Moving across the world to embark on a new life is hard. Doing it at age 42 with a family to support takes nothing less than guts and grit. That steadfast determination to succeed is what drives Gerald Joseph and the company he built: Gerber Finance.
But the reason Joseph initially moved to the United States had nothing to do with business. Joseph and his wife decided to emigrate from South Africa for their two sons’ education. Rather than separate their family across the Atlantic Ocean, Joseph and his wife chose to put down roots in a new country.
Scraps to Riches
Deciding to come to the United States was also made easy because of Joseph’s professional experience. With a lending background that dates back to 1982, Joseph was an established player in the trade finance industry when he moved, having served as CEO of Gerber Goldschmidt Finance, a subsidiary of the Gerber Goldschmidt Group. Upon their arrival to the United States, Joseph and his family settled in New York and Joseph got back to business by running a small buying office leftover from Gerber Goldschmidt Finance, which was sold to Investec Bank in 1993. Joseph used that buying office as a “launching pad” for what would become Gerber Finance.
While the plan of starting a new business paid off eventually, Joseph admits that he was a bit “cocky” to start one from scratch and that there was a steep learning curve, especially as he familiarized himself with the asset-based lending product, which was not as prevalent in his home country.
“I don’t think I really knew how different and how challenging it was going to be,” Joseph says. “It was especially difficult in a new country where I didn’t know many people, getting our name out and letting the industry know that Gerber was in business and had money to lend.”
During those early days, Gerber worked on a lot of joint deals with factors by handling the inventory side of the equation. This left Gerber with “table scraps” from more established lenders, according to Joseph. However, by taking on more complicated and risky deals, Gerber built a name for itself and when Joseph decided the company should take on the accounts receivable end of transactions as well as the inventory, momentum really started to build.
“Through luck, hard work, some creativity, we landed a few mainstream deals,” Joseph says, noting that the Gerber really took the form it is known for today about five years in. “And as a result, we started getting a seat at the table. And, of course, we built on that. And then over the years morphed completely into asset-based lending.”
Joseph continued to build Gerber after those first five years and helped it attain a unique standing in the industry because of its adherence to his relationship lending philosophy.
“Today I’m proud to say we have a great reputation of professionalism, creativity and of being laser focused on our clients and their needs and helping them grow,” Joseph says.
Forming and sustaining relationships has always been the key for Joseph, especially as he oversaw Gerber’s expansion into working with more seasonal businesses and direct-to-consumer brands long before it became mainstream.
“It’s always been all about the clients,” Joseph says. “I truly enjoy meeting with them, learning about their business and, hopefully, adding value. And because we have such a diverse portfolio in terms of product, it really is fascinating.”
Being able to forge personal connections with borrowers makes for a greater deal of trust between Gerber and its clients, ultimately helping both sides of any transaction.
“We understand that there are ups and downs in every business,” Joseph says. “It is critical to build a relationship of trust with our clients so that they feel safe sharing both the good and the bad with us. If we only get the positives, we are likely to make bad decisions because we don’t have the full picture. So, for me, it’s really important that we sit down face to face with our clients on a regular basis and encourage them to trust us, to share with us the good and the bad.”
Although building Gerber has taken up the majority of Joseph’s career, he knows that hanging on too long could have been detrimental to the business. That’s why he decided to step away from his role as CEO in the beginning of 2020, leaving the company in the hands of its former president, Jennifer Palmer. Since then, Gerber has launched several new divisions and expanded into Canada. In addition, women now make up nearly 70% of its leadership team. Joseph, who still serves in an advisory role for Gerber, says he has been thrilled with the direction the company has gone since Palmer took over, reaffirming his decision to step aside.
“I think it’s true of money lending and finance that the questions that arise are often the same year after year, but with technology and advances in the industry, the answers and solutions change. If you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, it’s easy to think you have seen every problem and know every solution. But over time and for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is technology, solutions change, Joseph says. ”So, for me, it was very important to get out of the way early enough so that I didn’t become a stumbling block for the growth of the company. I firmly believe it is better to leave too soon than too late. I would like to be remembered as being instrumental in building a successful commercial finance company and, in the interest of its continued success, handed it over to the next generation in good time.
In his role as an advisor at Gerber, Joseph still champions education within in his team and the ABL industry at large.
“The ABL industry is to me the university of business. Remember that you have two ears and one mouth — use them proportionately. You can learn so much more if you truly listen to clients, partners and colleagues,” Joseph says.
Now that he’s not working at Gerber full-time anymore (he puts in about three days a week currently), Joseph says that having handed the leadership reins to Palmer, and with Kevin McGarry taking care of credit, he’s sleeping better than he has in the last 30 years. He’s also had time to tackle new challenges, like learning to play keyboard and a decent game of tennis.