Torrie Inouye Interview

 TSL EXPRESS EXTRA 

 Q&A With Torrie Inouye

By Eileen Wubbe

 

Torrie Inouye was appointed president of National Funding, one of the largest private lenders of small business loans. Taking effect in April, this appointment made Inouye the first female president in the alternative lending industry.

Torrie was promoted from EVP of Data & Analytics, the group integral to the insights leading to the company’s 172% revenue growth surge over the past three years. Prior to National Funding, Torrie worked for Intuit’s TurboTax division and Union Bank, among other companies.

 

Tell us a little bit about National Funding and your new role there as president. What are your first orders of business?
National Funding has been around since 1999 and we have been providing financing to small businesses since then. Initially we offered equipment financing and as the economy changed and small business needs evolved, we started to offer working capital as well. My role as president is to continue driving growth through innovation and optimization throughout the business. I have been focused on diving deeper into the strategic and tactical priorities of the areas I oversee and working with the various leaders to ensure we have a clear path to success.

How has FinTech evolved? How do you think it will continue to evolve in the coming years?
The FinTech industry emerged because small-business borrowers found bank financing cumbersome, or were completely shut out of any possibility of borrowing from banks. Now, the service model that FinTech lenders provide has become the norm. Borrowers expect online access, fast turnaround and an easy process for applying. I think we are just tapping into FinTech’s potential to change how businesses arrange for financing. In the coming years, data and analytics will continue to have a bigger impact on how FinTech companies make decisions, and on how we market, underwrite and service the products.

As the first female president in the alternative lending industry, a typically male- dominated industry, what advice would you give to women in the industry now? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
The advice that I would give to anyone is probably universal, whether you’re male or female. If your goal is really focusing on climbing the ladder or reaching that pinnacle, you’re probably focused on the wrong things. I believe it’s more about the journey and learning as you go, from your mistakes and your successes and applying that as you evolve yourself and evolve the business, as well.

Can you give some examples of how you have learned/grown since you started working?

It is important first to focus on your own growth. My approach is to gravitate toward internal resources and people that I think can provide learning, as well as any number of external resources, whether they be from Google, or books, or mentors that you’ve met along the way.

Has mentorship helped you get to where you are now?
I would say in an unofficial capacity I’ve always looked at the specific things industry colleagues did well that I wanted to improve on. Very recently, as I was about to take on this new role, I reached out to some leaders that I look up to and respect and got some advice from them, and hopefully I’ll continue the mentorship process along the way.

One of your first jobs early in your career was at National Funding and then you left to work at Union Bank and Intuit. How was it to return to the place where you got your start?
It was a very natural fit to come back and it was very much a feeling of rejoining the family. I was away for about seven years and, in that time, a lot of the leadership had either stayed the whole time or had left and come back as well. I think in those seven years we all grew and matured. So, we had gained the skills and the experience elsewhere to really take our game to the next level. It was pretty amazing when we all got back together, because we were now equipped with skills we might not have had before to really succeed and take this company to the next level.

Specific examples?
Well, certain people had matured beyond the youthful, sometimes unguided exuberance we see in younger employees; they had taken on a more strategic, less reflexive view of the marketplace. Others had gained experience elsewhere and brought that learning back to improve our processes.

How are alternative sources of capital, such as online lenders and merchant cash advance, remaining competitive and differentiating themselves from the rest?

It is a very competitive space, and there are a variety of approaches to the market. Some have introduced very low touch, high tech models, letting customers do as much online as possible. Others offer more services to educate and guide prospects through their options. Products have been very similar in the space, but I have begun to see more differentiation as the market expands. This could be through different rate, longer terms. We also are seeing alliances spring up, as banks try to recapture share of the small business lending market. Big banks are teaming up with some of the leaders in alternative lending to address this segment. I’m sure we will continue to see this evolve, but there is no question there is a growth opportunity.

How does this play out when it comes to differentiating National Funding?
On the surface, it seems like an easy segment in which to do business, so we’ve seen a lot of new companies sprouting up, many of which struggle. Which brings me to my first point of differentiation. In order to duplicate what we’ve done, it would take years and years, because we have been around for so long. Scaling the company is a bit more challenging. We’ve invested a lot of money, made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot about how to go to market. New businesses can’t match the expertise.

We’ve also cultivated a business model in which our prospects and customers have a loan specialist with whom they can work to help them understand our products and options. Research tells us that customers want this type of relationship. Certainly there is a role for technology to simplify and speed processes, but the human element is critical to our success.

Do you see changes in the segment in the near future?
I think a potential shakeup in this industry is absolutely possible. It’s so hard to scale this business, requiring time and money, and I’m not sure all of the competitors are really prepared to do both, at least in a manner that is both intelligent and profitable way.

A downturn would affect everyone, but National Funding is prepared to outlast it if a downturn did occur, because we have grown our business profitably, we know what works. And we’ve been there - we survived the downturn back in 2008, after all, and come out of it stronger and more diversified, and we’ve been growing and learning ever since.

What are some of the plans and goals going forward for National Funding?
I think National Funding will be a very different company if we were to talk in about a year because we’re investing in technology and in our data and analytics. All across the company, we’re making pretty big investments.
As far as goals go, I look at it from the perspective of our various stakeholders. We really want to help more customers grow their businesses. So, that involves more outreach to prospects and improving our marketing efforts. We also are continually working on initiatives that deliver on our promise of fast and simple funding.

National Funding employees are also key stakeholders. I think we have a very strong and deeply rooted culture that comes with being established for such a long time. One of my goals is to create the climate for the organization to thrive and make sure that everyone is happy to come to work and perform at a high level.