Bill Verhelle Builds Innovative Business
Ithaca, NEW YORK, Fall 2018 FORUM
Bill Verhelle ’98 was a newly married first-year J.D. student at Cornell Law School living with his wife, Cyndee, in a small apartment on King Road in Ithaca when his friend Guy Klingler called from Southern California to talk about starting a business. Verhelle recalls their conversation:
“I’m swamped. I have no time and no money,” said Verhelle.
“I hear you, but we can do it,” Klingler insisted.
Cyndee Verhelle also encouraged her husband, promising that she’d find a teaching job to help support them. So despite his heavy course load and demanding schedule as a 1L, as well as the significant student loan debt he would shoulder, Verhelle signed on as Klingler’s partner, and the two launched First American Equipment Finance while Verhelle earned his J.D. degree. The compelling idea behind the business was to make use of new technology to lease and finance commercial equipment, and save customers a significant amount of time and money doing it, says Verhelle.
But most firms were still doing business the old-fashioned way, says Verhelle. “The Internet really meshed with our business model,” he says. “We found that we could run the business from a central office, serve clients all over the country, with e-mail and faxes, and we could give them better service because we could do it faster,” he explains. “It seems simple in hindsight, but no one was doing it then—and that was the new part of it.”
He borrowed money from his partner to help finance their start-up. They each rented a small office. Staffing was minimal. By year ten First American’s many customers included colleges, universities, and other educational institutions; law, architecture, and engineering firms; and health care–related facilities such as small acute-care hospitals.
Part of First American’s success might be attributed to the corporate culture that Verhelle and his partner worked hard to foster.
“Management guru Peter Drucker is famous for saying, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ meaning corporate culture is more important than business strategy,” says Verhelle. “That’s always been something on my mind.”
“At First American it was company policy for us to always deliver on commitments and promises to staff as well as customers, not to make promises you couldn’t deliver on, and to always tell the truth,” he says.
Another contributor to First American’s success was its organizational structure, which was flat and team-based, explains Verhelle. There were no hierarchies. Everyone was on the same level field.
“Bill is a dynamic leader, and yet he’s also humble and a very likable person,” says Klingler. “He’s passionate about what he does and a great communicator. He hires capable people and trusts them completely. As a result, we suffered no attrition.”
Not many companies can make that claim. In 2015 Fortune named First American one of its twenty “great-rated” midsized workplaces in financial services for employee satisfaction and engagement as well as one of the 100 best workplaces for millennials.
Verhelle calls the awards “my proudest career achievement.”
When the company sold in 2012 for a significant amount, Verhelle accepted an unusual offer to continue as CEO for three more years.
How did Verhelle’s early life help shape his later success?
“I grew up in a nice house in a suburb of Detroit and went to good schools, and my parents were wonderful role models,” he relates. “But my father had a business that failed when I was growing up, and my parents struggled financially for several years. Seeing that as a kid maybe shapes you in a certain way.”
In college—Wayne State University, then University of Michigan—he started a lawn-cutting business on the side that helped support him and pay for his education.
“I had a sense that I liked business, but I needed to know more,” he says.
After graduation he moved to the West Coast and got a job with a firm that did equipment financing. “The company treated its staff and customers poorly, and I knew the job wasn’t going to be my future,” says Verhelle. “But while I worked there I was accepted and enrolled in a night school M.B.A. program at UCLA that opened up more opportunities for me.”
“It was about 1993, the economy was good, and my M.B.A. allowed me to get a different job in equipment finance with a good company, Tokai Financial Services Inc.,” says Verhelle. “I had a great experience there,” he reports. “That was where I learned how a company should treat people.”
But he still wasn’t sure he’d found the right path.
“The law was something I knew little about and wanted to know more,” says Verhelle. So, in 1994, he applied to Cornell Law School because he liked its small size and location. “It was so different than what I’d experienced before,” he says. “And I was so excited to be admitted that I flew out there right away to accept, even though I had to defer for a year because I didn’t have enough money.”
The Cornell trip was memorable for another reason too. “I proposed to my wife at Taughannock Falls, and we actually got engaged there.”
Verhelle describes his time at Cornell Law School as “by far the most significant educational experience that I undertook, and so positive.” He explains, “The way it taught me to think about business from a legal perspective, about relationships, and what I learned about myself were all really valuable.”
“My teachers were all great,” he adds, citing Russell Osgood, former dean and professor of constitutional law, who went on to become president of Grinnell College, and Professor Robert Hillman, who taught Contract Law.
Hillman once praised Verhelle for delivering “the best, most articulate rebuttal” to Hillman’s position that the professor had ever heard. “That was the moment I thought maybe all this is going to pay off,” Verhelle recalls.
Verhelle also bonded with a group of friends at the Law School who are still in touch with one another today via a group e-mail.
Today, instead of resting on his laurels, Verhelle is poised to start a new business, Innovation Finance, which he hopes will capitalize on current technological innovations, in particular, mobile devices with apps that allow people to make purchases online from anywhere. (Think Amazon, or even Starbucks, for the equipment finance industry.)
Verhelle lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife, Cyndee, and the couple’s four sons.
~LINDA BRANDT MYERS