Todd Schwartz of OppFi: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive

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Honesty and integrity. Your word is your bond: period. It is important to follow through on promises and back it up with action. This helps to establish credibility and trust. Whether it is talking internally or externally, this is a vital aspect of this, or really any job.

As part of our series called “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Schwartz.

Todd Schwartz is the CEO, Chairman, and Founder of OppFi. He is also a Principal at Schwartz Capital Group, an entrepreneurial and dynamic family investment business based in Chicago, IL, and a Partner at Strand Equity, a Los Angeles-based growth equity firm investing in the next generation of iconic consumer brands. Previously, Todd founded the multi-family real estate company Beach Coast Properties in California. The company successfully purchased, renovated, stabilized, and sold $40 million of multi-family real estate between 2007 to 2014. Todd holds a B.S. in finance from Tulane University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

The idea and inspiration behind OppFi occurred while I was having lunch with a friend from high school who was working in a pawn shop. At the store, I saw a woman pawn her wedding ring. It was awful to think that this person had to resort to selling her wedding ring to meet her financial obligations because there were, seemingly, no other alternatives.

This opened my eyes to the challenges facing the 60 million Americans, or 15–18% of the US Population that are unable to access credit from banks and other financial institutions when they need it the most. Banks have typically relied on NSF and Overdraft Fees to service this customer segment. Back in 2011 this was a $30.8 billion dollar market.

I found that there is a lack of products and services for these consumers, and there is a significant opportunity to help them. I recognized this massive, addressable market with a huge supply and demand imbalance, and knew this was a problem I wanted to help solve. This prompted me to launch OppLoans. I started in a one room office, and offered features that these consumers did not have access to, such as loans with no late fees or other hidden fees; simple compound interest loans that amortize and no prepayment penalties to help customers pay off their debts more quickly and avoid debt traps; and reporting to credit bureaus to help them rebuild their credit.

OppFi’s mission of helping everyday Americans gain access to credit has remained intact since the very beginning and remains our north star. Our business has changed from a small, private company into a publicly-traded company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. However, our mission remains the same. We’ll always be committed to championing access to credit and empowering borrowers with more choices.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It may be repetitive, but the pawn shop story really was my “ah-ha” moment.

To my amazement, a woman walked into the pawn shop that my friend ran to pawn her wedding ring. I didn’t understand why she had to do that? Couldn’t she get a loan or a credit card? My friend said, “Our business is booming since banks have tightened credit access. People with poor credit are forced to use alternative credit markets to get access to the money they need for emergency expenses.”

Lightbulbs started popping in my head. Maybe I can change the way people access credit and provide a better option. After doing some research I realized this was a large scale problem that was impacting 15–18% of the US Population.

These consumers not only lack access to credit, but the providers that did exist were predatory, and sought to use their customers as fee income, not as regular customers.

I realized that there is a better way: treat these consumers with respect and dignity like prime customers, and give them access to credit with a path up and out. It starts with the underwriting. It is vital that a customer can afford the loan and has the ability to repay. Additionally, that is why products through OppLoans do not have any origination or additional fees ; loans are fully amortized ; and payments are reported to the three major credit bureaus: we want our customers to be successful and that success makes us successful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“I never lose, I either win or I learn” is a very profound quote by Nelson Mandela. It’s very important to understand that as painful as adversity and struggle can be, it’s often what ends up making you successful in the long run. It’s important to embrace the grind, trust the process and let go of outcomes.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

Early on I read an influential book by Tony Hsieh called Delivery Happiness. Tony was the former CEO of Zappos, the online shoe retailer. His unconventional processes and culture of focusing on the customer were a huge success and led to them being acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion. Tony tragically passed away, but his legacy and ideas in corporate culture and customer philosophy live on to this day and are reflected in many public companies.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I take great pride in the fact that OppFi is a mission-driven company. We always have been, and we always will be. This really sets us apart in how we treat our customers, and helps attract employees that share this mission-driven philosophy. It is part of the reason that I obsess over customer feedback and our Net Promoter Score (NPS) — they demonstrate how well we are driving customer satisfaction. I am very proud that we have consistently maintained a Net Promoter Score of approximately 80.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

We all lead in different ways, but the three things that I think are most important in my leadership style are listening and asking questions; being decisive; and being communicative.

I do not have the time or the expertise to run all aspects of the company. However, I have very strong confidence in the people that I have hired, and I trust them to give me the best advice that they can. I also have the benefit of looking at the company from a holistic perspective; most folks see their responsibilities through a particular lens, but I can see the big picture. Therefore, I ask a lot of questions about how a particular issue fits into the broader company perspective that I hope will elicit the best path forward for the company.

Second is being decisive. When we saw inflation adversely impacting our customers in the spring of 2022, we moved to quickly change the underwriting model to account for this historically high inflation.

Third is being communicative, particularly when it comes to engaging with my team. For example, if I make a decision that needs to be implemented, I want them to do so in the way that I envision, and that requires clear communications.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?

Again, the one that comes to mind and defines the company is how we responded to the historically high inflation in 2022. While this may limit our market, we believed then and still believe that having a stronger balance sheet and more credit-worthy customers is a better business and customer approach than simply building receivables with potentially higher default rates.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

I don’t fit the typical corporate CEO profile — this is my first time as a public company CEO. I founded the company and ran it for several years; then stepped away from the day-to-day operations for several years; but returned after the company went public.

This experience from different perspectives gives me a different and unique perspective on the company, and how I model my responsibilities as CEO.

The main thing that I do as CEO that is different from other senior executives in the company is to serve as the ultimate decision maker, particularly with regards to decisions that may fundamentally impact the direction and success of the company. This means that I can ask all of the questions and gather what I believe to be all of the relevant data, but ultimately I am the one that makes any final decisions.

You also have to understand that these decisions are made with less than perfect or complete information — there may be data that you can’t obtain in time or unintended consequences that you aren’t aware of, but ultimately you as the CEO still have to make a decision that can have a profound impact on your company.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a C-Suite executive? Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest “myth” that I have to contend with is the assumption that I don’t have time to engage with my team. The implication is that my team members’ questions are not significant enough for me as CEO to engage on. However, I would generally prefer that my team engage with me directly, rather than let issues fester or make decisions without my input. As the CEO, I do not need to be privy to every decision, but I want to be aware of what decisions are being made, not so I can necessarily have input into them, but so that I can be aware of what decisions are being made at the levels below me.

Thankfully, I have an extraordinary team backing me up, so having awareness of other engagements within the company is important to me not necessarily because I want to be part of every decision, but because I need to have a strong level of awareness of what is occurring throughout the company.

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Like I said, taking the time to listen to your team and understanding that you don’t have all the information and answers is vital to the success of a CEO.

As CEO, I also have to understand that part of my job is telling my team “no.” This may mean rejecting a project before it begins but may also mean stopping it even after the team has invested time and resources preparing for a launch. This may be challenging, but it is a vital part of my role as CEO.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

C-level executives must be effective communicators. Being a good communicator helps the people you lead to better execute on your priorities, and enables you to communicate your vision and strategy to the wide range of stakeholders that you communicate with daily, including your team, investors, media, the board, and other internal and external audiences..

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

For me, there are five bedrock principles that I have used to guide my leadership approach and ability to be an effective C-Suite leader. These elements include:

1. Honesty and integrity. Your word is your bond: period. It is important to follow through on promises and back it up with action. This helps to establish credibility and trust. Whether it is talking internally or externally, this is a vital aspect of this, or really any job.

2. Grit. You have to have the strength and determination to make and stick by decisions, even if they are difficult. If you get a reputation of changing your mind at the first sign of push-back, you will constantly have to deal with that. Better to make a decision and follow-through than continually second guess yourself.

3. Have a Passion for your work and mission. It is vital that you as a leader have passion for what you do. It’s a cliché, but work you love doesn’t feel like work. Working for a company with a clear vision and set of values that align with your own goes a long way. Also, trying to make decisions and stay focused on a mission that you are not all in-on can be challenging.

4. Collaboration. Fostering and maintaining a collaborative culture is very important because it allows anyone to contribute and provides a sense of empowerment and facilitates better engagement and decision-making

5. Accessibility. I mentioned this earlier, but I will include it as a “bonus” point: You cannot be a successful leader if you do not interact with your team. The people you lead want to hear from you and feel that sense of connection, especially in remote and hybrid working environments.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Fortunately I can speak from a little bit of experience here- OppFi has repeatedly been recognized as a “best place to work” by Crain’s Chicago Business and other local publications.

I’m a big believer in meritocracy and that means being OK with failure. We all fail; but the most important things are not to punish failure and learning from those mistakes and continuing to push. Empowering employees with that mindset, along with the tools and resources necessary to succeed, fortifies company culture because it’s real and not something we confine to a piece of paper. We live by these values.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thanks — I appreciate that.

I am lucky in that I was able to recognize my passion and turn that into a successful business that is able to help over a million customers. I think that is the strongest take-away that I would leave folks with — find your passion -if you love and are passionate about what you do, work does not feel like work. To me, having passion and putting it into your work is a great marriage that will enable you to be successful.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Aside from my LinkedIn, I highly encourage you to check out OppFi’s website to stay up-to-date on news and upcoming announcements.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Todd Schwartz of OppFi: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.