Gerber Finance has been exceptionally busy in 2020. In addition to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the company installed Jennifer Palmer as its new CEO and launched two divisions to better serve existing and prospective clients. Through it all, the company has maintained its dedication to service while keeping an eye on the future.
Change rarely moves at the same speed forever. It can be gradual, with imperceptive transformations building up over a long period to create something new. It also can be rapid, with massive shifts occurring at high speeds and forcing an evolution right before our eyes. For many in 2020, change has been in the faster lane, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing major adjustments to all aspects of life.
Gerber Finance has certainly experienced its fair share of unexpected changes due to the pandemic, but the more than two decades old asset-based lending company has made a larger impact with the changes it planned and executed internally. Starting in the very beginning of the year, Jennifer Palmer, the former president of the company, took over as CEO. From there, the business has grown and expanded its offerings, launching Naturally Gerber Finance, a division focused on lending to natural products companies, and Gerber+, which allows the company to provide larger sized deals. However, as much as things have changed, Gerber is committed to holding true to the principals that have built its success since company founder Gerald Joseph launched the business in 1995.
“Gerber Finance has always been about our relationships with clients. We’re not just lenders. We truly are partners with a high touch approach and our people-first team,” Palmer says. “We provide expedited turnaround and direct and real time access to our experienced management team. And this hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s become even more of a focus for us throughout this year.”
A New Leader
Palmer has been an integral part of the Gerber Finance team ever since she joined the business out of law school more than 14 years ago. Originally hired as a business development officer, Palmer’s expertise made her a perfect fit since Joseph expected BDOs to sell deals to clients and Gerber’s credit committee.
“With a credit committee that was mostly non-U.S. based, it meant no face time in presenting a transaction — it all had to be based on a well executed and well written credit memo,” Joseph says. “And, of course, with her legal background, Jennifer could present a case really well.”
Once on board, Palmer became one of Joseph’s most trusted advisors, ultimately ascending to the role of president in 2013.
“As anyone at Gerber will tell you, she has an incredible work ethic, appetite for work and a strong need to understand everything about the business. And she is personable and well liked in the industry,” Joseph says. “It was therefore a natural progression for me, as she developed, for her to become my sounding board in managing Gerber Finance and ultimately an equal partner in decision making.”
Palmer’s progression to CEO really began when she took over as president, but the process accelerated when Joseph began to contemplate his retirement plans more than four years ago. Deciding the right course of action was understandably important for Joseph, who built Gerber Finance from the ground up, starting it initially as a trade finance business following his immigration to the United States from South Africa. That right course of action had to be built on new ideas, according to Joseph.
“I am of the belief that at some point in time, management, after doing the same job for years, start to become stale and need to get out of the way and allow for the next generation to take over,” Joseph says. “After being in commercial finance since 1982, I have seen all the problems, dealt with all the possible questions and of course ‘know’ all the answers — or so one would think. But … it is the answers that change, and I realized that unless I too could change, I needed to get out of the way. And I am of the strong opinion it is better to leave early than leave late.”
Palmer officially took over as CEO on Jan. 1, 2020, with Joseph taking an advisory role as chairman. Palmer’s first year has delivered more challenges than she might have expected, but she has expertly led Gerber forward, spearheading new business initiatives, infusing a greater focus on partnering with woman-owned businesses, maintaining the company’s dedication to service and fostering a tight-knit culture despite a pandemic that keeps employees apart.
“I’ve been extremely proud of how our team has pivoted and supported clients this year. We leaned in and we’ve really further explored the power of partnership, and we’ve learned how we can help our clients navigate various situations working hand in hand,” Palmer says. “I continue to learn the power of good relationships and how people in companies we’ve helped years ago return or refer us to others because they remembered not only our work but also our consultative approach to help them through challenges.”
Palmer’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by Joseph, whom Palmer credits with continually challenging and advising her throughout her career, this year included.
“Certainly not an easy year for the team and not an easy year for Jenn to take the helm. But she and the team have done a remarkable job,” Joseph says.
The Natural Fit
Palmer wasn’t the only person in a new role at Gerber Finance when 2020 started. Andrew Hollingsworth, the former CFO of Numi Organic Tea, officially joined Gerber in January, ultimately helping the company launch its natural products division this fall. However, Hollingsworth had been working with Gerber long before 2020, just on the other side of the table.
As CFO of Numi Organic Tea, Hollingsworth did a debt deal on the company’s behalf with Gerber in 2014, starting a six-year working relationship while also sparking a desire to shift his own career focus.
“The moment I did the debt deal with Numi, I sort of sat at that table and realized that it would be interesting to be on either side,” Hollingsworth says, noting that he left Numi at the end of 2019, leading to discussions with Gerber and, eventually, a new job. “I was kind of itching for a professional change and wanted to continue to be in the national natural products space but leverage my broader skills of finance and accounting and the client side again.”
Hollingsworth’s first-hand experience with Gerber as a lender made him even more excited about the prospect of joining the team.
“They were literally always there when we needed them from the very beginning of the relationship,” Hollingsworth says. “And they really fostered a very direct, open relationship between clients and an ABL lender.”
Hollingsworth, who serves as senior vice president and West Coast regional manager for Gerber, used his experience to help the company build out its natural products division over the first nine months of the year, and now he serves as the division’s head. While a new official division, the natural products space is not a new market for Gerber.
“We’ve been very successful in this category. We’ve worked with companies in the natural product space for 10 years now,” Palmer says. “And with the referrals from the past and current clients and the trajectory of this industry, we only expect this division to continue to grow.”
The natural products division has already signed clients and is working on closing more before the end of the year, according to Hollingsworth, who expects more activity in this high growth area, particularly in the second half of 2021.
As if launching one new division wasn’t enough, Gerber Finance made another splash this fall with the launch of Gerber+. For Gerber, which traditionally provides financing up to $10 million, this new division greatly expands the firm’s capabilities, allowing it to finance deals between $10 million and $25 million. Although it may seem like a large shift, it was one that came together rapidly because Gerber saw the demand in the market and had the right people on staff to succeed.
“Jenn and Gerald’s vision for our company’s growth has always included larger deals, and this was the right time,” Entela Semini, senior vice president of operations for Gerber and Northeast director of Gerber+, says. “The foundation and platform were already in place and that put us in a favorable position to get this up and running in no time.”
For Semini, who has been with Gerber since 2006, the timing of the Gerber+ platform launch coincided perfectly with her own career progression.
“Jenn and I had a conversation about me taking a bigger role in the company around the same time as the company started talking about launching Gerber+, so it seemed to both of us the natural next step,” Semini says.
“Entela is a long-time trusted employee who’s worked her way up through the company and knows almost every side of the business,” Palmer says. “She embodies our partnership-oriented approach and will provide superior service to every Gerber+ client.”
Semini expects Gerber+ to serve two different types of clients: existing ones with larger financing requirements and new ones that may have been out of reach previously.
“I do believe there will be a greater appetite for larger deals entering 2021,” Semini says. “The market is changing daily; the pandemic continues to have an impact on the economy, especially on the small and medium size businesses. This in turn creates new opportunities for us as institutional lenders retreat.”
Thanks to its ability to pivot and its willingness to innovate, Gerber Finance has found success in an incredibly challenging year. Some of that is fueled by the support it receives as a portfolio company of eCapital, an alternative lender with a presence across the commercial finance spectrum.
“eCapital really trusts our portfolio companies to do what they do best,” Palmer says. “They are great partners. They’ve supported us in launching Gerber+ and we’re working closely together to be able to support the growth of companies needing higher levels of funding.”
Now that 2020 is nearing its end, Gerber must look to how it can build on the momentum of this past year to continue to excel. To Palmer, that means changing what needs to be changed while always maintaining the identity of the company to which she has dedicated her professional life.
“We want to continue to be a leader in this space, valued for our consultative approach,” Palmer says. “We want to continue to be leaders in the industry and we want to continue to hire the best team in the business. And we see a future where we may be larger in size but continue to deliver exceptional partner support service with a personal touch.” •
Phil Neuffer is the managing editor of ABF Journal.