Stairway to Heaven: Can Alternative Finance Keep Making Dreams Come True?
The alternative small-business finance industry has exploded into a $10 billion business and may not stop growing until it reaches $50 billion or even $100 billion in annual financing, depending upon who’s making the projection. Along the way, it’s provided a vehicle for ambitious, hard-working and talented entrepreneurs to lift themselves to affluence.
Consider the saga of William Ramos, whose persistence as a cold caller helped him overcome homelessness and earn the cash to buy a Ferrari. Then there’s the journey of Jared Weitz, once a 20 something plumber and now CEO of a company with more than $100 million a year in deal flow.
Their careers are only the beginning of the success stories. Jared Feldman and Dan Smith, for example, were in their 20s when they started an alt finance company at the height of the financial crisis. They went on to sell part of their firm to Palladium Equity Partners after placing more than $400 million in lifetime deals.
The industry’s top salespeople can even breathe new life into seemingly dead leads. Take the case of Juan Monegro, who was in his 20s when he left his job in Verizon customer service and began pounding the phones to promote merchant cash advances. Working at first with stale leads, Monegro was soon placing $47 million in advances annually.
Alternative funding can provide a second chance, too. When Isaac Stern’s bakery went out of business, he took a job telemarketing merchant cash advances and went on to launch a firm that now places more than $1 billion in funding annually.
All of those industry players are leaving their marks on a business that got its start at the dawn of the new century. Long-time participants in the market credit Barbara Johnson with hatching the idea of the merchant cash advance in 1998 when she needed to raise capital for a daycare center. She and her husband, Gary Johnson, started the company that became CAN Capital. The firm also reportedly developed the first platform to split credit card receipts between merchants and funders.
BIRTH OF AN INDUSTRY
Competitors soon followed the trail those pioneers blazed, and the industry began growing prodigiously. “There was a ton of credit out there for people who wanted to get into the business,” recalled David Goldin, who’s CEO of Capify and serves as president of the Small Business Finance Association, one of the industry’s trade groups.
Many of the early entrants came from the world of finance or from the credit card processing business, said Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of Bizfi. Virtually all of the early business came from splitting card receipts, a practice that now accounts for just 10 percent of volume, he noted.
At first, brokers, funders and their channel partners spent a lot of time explaining advances to merchants who had never heard of them, Goldin said. Competition wasn’t that tough because of the uncrowded “greenfield” nature of the business, industry veterans agreed.
Some of the initial funding came from the funders’ own pockets or from the savings accounts of their elderly uncles. “I’ve met more than a few who had $2 million to $5 million worth of loans from friends and family in order to fund the advances to the merchants,” observed Joel Magerman, CEO of Bryant Park Capital, which places capital in the industry. “It was a small, entrepreneurial effort,” Andrea Petro, executive vice president and division manager of lender finance for Wells Fargo Capital Finance, said of the early days. “A number of these companies started with maybe $100,000 that they would experiment with. They would make 10 loans of $10,000 and collect them in 90 days.”
That business model was working, but merchant cash advances suffered from a bad reputation in the early days, Goldin said. Some players were charging hefty fees and pushing merchants into financial jeopardy by providing more funding than they could pay back comfortably. The public even took a dim view of reputable funders because most consumers didn’t understand that the risk of offering advances justified charging more for them than other types of financing, according to Goldin.
Then the dam broke. The economy crashed as the Great Recession pushed much of the world to the brink of financial disaster. “Everybody lost their credit line and default rates spiked,” noted Isaac Stern, CEO of Fundry, Yellowstone Capital and Green Capital. “There was almost nobody left in the business.”
RAVAGED BY RECESSION
Perhaps 80 percent of the nation’s alternative funding companies went out of business in the downturn, said Magerman. Those firms probably represented about 50 percent of the alternative funding industry’s dollar volume, he added. “There was a culling of the herd,” he said of the companies that failed.
Life became tough for the survivors, too. Among companies that stayed afloat, credit losses typically tripled, according to Petro. That’s severe but much better than companies that failed because their credit losses quintupled, she said.
Who kept the doors open? The firms that survived tended to share some characteristics, said Robert Cook, a partner at Hudson Cook LLP, a law office that specializes in alternative funding. “Some of the companies were self-funding at that time,” he said of those days. “Some had lines of credit that were established prior to the recession, and because their business stayed healthy they were able to retain those lines of credit.”
The survivors also understood risk and had strong, automated reporting systems to track daily repayment, Petro said. For the most part, those companies emerged stronger, wiser and more prosperous when the crisis wound down, she noted. “The legacy of the Great Recession was that survivors became even more knowledgeable through what I would call that ‘high-stress testing period of losses,’” she said.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
The survivors of the recession were ready to capitalize on the convergence of several factors favorable to the industry in about 2009. Taking advantages of those changes in the industry helped form a perfect storm of industry growth as the recession was ending.
They included making good use of the quick churn that characterizes the merchant cash advance business, Petro noted. The industry’s better operators had been able to amass voluminous data on the industry because of its short cycles. While a provider of auto loans might have to wait five years to study company results, she said, alternative funders could compile intelligence from four advances within the space of a year.
That data found a home in the industry around the time the recession was ending because funders were beginning to purchase or develop the algorithms that are continuing to increase the automation of the underwriting process, said Jared Weitz, CEO of United Capital Source LLC. As early as 2006, OnDeck became one of the first to rely on digital underwriting, and the practice became mainstream by 2009 or so, he said.
Just as the technology was becoming widespread, capital began returning to the market. Wealthy investors were pulling their funds out of real estate and needed somewhere to invest it, accounting for part of the influx of capital, Weitz said.
At the same time, Wall Street began to take notice of the industry as a place to position capital for growth, and companies that had been focused on consumer lending came to see alternative finance as a good investment, Cook said.
For a long while, banks had shied away from the market because the individual deals seem small to them. A merchant cash advance offers funders a hundredth of the size and profits of a bank’s typical small-business loan but requires a tenth of the underwriting effort, said David O’Connell, a senior analyst on Aite Group’s Wholesale Banking team.
The prospect of providing funds became even less attractive for banks. The recession had spawned the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulatory Reform Bill and Basel III, which had the unintended effect of keeping banks out of the market by barring them from endeavors where they’re inexperienced, Magerman said. With most banks more distant from the business than ever, brokers and funders can keep the industry to themselves, sources acknowledged.
At about the same time, the SBFA succeeded in burnishing the industry’s image by explaining the economic realities to the press, in Goldin’s view.The idea that higher risk requires bigger fees was beginning to sink in to the public’s psyche, he maintained.
Meanwhile, loans started to join merchant cash advances in the product mix. Many players began to offer loans after they received California finance lenders licenses, Cook recalled. They had obtained the licenses to ward off class-action lawsuits, he said and were switching from sharing card receipts to scheduled direct debits of merchants’ bank accounts.
As those advantages – including algorithms, ready cash, a better image and the option of offering loans – became apparent, responsible funders used them to help change the face of the industry. They began to make deals with more credit-worthy merchants by offering lower fees, more time to repay and improved customer service. “The recession wound up differentiating us in the best possible way,” Bizfi’s Sheinbaum said of the changes.
His company found more-upscale customers by concentrating on industries that weren’t hit too hard by the recession. “With real estate crashing, people were not refurbishing their homes or putting in new flooring,” he noted.
Today, the booming alternative finance industry is engendering success stories and attracting the nation’s attention. The increased awareness is prompting more companies to wade into the fray, and could bring some change.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
One variety of change that might lie ahead could come with the purchase of a major funding company by a big bank in the next couple of years, Bryant Park Capital’s Magerman predicted. A bank could sidestep regulation, he suggested, by maintaining that the credit card business and small business loans made through bank branches had provided the banks with the experience necessary to succeed.
Smaller players are paying attention to the industry, too, with varying degrees of success. Predictably, some of the new players are operating too aggressively and could find themselves headed for a fall. “Anybody can fund deals – the talent lies in collecting the money back at a profitable level,” said Capify’s Goldin. “There’s going to be a shakeout. I can feel it.”
Some of today’s alternative lenders don’t have the skill and technology to ward off bad deals and could thus find themselves in trouble if recession strikes, warned Aite Group’s O’Connell. “Let’s be careful of falling into the trap of ‘This time is different,’” he said. “I see a lot of sub-prime debt there.”
Don’t expect miracles, cautioned Petro. “I believe there will be another recession, and I believe that there will be a winnowing of (alternative finance) businesses,” she said. “There will be far fewer after the next recession than exist today.”
A recession would spell trouble, Magerman agreed, even though demand for loans and advances would increase in an atmosphere of financial hardship. Asked about industry optimists who view the business as nearly recession-proof, he didn’t hold back. “Don’t believe them,” he warned. “Just because somebody needs capital doesn’t mean they should get capital.”
Further complicating matters, increased regulatory scrutiny could be lurking just beyond the horizon, Petro predicted. She provided histories of what regulation has done to other industries as an indication of the differing outcomes of regulation – one good, one debatable and one bad.
Good: The timeshare business benefitted from regulation because the rules boosted the public’s trust.
Debatable: The cost of complying with regulations changed the rent-to-own business from an entrepreneurial endeavor to an environment where only big corporations could prosper.
Bad: Regulation appears likely to alter the payday lending business drastically and could even bring it to an end, she said.
Still, regulation’s good side seems likely to prevail in the alternative finance business, eliminating the players who charge high fees or collect bloated commissions, according to Weitz. “I think it could only benefit the industry,” he said. “It’ll knock out the bad guys.”