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12/03/2018Shakeout coming in SMB lending
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On The Scene With KEO in Miami

July 8, 2021
Article by:

Farid Shidfar is Head of US Operations at KEO, a small business finance company based in Midtown Miami. I sat down with Shidfar to ask about KEO’s recent foray into the market, what they’re seeing on the front lines, and their plans for the future. Our one-on-one interview is below:

You can also watch the video here.

What Shakeout? Breakout Capital Secures $25 Million Credit Facility

February 8, 2017
Article by:

Carl Fairbank, CEO of Breakout CapitalPut a tally up on the board for small business lenders in 2017. McClean, VA-based Breakout Capital, which just announced a move into a larger office last week, has also secured a $25 million credit facility with Drift Capital Partners. Drift is an alternative asset management company.

Breakout is young by today’s industry standards, founded only two years ago by former investment banker Carl Fairbank, who is the company’s CEO. And don’t count them out just because they’re not in New York or San Francisco. Washington DC’s Virginia suburbs have become somewhat of a hotspot for fintech lenders. OnDeck, Fundation, StreetShares and QuarterSpot all have offices there, Fairbank points out. “And Capital One is right up the street,” he adds while explaining that the community has a strong talent pool that is familiar with creative lending. Breakout has already grown to about 20 employees and they’re still growing, he says.

Fairbank considers Breakout to be a more upmarket lender, whose repertoire includes serving the near-prime, mid-prime customer. CAN Capital and Dealstruck had focused on this area and both companies stopped funding new business in 2016. As I point this out, I ask if that suggests that segment is perhaps too difficult to make work.

“Candidly, that’s the part of the market that I feel the best about,” he says matter of factly. The company tries to product-fit deals based on the borrower, and will even make monthly-payment based loans. “I think the subprime side with the stacking and the debt settlement companies is a very very difficult place to play right now,” he says, adding that they have worked with subprime borrowers using their original bridge program but that they’ve kind of pulled back from doing those. As with all programs regardless, their goal is to graduate merchants into better or less costly products later on. We have helped merchants move on to get SBA loans, he maintains.

That all sounds very hands on, and part of it is, Fairbank confirms while asserting that technology does indeed do a lot of the legwork. “There’s absolutely a human element to underwriting these deals,” he says. He also agrees with much of what RapidAdvance chairman Jeremy Brown wrote in a deBanked op-ed titled, The New Normal. Both Breakout and RapidAdvance refer to themselves as technology-enabled lenders, an acknowledgement that tech is a component of the company, not the entire company itself.

“I think we will see the beginning of the demise of fully automated, no manual touch funding,” Brown wrote in his article.

Brown also predicted that the legal system will ultimately impose order on some industry practices like stacking or that a state like New York could take a public policy interest in products he believes have legal flaws. As he was writing that, Governor Cuomo’s office published a budget proposal that redefined what it means to make a loan in the state. And it leaves much to be desired, some sources contend. Two attorneys at Hudson Cook, LLP, for example, published an analysis that demonstrates how its wording is ambiguous and far-reaching.

“What they really need to do is take the time to think through the implications and basically do a full study of the market to ensure that what they’re pushing forward is going to have the desired consequences,” Breakout’s Fairbank offers on the matter.

This doesn’t mean he’s anti-regulation. The company already holds itself to high standards and customer suitability and is a founding member of the Coalition for Responsible Business Finance.

“I personally do believe that there’s bad forms of lending or cash advances in the market and I’m sure that’s what Cuomo thinks as well but at the same time, it’s getting pushed very quickly and they really really ought to step back and do the research to understand the broader implications and to understand what exactly they’re trying to accomplish,” he maintains.

His pragmatism extends to the OCC’s proposed limited fintech charter, which he finds intriguing, assuming it gets buttoned up. “I believe it’s a concept worth pursuing,” he says, explaining that regulators will need to get comfortable with unsecured lending.

In the meantime, he’s optimistic about Breakout’s prospects. “In a time when institutional appetite for alternative finance companies has dried up, we believe our ability to raise a credit facility in this market speaks volumes about what we have already accomplished, our position as a leading player in the space, and our prospects for strong, but measured, growth,” Fairbank is quoted as saying in a company announcement. The company was also invited and joined the Task Force for the PLUM Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Milken Institute to more effectively provide capital to minority-owned businesses throughout the United States. The Task Force consists of a very select group of industry leaders, who are in positions to improve access to capital in underserved markets, according to the announcement.

While other companies are making adjustments or in his opinion, continuing to make questionable underwriting decisions, Fairbank thinks his formula for success works. “I think that we do look at deals differently than most folks because I intentionally built the core of my underwriting team with folks who are not from this space so they take a more traditional approach and mix it with some of the greatest aspects of alternative finance.”

Alternative Lenders Are Waiting for a Shakeout

October 28, 2015
Article by:

Money2020 2015Back in April at the LendIt conference in New York, the big consensus was that not all underwriting was created equal and therefore several players wouldn’t survive long enough to make it back to LendIt in 2016. Six months later at Money2020 and so far everyone is still standing.

Loan terms are getting longer, rates cheaper and the cost to acquire borrowers higher. Somebody has to be feeling the pressure but in a rather benign economic and regulatory environment, it’s clear skies.

Valuations are soaring. SoFi is valued at more than $4 billion and Kabbage at more than $1 billion.

But Robert Greifeld, the CEO of Nasdaq warned attendees about the validity of private market valuations. “A unicorn valuation in private markets could be from just two people,” he said. “whereas public markets could be 200,000 people.” At best he described a private market valuation as being just a rough indicator.

And some wonder if these valuations are based on just scale, rather than the ability to underwrite more intelligently and efficiently than a bank. OnDeck for example, had a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in originations of 159% from 2012-2014 when the average originations CAGR for their peers is currently 56%. But OnDeck has the advantage of time. With nearly a decade of data under their belt, they’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t.

“You have to have enough bad loans to build a good credit model,” said OnDeck CEO Noah Breslow during a Money2020 panel discussion.

For Aaron Vermut, CEO of Prosper, getting their company to the next level was about having access to institutional capital. As a marketplace, and as a company that almost died several years ago, he pointed out, institutional money was the inflection point for them to grow. The peer-to-peer model that actually depended purely on “peers” is what held their company back.

One thing several lenders seemed to agree on was the limited applicability of FICO. FICO is not the thing to use for a small business loan, said Sam Hodges, Managing Director and Co-founder of Funding Circle. His words didn’t come as a surprise since credit scores are generally the domain of consumer lending.

But doubts about FICO’s ability to predict performance didn’t just come from the commercial finance side. Prosper’s Vermut explained that consumers still think their FICO score is the most important factor in the rate they get. So even though they’ve got a system to predict repayment outside of FICO, they’re kind of forced to incorporate it because consumers are being educated to believe that’s what matters most.

The irony was not lost that as Vermut said that on a panel, he was seated next to Kenneth Lin, the CEO and founder of Credit Karma, a company that educates consumers about credit. “A credit score is one of the most important components of a consumer’s financial profile,” says Credit Karma’s website. Such language puts a tech-based lender with their own scoring model perhaps at odds with what their own prospects believe.

For instance if a potential borrower with a 750 FICO score is offered a high interest rate because the lender’s advanced and more in-depth underwriting determined them to be high risk, they’re going to walk away confused.

That of course begs the question, who needs to change? Those educating consumers about credit scores or the lenders who are moving away from them?

Before educational services shift though, it would probably make sense if the lenders can prove that their non-FICO dependent systems will work in the long run. And the sentiment among many lenders is that there are plenty of flawed models out there that will inevitably fail. That makes a shakeout not just a matter of if, but when.

Six months after LendIt, everybody is still standing. Whispers from in and around Money2020’s halls and exhibit floor revealed that the confident lenders wish the correction would happen sooner rather than later but that they are prepared to wait however long it takes.

Right now, confidence about the future on the commercial finance side came in at an 83.7 out of 100, according to the Small Business Financing Report. While there are no other points of reference to compare that to, industry captains are generally very bullish.

That could mean that for those secretly under tremendous pressure already, you could be left waiting for a shakeout for a very long time.

Traditional MCA Gets a Speed Makeover

October 24, 2012
Article by:

speed clock“How about you fund me first and then you change my merchant account?”

Some account reps will testify that closing a traditional split-funding or lockbox deal can be a bumpy road. The pay-as-you-grow system sounds fantastic over fixed payments until they learn that they have to change their merchant service provider, process sales for two full days, and then wait an extra day for the ACH to arrive in their bank account. The switch could take a few days to several weeks. Have you ever tried to convert MICROS?! A good account rep can keep the customer patient, but that job gets a lot tougher when the fixed daily ACH guys interject right before the contract is signed. We’ll fund you in two days with no processing change required! The customer would have to settle for a fixed daily payment, but that may be secondary to their stress about switching processing before receiving funds. Many things could cross their mind:

  • What happens if the download fails?
  • What if they say I need a new credit card machine?
  • What if my current processor locked my machine with a password? How long will this delay everything?
  • What if I don’t process sales every day? Will I need to wait until I have two full days of activity?
  • What if there are additional underwriting steps after I switch?
  • Are they going to withhold a percentage from my processing before I even get the money?
  • How long is this really going to take? I would prefer if I just had the money now and then I’d feel a lot more comfortable doing the rest.
  • I kind of need the money by tomorrow, I really can’t risk this taking longer than they expect.

So when RapidAdvance announced their new Rapid Funding Program, we thought, “is this really what we think it is?” We had Sean Murray reach out to Mark Cerminaro, the SVP of RapidAdvance and we learned the program is real. They can and will fund merchants prior to changing the merchant account or setting up the lockbox. In the interim, they set up a temporary daily ACH repayment to protect themselves should the conversion experience any hiccups. Murray asked if this was perhaps a response to the fixed ACH payment phenomenon that has exploded in the last year. Cerminaro responded (We paraphrased some of his words in this story), “Variable payments offer benefits. Many merchants would prefer to set up their financing this way. Some of our biggest resellers still focus heavily on split-funding as opposed to the alternatives. We believe this program will help both them and the merchant.”

With the slew of new players in the merchant financing market, is speed just window dressing for an old product? An article in Upstart Business Journal called MCAs old! The fixed payment merchant loan seems to be all the rage these days, leaving some to wonder if traditional MCA is on the decline. Cerminaro says that assertion is false. “We’ve experienced substantial growth this year on our traditional MCA product, on all of our products actually. When big companies like American Express and Amazon came in offering their own Merchant Cash Advance or loan program, it made merchants more comfortable that our product and similar ones to it are mainstream. The New York Times even ran an article that listed Merchant Cash Advance as an acceptable form of financing for small businesses. This is all making Merchant Cash Advance more attractive than it ever was before.”

On 7/28/11, we penned an article that said the Merchant Cash Advance industry was waiting for its big moment. At that time, we believed the merchants weren’t using Merchant Cash Advance financing simply because they just hadn’t heard of it. It was the hottest thing that no one was talking about. Of course the era of anonymity is gone and businesses are rushing to get funding hand over fist. The only question now is whether or not this will continue to drive rates down. Cerminaro alluded that some funders are undercutting so much that they’re forgetting to price in the risk. Other industry insiders feel the same way and the debate over it has become the most active thread on the recently founded, DailyFunder.com forum.

Contact Mark Cerminaro for any questions or clarifications regarding RapidAdvance’s Rapid Funding Program at mcerminaro[at]rapidadvance[dot]com.

– Merchant Processing Resource
https://debanked.com

Affirm Continues Surge after Exclusive Amazon Deal

August 30, 2021
Article by:

affirm nasdaqIn a move announced Friday that can change the way consumers interact with the largest online retailer, Amazon and Affirm have partnered together to bring flexible payment options to Amazon customers. A leader in the buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) space, Affirm saw share prices soar as high as 40% Monday morning after inking the exclusive agreement.

According to the deal, Affirm plans to offer financing options for purchases greater than $50 for qualified Amazon customers. Buyers are approved, given the cost of financing and the price of their product prior to purchase upfront, and allowed to make payments via installments on those products. Customers who choose to finance through Affirm will not be charged any late or hidden fees.

“By partnering with Amazon we’re bringing the transparency, predictability and affordability that Affirm provides today to the millions of people who shop on Amazon.com in the U.S.,” said Eric Morse, Senior Vice President of Sales at Affirm in a press release. “Offering Affirm’s alternative to credit cards also delivers more of the payment choice and flexibility consumers on Amazon want.”

After an exclusive deal with Walmart in February of 2019, the company is continuing their attempt at a market takeover by striking a deal with Apple’s Canadian market and Shopify in the states — both within the last month. Affirm is quickly beginning to show dividends by putting together some of the largest exclusive flexible payment option deals out there.

With competition heating up in the BNPL industry, Affirm isn’t the only one trying to incorporate exclusive deals with large markets. Square, a company founded by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey recently acquired the Australian firm Afterpay for $29 billion. Paypal has also made their presence known by offering similar services. With a market cap at over $26 billion, Affirm will be in the fight to compete in the flexible payment option space. With competition from companies like Paypal and moguls like Dorsey, Affirm CEO Max Lechvin is in familiar territory. Prior to starting Affirm, Lechvin was a co-founder at Paypal.

With transparency a major component of their business model, Affirm customers may begin to spend more while initially paying less, a move that can provide a better experience for customers— something that seems like a no-brainer for any company selling pricey consumer-based products.

The Pain in America’s Food Supply Chain

January 29, 2021
Article by:

closed cafeIt was last November, Mark Mavilia says, when he and three friends in Washington, D.C. rendezvoused for dinner at Ghibellina’s, an Italian gastropub in Logan Circle “specializing in Neapolitan-inspired pizzas and craft cocktails,” says the online restaurant guide “Popville.”

Hold the pizza! Mavilia, who is art director at the Association of American Medical Colleges, couldn’t wait to tuck into the pasta-bolognese, his favorite dish. “In my opinion,” he says, “it’s the best in the city.”

Or rather was the best. When the foursome assembled outside the restaurant, they were disappointed to find Ghibellina’s had closed. “They had shut down for good,” Mavilia says, adding: “It was not boarded up. Just a note on the door thanking patrons for their support. I will surely miss the bolognese.”

The Ghibellina brand was later consolidated into a sister restaurant called Via in Ivy City.

Mavilia’s experience in Washington is typical of a nationwide phenomenon. Tens of thousands of restaurants and bars and eateries of every kind have closed their doors as the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the country and Americans have sharply limited their social interactions. As U.S. fatalities surpassed 410,000 in January, the economic damage to the restaurant and bar businesses has been staggering.

washington dc“Washingtonian” magazine keeps a running tab of restaurants that have closed their doors in and around the nation’s capital owing to the pandemic. In December, its tally listed 75 casualties in The District alone, including such icons as the Post Pub and Montmartre, Momofuku and Tosca, plus many more in the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs.

The area around the White House dominated by the influential K Street law firms and lobbyists, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has been nearly barren. With few people trickling into the central city, says Madeleine Watkins, owner of 202strong, a fitness club featuring personal trainers, her business is getting battered. Receipts are off by 80% over last year and she sees the effects all around her.

“There are definitely a lot of restaurants closed, but I’m hoping and praying that lot of it is temporary,” she says. “We need people to come downtown for Washington to be a vibrant and bustling city with coffee shops, restaurants, and sandwich shops.”

One hopeful sign: Tosca, a white-tablecloth restaurant near Metro Center which boasts an enthusiastic, upscale audience and earns 4.8 stars from customer reviews, promises to re-open in the spring. “This was my go-to Italian restaurant near my office,” declares Deborah Meshulam, a partner at multinational law firm DLA Piper and a former lead trial counsel at the Securities & Exchange Commission. “I loved their grilled Branzino and pretty much anything else they made.”

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently counted 94 restaurants that had closed down permanently in the Twin Cities. “Saying goodbye to a beloved watering hole, a neighborhood café or a four-star restaurant is never easy,” reporter Sharyn Jackson wrote in late December. “But in 2020, the pain kept coming as the pandemic brutalized the Twin Cities hospitality industry.”

“WE EVEN SAT WITH THE OWNER’S CHILDREN ONE NIGHT”

Among the notable casualties, were Bachelor Farmer, Muddy Waters, and Fig+Farro.

Angharad Bhardwaj, communications manager at medical technology company GenesisCare and a lifeling Minnesotan, told deBanked of her sorrow at learning that Fig+Farro had closed. “My husband and I were there for their opening, and I am so sad to see it close,” she says. “This was one of our favorite restaurants, just steps away from our condo in Uptown. We spent our first Valentine’s Day there. It was fresh vegan food. We even sat with the owner’s children one night. The little boy was helping his parents with the restaurant, taking orders.”

In Denver, online entertainment publication “Do303” recently highlighted closures of 15 area restaurants it called “the great ones that kept our hearts and bellies full for years.” Notable among the cohort was El Chapultepec, 12@Madison, and Biju’s Little Curry Shop. Michelle Parker, a Denverite who has a short commute to suburban Westminster where she is the City Clerk, says: “The feeling around town is that this has been a big loss to neighborhoods and to the food scene, which was just coming into its own as the pandemic hit.”

closed for businessNationwide, more than 110,000 restaurants, bars and food-service establishments have closed their doors, reports the National Restaurant Association, the premier Washington-based trade group representing the food-service industry. The membership includes not only restaurants, pubs and cafes but non-commercial restaurant services, cafeterias, institutions like college cafeterias, and even food services at military installations.

The food-service industry is the nation’s second largest private employer and accounts for $2.1 trillion in economic activity, reports Vanessa Sink, director of media relations at the trade group. On average, when a restaurant closes, fewer than 50 people find themselves unemployed, but it adds up. As many as eight million food-service workers – waiters and bartenders, hosts and hostesses, cashiers, general managers and dishwashers, parking valets and cooks and chefs — were out of a job at the height of the pandemic in early 2020.

Curtis Dubay, senior economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., notes that a whole array of food-service jobs are interwoven into the fabric of the U.S. economy. “Anything that involves large gatherings – transportation, travel and tourism, athletic events, the theater, the hospitality industry,” he says. “In places like The Hyatt in Orlando, food-service workers are involved in setting up a ballroom for conventions and small meetings. It’s a big part of the economy.”

2.1 MILLION FOOD SERVICE JOBS VAPORIZED

Since the spring, many of the lost jobs came back as restaurants were able to add take-out and delivery services. Many states and localities allowed restaurants to re-open with outdoor-seating, limited occupancy, customer-spacing, and Plexiglas booths. Through the end of November, 2020, 75% of the lost jobs were recovered but 2.1 million food-service jobs had still vaporized.

As more and more people prepare their own meals at home, the switch from dining-in to curbside and takeout services has met with limited success. For take-out people are more likely to order fast-food from Chick-fil-A or Pizza Hut and Domino’s rather than something fancy. “Who wants to spend $60 for a meal you have to eat out of a cardboard container,” one Minneapolis woman complained to deBanked.

fast-food

Restaurant closures, meanwhile, are having devastating consequences across a broad swath of society. “When a restaurant closes or has to cut back, it not only impacts the economy of the local community, it also affects the culture of the community,” says Sarah Crozier, communications director at Main Street Alliance, a 30,000-member, small-business advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C. “Local, independent places are where we create our memories as cities and towns. From losing the cries of “Keep Austin Weird” to stripping away the innovative recipes coming out of Raleigh, N.C., it deeply scars the culture and feeling of a place when we have only chain restaurants to fall back on.”

Adds Sink: “Restaurants are the cornerstone of communities. You often find that neighborhoods and local economies have built up around a restaurant. Restaurants provide jobs, they pay rent and contribute to the tax base. Other businesses will grow up around them. People will go to a restaurant – and then they’ll go next-door to shop.”

“PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO GO DOWNTOWN TO MAIN STREET ANYMORE”

Food-service establishments are also long-term tenants. The “vast majority” of the closures, Sink asserts, have involved restaurants that had been in business for more than 16 years. Roughly one in six had been in operation for 30 years or more.

Backlit downtown restaurants with inviting awnings, valet parking and limousines idling out front are giving way to boarded-up buildings, many battened down with battleship-gray steel shutters. “I’ve been talking to mayors about empty storefronts and the effects of business failures,” says Karen Mills, former administrator at the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, says. “It’s significant. It devastates the whole community and brings down the whole environment. People don’t want to go downtown to Main Street anymore.”

Many cities and towns have invested heavily to revitalize their inner cities and urban areas around restaurants and bars to add sparkle to the nightlife and draw visitors and tourists. The economic development strategies often commingle trendy restaurants and nightclubs, shops and boutiques with spruced up warehouses or old buildings converted into artists’ studios, lofts and apartments.

baltimore inner harborSome cities feature sports arenas and stadiums as a major draw, and the food offerings go beyond hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack. St. Louis’s “Ballpark Village” promises, according to its website, a “buzzing, sports-themed district close to Busch Stadium with restaurants, bars and nightlife venues”; Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is walking distance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, features a science center, aquarium and historic warships moored at the dock, as well as a complex of bars, eateries and music venues in a repurposed electric-power station known as “Power Plant Live!”

Beyond Main Street, restaurant closures are part of the collateral damage in suburbia as pandemic-wary people work and shop from home. “As I go around from town-to-town on Long Island and shoot out to the malls, I can see business closings everywhere,” says Ray Keating, chief economist at the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a Washington-based trade group claiming 100,000 members. “When one business shutters, it affects other businesses. There’s a ripple effect.”

Adds Sink of the restaurant association: “Restaurants are often located with the anchor store inside malls. You never find any kind of mall without some sort of food court.”

When a restaurant closes its doors, it has a knock-on effect as well, sending shockwaves coursing up and down the supply chain. Prior to the pandemic, Sink reports, the industry generated $2.5 trillion in economic activity and supported 21 million jobs. Cutbacks in food service hurts “everything from butchers and farmers and distillers to the Cisco and Aramark food companies that depend on restaurants.

“It will reach farther back into the economy,” she adds, causing economic pain to such disparate businesses as cleaning companies, local plumbers, handymen, and maintenance workers. Even “technology companies that provide systems (for restaurants) to run a credit card or make reservations or keep track of service orders” are affected.

MAINE RESTAURANTS FORCED TO DO OUTDOOR DINING IN WINTER

Andrew Volk, owner of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a restaurant and bar with the reputation for offering possibly the tastiest cocktails in Maine, says that keeping his business going hasn’t been easy. The establishment was forced into lockdown in March and “stayed dark until Memorial Day,” he says, when it got the green light from the state to sell food and cocktails to go. On July 4, the restaurant went to outdoor seating, which it maintained until New Year’s Eve, adding heaters and umbrellas in the autumn to fend off Maine’s frigid temperatures.

Volk reckons that his restaurant’s sales were off by roughly 55 percent in 2020 over the previous year. Fully 95% of revenues go to pay expenses, including rent and utilities and employees’ wages. And the rest of the money scarcely lands in the cash register before it’s passed on to his vendors.

But as he has cut back operations, all of his vendors are feeling the pinch as well. There are no longer twice-weekly deliveries from the local package store from which, by state law, Volk is required to purchase hard liquor. His beer purchases –- craft beer prepared by Rising Tide Brewery and Oxbow Brewery, both of Portland, as well as Miller, Budweiser and Narraganset, the popular Rhode Island-made brew – are no longer so robust. Volk has also reduced his procurement of French and South African wines from importers.

tractor farmPurchases of farm-to-table produce from Stonecipher Farms, Dandelion Springs, and Snell Farms, which came to a halt last March, remain diminished. The daily deliveries from Baldor Specialty Foods, a New York-based food supplier of, among myriad foodstuffs, out-of-season vegetables and citrus fruit, are less frequent.

Volk is still offering fresh cooked fish for take-out, including cod, trout, halibut, hake and shrimp (but not cold-water Maine lobster). Even so, he’s ordering less seafood from Browne Trading Market. He has also cut back on specialty soft cheeses he buys from several local dairy farms, including Larkin’s Gorge and Fuzzy Udder.

Other vendors affected include Portland Paper Products, which supplies him with paper goods such as toilet paper and paper towels, cleaning supplies and chemicals for the dishwasher. One bright spot for the paper products supplier: it is meeting Volk’s increased demand for take-out boxes, paper napkins and plastic utensils.

Meanwhile, Volk is not looking as much to Pratt Abbott Cleaners for freshly laundered linens such as tablecloths, napkins, and kitchen shirts. Capone Griding Company in Boston, which sharpens kitchen knives and cutlery, isn’t making as many pickups and deliveries these days.

Ian Jerolmack, owner-operator of 10-acre Stonecipher Farms in Bowdoinham, Maine, is one of Volk’s food suppliers. He has been providing fresh, farm-to-table produce to several dozen restaurants in Portland, plus a couple “up the coast,” he says, since he began tilling the Maine soil a decade ago. Now the grower of organic fruit and vegetables – a garden of delights that includes tomatoes, carrots, beets, onions, cabbage, turnips, squash, sweet potatoes, and fennel – has been feeling the economic hardship along with the restaurants.

farmer getting paid after harvestBy year-end 2020, Jerolmack says, he is down to only 15 restaurants as customers, a two-thirds attrition from his 45 customers prior to the pandemic. “Our farm was sort of unique in that it almost exclusively sold to restaurants,” he says. “They’re all in various degrees of agony,” he adds, “and I don’t know how the dust will settle. It’s been super-bizarre.”

When the restaurants went into lockdown last March, Jerolmack was faced with zero demand for his produce, and his livelihood was in jeopardy. At the same time, he was forced to reckon how much seed to plant. “There’s only one window in which to plant seeds,” he explains.

He had to decide whether to take on fulltime seasonal workers, which is not a simple proposition. In order to plant, tend and harvest his crops, he’d need to hire and house four Mexican workers under the federal government’s H-2A visa program. By law, he says, he was required to guarantee the foreign workers payment of 75% of their wages for eight months of employment. “I felt as if I were drowning,” he says. “It was a heavy weight.”

“I THREW TOGETHER A FARMER’S CHOICE…”

He opted to hire the H-2A workers and forged ahead with the planting, albeit at reduced acreage, consoling himself with the farmer’s ancient adage: “People always need to eat.”

With restaurants closed, his only recourse would be to sell directly to consumers. Yet Jerolmack had no online presence and was pretty much frozen out of the local farmers markets. So he turned to local restaurants and arranged to sell produce to their top customers. “I threw together a ‘farmer’s choice,’” he says, “a mixed bag of chard, carrots, onions, and beets – or whatever vegetables were in season and charged $25 a bag.”

Right away, he was able to sign up 175 customers paying $100 apiece for four weeks of produce, enough of a cushion for him to sell his “storage crops” and stay in business. Individual customers were grateful to buy the fresh organic food and avoid grocery stores, he says, the arrangement worked out for the restaurants. “They got increased foot traffic and helped their takeout business. Everybody loved it.”

By being creatively entrepreneurial and employing several direct-to-consumer sales strategies, he was able to chalk up revenues of $300,000 in 2020. That’s a hefty, 35% drop compared with the $440,000 in 2019 gross receipts. But Jerolmack says he kept five fulltime workers employed, he’s got a new consumer trade, and he’s getting ready for the 2021 planting season.

Thomas McQuillan, vice-president for strategy, culture and sustainability at wholesale food distributor Baldor, says that in a given year his Bronx-based company – with major operations centers in Boston and Washington, D.C. – delivers high-quality food to 10,000 restaurants from Portland, Me. to Richmond, Va. The wholesaler also supplies food in bulk to corporate dining rooms and cafeterias, hotels, institutions like hospitals and schools, and sports stadiums.

Baldor buys its produce from 1,000 regional farms, both big and small, and trucks in out-of-season produce from the West Coast. A visit to the company’s website discloses a vast cornucopia of edibles and victuals for sale. A few clicks discloses a gastronomic wonderland of fruits and vegetables, organics and cold cuts, meat and poultry and seafood, specialty and grocery items, dairy and cheese, bakery and pastry, and wine.

When the pandemic hit and restaurants went on lockdown, Baldor’s business plummeted by 85%, McQuillan reports, and the company reacted in much the same way as the Maine farmer. “With Covid-19,” says McQuillan, “all industries in the food business were affected. But we knew that the same number of people in our geographic area would be looking for food and we pivoted to a business-to-consumer platform and began shipping directly to people at home.

“We also knew many corporate types were no longer working in offices and, early on in the pandemic, people were fearful of going to grocery stores,” he adds, “and we began deliveries to apartment buildings all over New York. It’s not that different from delivering to a restaurant.”

According to a New York Times story, the company required a $250 minimum for consumer purchases and delivered 6,000 items within a 50-mile radius of New York City. McQuillan told deBanked it pressed its 400-truck fleet of “sprinter vans to tractor trailers” into service for the residential deliveries. The consumer business and limited restaurant re-openings allowed Baldor “to rebound, but nowhere near pre-Covid levels,” he says. By year-end 2020, the company had furloughed 20% of its workforce.

fresh fishFresh fish is for sale on the fishmonger, outdoor seafood market.[/caption]The seafood industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic’s throttling back the restaurant industry, says Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Seafood is much less likely than poultry or meat to be prepared at home or ordered for takeout. Groundfish like flaky cod, haddock, pollack, hake and flounder, he explains, are especially popular dishes in high-end restaurants in New York, Boston and Chicago.

“Seafood is a celebratory food,” Martens says. “It’s a food people embrace when things feel good. It’s covered in butter and people eat it outside when they’re with family and friends.”

Early data, he says, showed a 70% decline in “landings revenue” at the non-profit Portland Fish Exchange Auction, the major marketplace connecting fishermen with wholesalers and processors. Some fishermen and lobstermen have had some success selling directly to consumers by switching over to scallops and other seafood popular with Mainers who, Martens asserts, are somewhat more inclined to prepare seafood at home than people in other states.

But what has really given the industry a boost, he says, has been an anti-hunger program run by his trade association. Seeded with $200,000 from an anonymous donor, and bolstered with $200,000 received through the CARES Act passed by Congress last year, the program purchases seafood at a fair price and funnels it to food pantries. “Maine is the most food-insecure state in the country,” Martens says. “and high quality protein is hard for a lot of people to find.”

The program contributed enough fish portions to contribute to 180,000 meals in 2020, while helping soften economic damage to fishermen. “Now we’re seeing some stabilization with outside restaurant seating,” Martens says.

“A LOT OF OUR RELATIONSHIPS ARE WITH CHEFS AND THEY HAVE FAMILIES”

Sam Cantor, who is vice-president for sales at Gotham Seafood, a New York broker doing an estimated $16 million in sales, according to Buzzfile, sounded glum and subdued in a telephone interview with deBanked. He reports that the company delivers salmon, tuna, lobster, King Crab legs, red snapper and other seafood directly to eateries in Manhattan as well as the tri-state region of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The last year has been a burden. “A ton of places are closed — cafeterias, cafes, hotels,” he says. “People are not going to the Berkshires or the Hamptons, offices are closing. In the beginning of the pandemic when (New York Governor Andrew) Cuomo shut down indoor dining it was brutal. And it’s still a difficult situation.”

Describing layoffs at the company as “significant,” Cantor says it’s also been emotionally draining to see the misfortune that has befallen restaurant workers. “It’s been a hard thing to witness,” he says. “A lot of our relationships are with chefs and they have families.”

Gotham has had some success selling directly to consumers by revamping its website and putting money into advertising on the online platforms Facebook and Instagram, he says, but “we’re not back to 100%.”

Cantor also says he is concerned that the country’s commercial infrastructure is at risk of fracturing. “It’s more than just losing your favorite restaurant or what happens to the individual fisherman and farmer,” he says. “It takes a very intricate supply chain for you to get your favorite fish. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.

“I hope my kids don’t have through something like this,” he went on. “The home delivery has been a shining light. But we want travel and tourism to come back. We want people going back to The Garden to watch the Knicks. I’m hoping there will be a renaissance, and this is just the start of the Roaring Twenties.”

Lufax, a Chinese Online Lending Marketplace, to IPO on NYSE Next Month

October 27, 2020
Article by:

Yuan / dollarLufax, an online lending marketplace and one of China’s largest fintech companies, plans on going public by the end of the month on the New York Stock Exchange. Lufax is one of the multiple Chinese fintech companies grappling for a public offering amidst increasing tension between U.S. and Chinese markets.

Offering an online shopping mall for financial products, Lufax connects borrowers to various lending products supplied by traditional and alternative investors alike. Lufax was one of the largest, if not the largest P2P lender in China just two years ago before a major crackdown on the P2P industry forced the company to revamp completely.

Lufax plans to issue 175 million shares that will be priced from $11.5 to $13.5 each, according to a prospectus with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last week. This would net the company around $2.36 billion. 

The IPO would give the company around a $30 billion in valuation, lower than the $39.4 billion valuation it received in 2019 from a major backer Ping An Insurance Group.

Lufax reported more than $1 billion of profit in the six months up to June 30th, according to the filing. Last year, the firm’s assets dropped by 6.1% after a 30% reduction in transaction volumes. This was a cut of nearly all P2P transactions, in compliance with regulation from the Chinese government.

After the P2P industry grew unchecked for a decade, fraud concerns bloomed into outrage as hundreds of platforms covering hundreds of billions of dollars defaulted. According to Mckinsey, from 2013 to 2015, fintech firms offering P2P products exploded from 800 to more than 2,500 companies. More than 1,000 of these firms began to default on their debt, ballooning to an outstanding loan value of $218 billion in 2018.

In response to protests, outrage, and stadiums of helpless borrowers trying to gain their funds back from Ponzi schemes, the Chinese government cracked down hard on fraudulent firms. According to Reuters, regulators placed every P2P firm on death row, stating in 2019 that the industry had two years to switch to “small loans.” The shutdowns have cost Chinese investors $115 billion, according to Guo Shuquing, China Banking Regulatory Commission.

Pivoting away from these shutdowns, Lufax and many firms like Alibaba funded Ant Group are switching to lending marketplaces. Lufax works with 50 lending providers that hold $53 billion in assets as of June. Lufax believes that there are trillions of dollars in the untapped alternative finance market in China.

Square, Stripe, Intuit, Shopify, Talked SMB Lending at LendIt Fintech 2020

October 8, 2020
Article by:

LenditFintech USAThe LendIt Fintech digital conference last week was a sign of the times. This year, millions of average businesses and consumers have had to go virtual: they had no choice. 2020 has been a year of struggle and survival, and a time of great fintech adoption.

Some firms have been more successful than others. Going full digital, LendIt introduced virtual networking at the conference- the first day alone saw 2,171 meetings. Zoom meetings and virtual greetings took the place of handshakes and elevator pitches that would regularly accompany the convention.

On day three, LendIt hosted a panel of SMB lending leaders from Stripe, Shopify, Square, and Quickbooks Capital. Bryan Lee, Senior Director of Financial Services for Salesforce, served as moderator and he focused the discussion on “How the leading fintech brands are adapting.”


THE PIVOT


Lee began the talk by asking Eddie Serrill, Business Lead from Stripe Capital, about how the industry has pivoted.

Serrill talked about how Stripe was powering online interactions and saw an influx of traditionally offline businesses switching over to their platforms. Stripe also saw an increased demand for online purchases and payment.

“We’ve been trying to find that right balance between supporting users that have been doing incredibly well,” Serrill said. “While trying to support our users who are seeing a bit of a setback.”

Stripe introduced a lending product in September of last year and now SMBs can borrow from Stripe and pay back by diverting a percentage of their sales, much like the other panelists’ companies offer.

Jessica Jiang, Head of Capital Markets at Square Capital, talked about how her firm adjusted. Square reacted to fill the niche of their underserved customers by introducing a main street lending fund, serving industries hard hit by the pandemic, Jiang said. Small buinesess that relied on in-person action like coffee shops and retail community businesses were given preferential lending options.

Product Lead at Shopify, Richard Shaw, said that this year his firm learned to be prepared for anything. Everything that Shopify was potentially going to do or planning on implementing in the coming years suddenly became a here-and-now necessity.

“We tore up our existing plans,” Shaw said. “It was like the commerce world of 2030 turned up in 2020. You need to do ten years of work, but you need to do it today.”

Shopify, the Canadian e-commerce giant has doubled in value this year. The firm launched Shopify Capital in the US and Canada in 2016 and has originated $1.2 billion in funding to small businesses since that time.

Luke Voiles, the VP of Intuits QuickBooks Capital, talked about how his team handled pandemic conservatively.

“Five years of digital shift has happened instantaneously due to COVID,” Voiles said. “Intuit is pretty recession-resistant in the sense that you have to do taxes, you have to do your accounting, and the shift to digital helps a lot.”

Business lending was different, Voiles said, as soon as his team saw COVID coming, they battened down the hatches, slowed lending, and pivoted to facilitating PPP.


PPP


Voiles said the craziest thing he has seen in his career was what Quickbooks did to deploy PPP aid.

Within about two weeks, almost 500 people from across Intuit came together to shift all the data they carried on customers to aid applications.

“We were uniquely positioned to help solve and deploy that capital,” Voiles said. “We have a payroll business where 1.4 billion business use us, we have a tax business where we have Schedule C tax filings, and we have a lending business. We were able to pivot and put the pieces together quickly.”

QuickBooks Capital deployed $1.2 billion to 31,000 business in a process that Voiles said was 90% automated. Now customers are awaiting other rounds of government aid.

Square’s Jiang said the initial shutdown weeks in March and April saw hundreds of Square team members working on PPP facilitation through the night and weekends. As the funds dried up those first two weeks, it was clear to Jiang the program was favoring larger firms and higher loan amounts, leaving out small businesses.

“That’s typical of investment bankers, but not very typical of tech,” Jiang said. “PPP is a perfect example of how small businesses are continuing to be underserved by banks.”


THE SHAKEOUT AND THE FUTURE


2020 has been a major shock to the lending marketplace. Voiles from Quickbooks said the amount of work it took to make it through the first wave was a significant shakeout.

“You’ve seen what’s happening with Kabbage and OnDeck and other transactions with people getting sold; there is a shakeout happening in the space,” Voiles said. “The bigger players will make it through and will continue to help small businesses get access to capital that they need.”

When asked about the future roadmap of QuickBooks Capital, Voiles said it wasn’t just about automating banking. Using Intuit’s resources to build an automated system is only half of the picture- the firm believes in an expert-driven platform. After the automated process, customers will be able to talk to an expert to review the data, and “check their work.” Voiles said Quickbooks wants to offer a service that is equivalent to the replacement of a CFO.

“These small businesses that have less than ten employees, they can’t afford to hire a pro,” Voiles said. “They need automated support to show them the dashboard and picture of what their business is.”

Pointing to Stripe’s online infrastructure, Serrill exemplified what successful lenders will offer next year: a platform that combines many needs of SMBs in one place.

“I think it’s really about linking all of this data, making it super intuitive and anticipating the need for their users, so they don’t need a team of business school grads to manage their finances,” Serrill said. “So they can get back to building the core of their business, not figuring out whether they have enough cash flow tomorrow.”

Jiang said the future of small business would be written in data, contactless payments, and digital banking. She sees consolidation in the Fintech space and has a positive outlook on bank-fintech partnerships.

The FDIC granted Square a conditional approval for the issuance of an Industrial Loan Company ILC in March this year. Jiang outlined plans on launching an online SMB lending and banking service next year called Square Financial Services if the conditional charter remains in place.

For Shopify’s future, Shaw was excited to look forward to the launching of Shopify balance- a cash flow management system, and Shopify installment payments. He reiterated that the success of Shopify’s lending division was due in part because making loans was not the entire business.

“Shopify Capital is one piece of a wider ecosystem,” Shaw said. “All these things together are more powerful than individual parts.”

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