In the 1999 film “Any Given Sunday,” Al Pacino plays a pro football coach whose obsession with winning has torn apart his family. He’s also plagued by a meddlesome team owner, challenged by an offensive coordinator who’s after his job, and vexed by a talented but narcissistic backup quarterback. But none of that stops the coach from reaching deep inside to deliver a stirring halftime pep talk to his dispirited losing team. Assuring his players that life and football are both games of inches, he beseeches them to look into the eyes of the men around them. “You’re going to see a guy who will go that inch with you,” he declares. “Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.” The players rally and explode onto the field.
It’s a scenario the sales staff can’t get enough of at RapidAdvance, a Bethesda, Md.-based alternative small-business finance company with more than 200 employees. Mark Cerminaro has screened a clip of the scene countless times in a company conference room to fire up his crew. Salespeople emerged from those meetings eager to make that extra phone call, provide the telling detail on an application or do whatever else it would take to taste the victory of making the sale. For Cerminaro, the movie and the sales meetings embodied his penchant for winning ethically through teamwork, dogged persistence and great customer experience. That credo has helped propel him to top management at RapidAdvance and has earned him accolades from once-skeptical financial services peers.
Cerminaro’s story begins in his hometown of Highland Park, N.J., where he experienced a small-town vibe but enjoyed easy access to New York City, Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. He graduated in a class of 85 students from the local public high school, playing varsity football, basketball and baseball. Summers, he worked construction, did landscaping, delivered flowers and umpired Little League. “It was a great place to grow up,” he says.
In high school, Cerminaro sometimes went along for the ride when his sister, who was five years older, was choosing a college. On a visit to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Cerminaro stood in the student center and gazed out at the campus. “I’m going to come here and play football,” he told himself.
He made good on that vow when his high school football team made a reputation for itself, and Georgetown was among the schools that recruited him. Besides, it made sense to go there because he was interested in studying politics and going to law school. Growing up with a father who was chairman of the local Democratic Party, Cerminaro had his eye on eventually becoming governor of New Jersey.
Playing for the NFL on the way to the governor’s mansion seemed like a good idea, too. But Cerminaro, a quarterback, blew out his throwing arm two years into his collegiate football career. His dreams of making the pros died, but that left more time for academics. He plunged into a series of four rigorous internships, three of them in politics. He served two in the Clinton White House and one on Capitol Hill with Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J. He fondly recalls talking to President Bill Clinton for five minutes before a state dinner. Then two hours later, after spending time with heads of state, the President called out, “There’s Mark, my fellow Hoya.” Cerminaro will never forget it.
In the end, however, the fourth internship won out. Although Cerminaro hadn’t studied business or finance too much, he landed an internship in the local Washington, D.C., office of Morgan Stanley. If nothing else, it would help him manage his investments some day, he reasoned. However, he soon approached the operations manager and some senior brokers and offered to take on duties they didn’t want to fulfill. He had decided to learn about operations, and taking on extra work without additional compensation was in line with his new habit of figuring out what steps would take him where he wanted to go in life.
Cerminaro earned his managerial license with Morgan Stanley and accepted a job as associate branch manager in the Washington, D.C., office, managing and training new financial advisors. He considered the position great exposure to sales, management, operations and compliance – “elements that have paid dividends in the growth of my career,” he notes.
Early in Cerminaro’s tenure at Morgan Stanley, the company sent him for training with about 300 other new employees at 2 World Trade Center in Manhattan. The date was Sept. 10, 2001. When the trainees reported to the office the next day, they were in a 64th-floor conference room when they heard an explosion and saw shreds of paper floating past the windows. They didn’t realize yet that a terrorist-controlled jetliner had hit next door at 1 World Trade Center.
As they evacuated down a stairwell, the trainees heard and felt the concussion of the second plane that hit their building. “I’m 22 years old and I may be about to die,” Cerminaro remembers thinking. “Make sure my family knows I love them,” he prayed. He made it out and was greeted with smoke, debris, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and panic in the streets. He walked to a restaurant some family friends operated in Little Italy and borrowed a working phone to call his family in New Jersey and let them know he was OK.
Returning to the D.C. office of Morgan Stanley, Cerminaro got back to work. He loved the entrepreneurial spirit at the company, but as the years passed he realized he was unlikely to amass enough power in the giant firm to dictate how it would operate, grow and change. So he was interested when someone he knew at Morgan Stanley told him about RapidAdvance, then a two-year-old company with about 20 employees. “I saw the opportunity to be part of building a company – that’s what drew me to RapidAdvance,” he recalls.
In 2007, Cerminaro interviewed with Jeremy Brown, who was RapidAdvance’s CEO at the time and has since advanced to chairman. “It was apparent that Mark had a well thought-out, well-articulated plan for sales,” Brown says of his first impression. “He had a presence about him, a command that said this guy a real leader – somebody who could make a long term component of the company.”
Cerminaro joined RapidAdvance as national sales director and began building a sales structure and team based on some of the elements of Morgan Stanley’s sales model. Developing KPIs, or key performance indicators, helped him measure progress. “You had to roll up your sleeves and get involved in every aspect of things,” he said of working for a startup in a fledgling industry. The company’s outbound call center came up with sales leads, and he cut and pasted them from an Excel spread sheet and divvied them up among the five or six account executives.
Cerminaro wanted to teach that handful of salespeople to function as business advisors and help them become the single point of contact for clients. His salespeople guided small-business owners through the application process and stayed in contact with them after the sale. He emphasized doing right by customers, teammates and the company as a whole. It was a vision that inspired the team.
“Mark was a great mentor and provided me a lot of guidance and tutelage over the years,” says Devin Delany, who started as an account executive at RapidAdvance and has moved up to director of sales. “His real mission was to create a sense of family and he executed on that to the fullest extent, creating a close knit team of upward of 40 folks who really care about one another.”
That sales “family” used dialogue marketing to refocus attention on prospects who had fallen out of the sales cycle. In those days they used a product-driven sales pitch based on merchant cash advances. Third-party partners included credit card processors and credit card ISOs. Brokers came onto the scene later.
Soon after Cerminaro arrived at RapidAdvance, the financial crisis struck. The company managed to navigate the troubled times and emerged with improved underwriting skills, a better understanding of leading indicators and a truer grasp of how its portfolio performs. Something else happened, too.
As traditional lines of credit dried up during the recession, small businesses that didn’t accept credit cards began to search for working capital. In response, Cerminaro, Brown and Joseph Looney, RapidAdvance’s chief operations officer and general counsel, sat down and outlined a plan to offer small-business loans as well as MCAs. “That effort really redefined who RapidAdvance was,” Cerminaro says of the new loans. “We went from a single-product company to now being more of a solutions-based company,” he maintains. “We were able to shift from selling a product to doing needs-based analysis with our clients and focusing on what was the right solution for them.”
Cerminaro found it exciting to develop the loan program and oversee sales, but he was looking for more. He turned part of his attention to business development and even expanded his purview to include marketing. The company was thinking along the same lines. In 2010, RapidAdvance promoted him to senior vice president, sales and marketing. “As the company has grown we have had different needs, and we leaned on Mark and his skill set every time we made a change,” Brown says. “Every time we made a change he has stepped up and done what’s asked of him.”
Producing one of the industry’s first national television ad campaigns highlighted Cerminaro’s period as senior vice president. “We were the pioneers in being able to market through that medium,” he says. “It was absolutely scary at the same time. It was a massive investment for us and we had no idea whether it would pan out.” The sales staff were waiting in anticipation when the phones began ringing after the public saw the commercial. “The original spot we put together still tests well and drives a lot of traffic,” he notes. Viewers find a tune featured in the ad sticks in their minds and can’t help humming it – sometimes when they’d prefer they didn’t, he adds.
Then came another promotion. In 2013, just before Detroit-based Rockbridge Growth Equity LLC acquired RapidAdvance, Cerminaro was named chief revenue officer and became responsible for all revenue-generating activities and all of the company’s front end efforts. The company had grown significantly over the years, but the merger increased financial backing and thus accelerated growth, he says. For him, that meant pursuing a new type of partner company – asset-based lenders and factoring companies. It wouldn’t be easy. “The traditional lending market had a lot of misconceptions about our industry,” Cerminaro admits. “A lot of people in that business were very critical.”
But Cerminaro made the rounds of trade shows and visited conference rooms until he succeeded in winning the hearts of bankers, according to Will Tumulty, RapidAdvance’s CEO. “Mark and his team have developed partnerships in the commercial lending space,” Tumulty says. “There are a number of companies that have historically viewed working-capital funding as a competitor. We don’t see ourselves competing with those companies. Mark and his team have worked with those companies to get merchants what they need.”
As a testament to Cerminaro’s success in that quest, the Commercial Finance Association named him to its 2016 list of “40 under 40” achievers. He was the only person from alternative small-business funding to make that venerable list of prominent young lending executives. He helped spur his company on to other awards, too. The RapidAdvance Bethesda office was chosen for The Washington Post Top Workplaces 2016 list, and the RapidAdvance Detroit office made the list of 101 firms recognized as Metro Detroit’s 2016 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For.
Meanwhile, Cerminaro was successfully courting mega retailers, says Brown. When the possibility of becoming a partner with Office Depot arose, Brown felt hopeful but remained skeptical because of the long lead time required to convince so many executives in such a large corporation. “But mark was dogged,” he says. “It took him probably a year to land and close the deal and negotiate the agreement and sign the account. He went to countless meetings down in Florida. He participated in endless conference calls, but mark got the deal done. It’s a relationship we’re proud of, and he is singularly responsible for closing that deal.”
In those encounters with Office Depot execs, Cerminaro displayed savvy and professionalism, Brown says. They’re traits that will continue to pay off not only for RapidAdvance but for the entire industry, maintains RapidAdvance’s Looney. “He’s out there with lots of big banks and other potential partners,” says Looney. “He’s a good face for the industry.”
For Cerminaro, it’s satisfying to see RapidAdvance become all he dreamed it could be. But that still comes in second for him and differentiates him from the coach played by Al Pacino. Cerminaro’s the kind of guy who asked his father to be his best man and now has a wife and two sons of his own. “Your family and your loved ones are by far more important than anything else in your life,” he says.
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