Interview with Jennifer Palmer
By Michele Ocejo
In January, Gerber Finance announced the completion of its CEO succession strategy, naming longtime president Jennifer Palmer as CEO with Founder Gerald Joseph transitioning to his new role as strategic advisor and chairman of the board.
Palmer, who began her career as an attorney, started at Gerber in 2006 in the marketing department, quickly moving into the position of vice president of marketing, then senior vice president thanks to her signature work ethic and appetite for learning. In 2013, she was appointed president and has since led the company through multiple years of growth as they have posted record wins.
Here, Palmer discusses her goals for Gerber, her career trajectory and how the ever-elusive concept of “having it all.”
You began your career as an attorney. Tell us a bit about your career trajectory.
Let’s say my professional journey was anything but usual. When I tell the story of how I came to be Gerber CEO, squinted eyes and head tilts are a common reaction. Indeed, I majored in fashion merchandising and graduated from the honors program at Marist College magna cum laude with a triple major in fashion, art and art history and two minors (Italian and economics). Having an aversion to math at the time, I set to leave for Italy for a Ph.D in art history. Math professors were frustrated with me for not taking their classes seriously, while I remained convinced I would never use their subject again in my life. At the eleventh hour, I shifted gears and deferred the overseas Ph.D program to stay close to home and study law at Fordham.
Sometimes, life has a plan and it just works out. As a law student, I had the honor to work for Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s business and legal department. I got to apply law to a business context, as a mechanism to get deals done and achieve goals.
Next thing you know, I had a passion for seeing businesses accomplish their vision and made it my purpose by joining Gerber Finance Inc. The tipping point that made me take this leap of faith was truly the people. My first encounter with Gerald Joseph was my interview, during which he completely deconstructed the conventional expectations for negotiation and valued honesty first and foremost. The people at Gerber were, and still are, handpicked for their unique talents and cognitive diversity. Working on this team provides the rare experience of a virtuous and thriving workplace, where relationships with clients go beyond the balance sheet. This still holds true today and it’s what makes the connection with our clients so meaningful as we help their businesses grow.
I joined the marketing team, where I sought to use my creativity to build the Gerber brand. By raising awareness in our industry and beyond, I understood my efforts mattered and directly helped grow the company. I recognized this was what I was meant to pursue. The Gerber spirit of entrepreneurship, the people, their challenges and goals are what kept me inspired throughout the years. What motivated me was the unique character of every client we took on, each with their challenges and potential, and the relationship we build with them.
Shortly after I joined, our house counsel left, so I was left to myself. Fresh out of school, I never pretended to know the answer to a question or the solution to a problem if I did not know. I was patient enough not to make assumptions and gamble with the company’s money. This is what kept me afloat at that time.
Fast forward to a few years back, when Gerald Joseph, Gerber Founder, shared with me his intentions of moving on to the next chapter. Not for him, but for the company. His forward-thinking defines Gerald, which led him in 2015 to promote me to president and essentially began a slow transition. Less than two months ago, as we ended 2019, Gerald officially stepped down as CEO, putting me in the position. I highly value our relationship as beneficial for the company, almost a kind of yin-yang balance; therefore I am glad he has decided to keep a role at the company, contributing his perspective and still being present overall.
What are your main short-term and long-term goals as CEO?
Fortunately, goals have been part of my conversation over the years with Gerald, thus we have consistently been making key moves in their direction.
Short-term goals include the straightforward “Protect the book.” This is my number-one priority especially given the challenging times we are in right now due to the uncertainty around the economy. While ensuring that we protect our clients, our shareholders and banks, at the same time we have to continue to move forward and “Grow the book.” Fortunately, these goals directly work out in relation to our California expansion. California is a key territory for our business, and while we have a strong historical presence with businesses on the West Coast, our recent appointments of Ed Park and Andrew Hollingsworth to open a new office in San Francisco is another step to expand our footprint in the area which will allow us to protect our collateral, better service our existing clients and increase our local marketing efforts.
The well-being and professional development of our employees is also at the top of my concerns. As a financial institution that does not offer credit training programs, we are competing with larger institutions’ education opportunities. I continuously want to work to improve our teams’ learning experiences, understand the employees’ goals to make the best of their potential. Most employees at Gerber have been here for the majority of their career. It is a priority to spend time discussing their plan at Gerber, so that the company can also better grow.
Finally, long-term goals: Well, our vision for the California branch is to ultimately be an autonomous operation from our East Coast entity, with both sharing our core principles and culture. As a company, I want our people to be a reflection of our business mission, maximizing their potential, all by providing them with the proper environment. This way, Gerber can continue to be a leader within the industry for uncompromising morals and non-conforming uniqueness.
It’s no secret that there are not many female CEOs in this industry. How do you think the industry could attract and retain more women? Was there something specific about Gerber’s culture that others could learn from?
Well, it starts with attracting women to our industry. For college students, male or female, there is not a lot of appeal in commercial finance, let alone for alternative lending, simply because students don’t know much about it. However, the reality is that our industry is full of exciting opportunities; for example, learning first-hand about various industries, walking into businesses and seeing how others run their companies as well as sitting down with your competitors to share war stories and give each other advice. For an industry rich with so much opportunity, it is unfortunate that there isn’t more awareness or interest from young talent.
Thankfully, the SFNet is expanding its efforts to educate and recruit into our industry, and all of us can assist their efforts. We should all make clear the opportunities for growth within our organizations and sharing individual trajectories of successes, all to help educate those new to the industry.
For one, I can testify to the greatness of taking on a marketing position in the industry. From exciting events to educational opportunities, meeting brilliant people and learning about a very special sector, there’s a lot of experience to build on all fronts. It is important to note that even though the task can be demanding, and companies, including Gerber, are allowing for more and more flexibility to accommodate this very work-life balance that, in turn, makes employees happy and better at their jobs. For instance, accommodating our employees’ decision to start a family with a generous paid leave policy, as well as giving them options to accommodate their new schedules, so that they do not have to compromise their career or choose to stop working because they cannot afford childcare.
Gerber prides itself on operating on a mission of “Purpose, Potential, and Profit,” and places emphasis on social responsibility. Can you tell us what this mission means to your day-to-day operations and to your clients?
Gerber prides itself on being the leading lender to companies that are experiencing accelerated growth. However, a lot of growing companies just focus on the top line versus the bottom line. We are more than just a lender; we are a finance partner and we work closely with our clients to ensure that, while they work on growing their business they are also carefully looking at the bottom line so that it follows in tandem the growth trajectory of the top line.
Now, “Purpose, Potential, Profit” came naturally, in that these principles have always been our North Star, so they were easy to articulate. Purpose, because we carefully chose to work with clients whose missions align with ours, clients we can relate to and that are passionate about their business. At Gerber, our Foundation’s volunteer program encourages employees to dedicate some of their work time to community initiatives. Like us, they need to carry the intent of giving back. Potential is the core of our expertise, to see the promise of growth in the businesses we partner with. We are extremely conservative when going into a deal, because we never want to liquidate. In this sense, we are not a “collateral” lender as defined by our industry. We aim to be with our clients for the long haul and build relationships based on trust and confidence in the business. Profit summarizes our quest for growth, profitability in everything we go after. If there are losses, there needs to be a transparent reasoning behind them, because growth should always be the mission and the commitment. Purpose, Potential, Profit is the unique formula leading our work, from believing in a business’ purpose, becoming an advocate for their success, to working hard to maximize it for them.
You have four daughters; what’s your secret to work/life balance?
I am glad you’re asking about this. I realize some can be offended by this question, but the fact remains that working women are still taking on most of the household and familial duties. According to Forbes, they remain more likely to manage the children’s schedules, to be the one tending to them when they are sick, and to take a leave off work when first becoming a parent. These figures hit close to home as I recall the early days of motherhood when I struggled with whether or not to go back to work, but my husband eagerly went back to work just a few days after our oldest daughter was born.
Three more beautiful, healthy babies later, I can say I have accomplished a work-life balance that went beyond this struggle. A colleague once advised me to never let your children see you working at home, a piece of advice I never have and will never follow. Truth is, I often find my children’s lives coming into my work day, whether it’s a call from the school nurse about someone needing stitches, or squeezing in the opportunity to make it to lunch duty or class-time parades. While I care about being present for them consistently, they should be aware of the full story to some extent, to understand that my work, especially my time at work away from them, has meaning and a purpose. Any compromise, for instance sending e-mails through dinner or while watching Disney movies on a Saturday night, is ultimately in the interest of everyone’s wellbeing and development. I want to teach them that a strong work ethic can change the course of your life. For example, I grew up with a flight attendant mother in an era in which cell phones and internet did not readily exist. With all the time she spent away, I learned not only how her job provided me with incredible and unique experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had (going to Singapore at age 10), but I also learned that family moments were about quality, not quantity.
Michele Ocejo is editor-in-chief of The Secured Lender and communications director for SFNet.