and not engaging when there are timesensitive matters on the table.


According to Cole Harmonson, CEO and co-founder of Far West Capital, it can be stressful to deal with industry changes, work demands, and work/life balance. The team has to be singleminded, communicate well and support one another. However, he agrees that there is an energy from working together, especially when it comes to making credit decisions. " That physical proximity is sometimes necessary," Harmonson notes. Managers can make all of the difference. "It’s all about trying to be as fair as you can, " he says. "But work/life balance means something different to everyone." Individual managers need to set the standard. They have to report on specific measurables and whether or not people are getting the work done. 


The Modern Workplace

Harmonson does offer some words of advice when it comes to how work/life balance can go wrong. "It’s sometimes a smoke screen," he says. "You can’t use a broad brush when it comes to it. Sometimes people aren’t fully committed to what they are doing at work. If you’re going to enter this field and industry, especially in leadership, money never sleeps." The client’s needs, as well as portfolio management, are time consuming. However, technology does help get the job done and facilitate work from many locations. " What that means is that we can engage with one another via Facetime or Skype and be anywhere to do the job," Harmonson notes. 


Online project management and goal systems can also help with time management and teamwork. "But sometimes you must be present to win and that’s especially true in sensitive situations," he adds. "Leadership requires you to be completely on." That might mean top managers simply cannot completely disconnect from work, even on vacation. "It’s a very particular type of stress from the client’s perspective," he says. The secured lender is the source of their cash every single day, so managing that relationship requires constant attention. 


Striking the Balance

However, Harmonson admits that there has to be some give-and-take. "We handle it by having a fairly liber al take-off policy, and that is a great way to show trust with your people," he says. "But we also ask, at the same time, to check in and make sure you ’re taking care of your responsibilities. All employees have goals and objectives to achieve, and there has to be transparency." The thought process is that, as long as the company and the individual are achieving those professional goals, then personal demands needn’t be ignored. 


A big key to making work/life balance possible is helping employees to work more efficiently and effectively. Fortunately, thanks to technological and societal advances, employers engaged in commercial finance are making strides in achieving work/life balance for its workforce, which could ultimately have a positive effect on the bottom line.