Black Arrow Finance Interview
At SOFT4, we feel our work is meaningful when we see how the products we’ve developed add value to the customer’s business, helping them achieve more than they could before and spend time on productive activities.
Here’s the story of one of our customers, Black Arrow Finance, what main business pains the SOFT4Leasing software is solving for them, and how they see our partnership. Some valuable advice for the peers willing to implement their new software from Don Brayshaw Director at Black Arrow Finance, and David Edne, Systems and Process Programme Director , at the end!
What is exceptional about the Black Arrow’s business, and how are you different in the market?
All finance companies do certain things to function. The Black Arrow Group has two businesses in the United Kingdom, Black Arrow Finance and Red Arrow Leasing, which cover a lot of different types of credit appetite.
We cover everything from good credit to substantial businesses that are looking for a competitive facility, right down to the sorts of new companies which need a lot of understanding and skill to get to the suitable facility. We also extend the services into our vendor business because Black Arrow is entirely for brokers. In contrast, the vendor business operates at a much smaller scale to have the ability to move clients through the system quickly in order to support vendors’ sales.
And that’s where our work lies for the next few months and years: to streamline that process.
For more on Black Arrow’s business in the UK, click here: https://www.blackarrowfinance.com/
What are Black Arrow’s biggest business challenges these days?
Don: The biggest one is always competition. Some people are after competitive rates, while others only care about risk. The same is true for any business. Competition is always a challenge.
David: Other challenges are the software and industry practices. When I first started working with Black Arrow, we were using a DOS-based system, and I thought that was pretty poor form. And then, I went to a show organized by the Finance and Leasing Association. I saw the list of the companies taking part and there were guys from a “Who’s Who” list of companies. I thought that I’d sit tight at the back, not saying anything, and just listen because these guys are all going to be light years ahead of us. And then, the first person’s question related to how he does something on his AS-400. And I thought, “Oh, maybe we’re not light-years behind after all.” It turns out that the field in the UK is conservative, and a lot of these companies were using old systems and old practices.
They weren’t really recognizable as 21st century businesses. The event happened in 2019 and these people were talking about running their businesses on AS-400s and other terminal-based systems. It was a shock. So, we’re looking at what’s happening elsewhere in finance and how they’re embracing technology, processes, and practices to improve what they do. And that’s something that we want to do and bring to the UK leasing sector. I think that there aren’t many people doing anything particularly new or exciting in our field. Personally, I see this more as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, but it’s certainly very interesting.
We were a relatively modest business in 2020. Because of that, we had that opportunity, we had a choice to make, and we chose to actually embrace change in the form of SOFT4Leasing, which has structurally changed our asset finance business and provided us a path to grow based on the software.
It is really essential because it helps us differentiate the business in terms of the flexibility of the service we can now offer with the help of the SOFT4Leasing software.
David, tell us more about your discovery process, how did you pick the asset finance and leasing software, what felt right for your business?
When we looked at other systems, we could have done anything if we had millions and millions of pounds to spend, that’s a given. But within a sensible budget for a company of our size, it quickly became fairly obvious that we would have been restricted by what the software would let us do if we used a competing product.
Some were better than others, but that was certainly the takeaway from a lot of them. Those systems had been built to work in a certain way, and that’s how you had to work if you wanted to use the leasing software. And I’m sure companies do break out of that, but they end up doing it outside of the asset finance software.
And that was a real line in the sand for us. We’ve decided that everything, all aspects of the business had to be managed inside the software we will choose; and that’s something that we got with this system – SOFT4Leasing. And as our needs change, we have discussions with the SOFT4 team. The answer is never no, we speak to the system architects and come up with a way to do it. That’s a real plus for us. And I suspect that we wouldn’t have had that with many of the alternatives that we looked at. So, flexibility and the ability to make something that fits the business instead of having to adapt the business to fit the software is a huge advantage for us.
What are the other benefits the SOFT4Leasing asset finance software adds to the Black Arrow’s business?
We were just implementing SOFT4Leasing, and we started using it in the new business, loading of proposals and documents, and so forth. And then pandemic happened. We continued the implementation through the lockdown, which was challenging, but without the SOFT4Leasing software we wouldn’t have been able to operate at all! It’s as simple as that. We probably could have serviced our existing accounts, but I think we would have had a really difficult job trying to write in a new business.
The nature of some of our businesses is that it is quite complicated and there are lots of bits that make up the transaction, certainly for compliance purposes. Without the ability of SOFT4Leasing to pull all that information together and share it on a common platform, it would have been almost impossible to function satisfactorily. And of course, what we kind of forget about the lockdown wasn’t just about new business, it was as much about looking after your existing clients because most of them had pretty significant financial problems.
So, the ability of SOFT4 to share that and be able to look at that as a group and come up with the right solution for the customer, while keeping correct records, which everybody could see in real time was quite essential.
If you had to go through the software implementation project again, what would your advice to your peers be?
David: Preparation. Make sure that you really, really understand the underlying business processes before you look at the asset finance and leasing software. Revise these processes, consider them, and really understand them inside and out. Make sure your preparation and understanding of your business and what you want to achieve is right. And it’s a good opportunity to re-engineer those processes that you just do because that’s what you’ve always done.
In many ways SOFT4Leasing forced us to look at things we’ve taken for granted. I’ve been involved in quite a lot of ERP implementations of various sorts. And that’s always a theme. You take it for granted that the software is going to work the way you expect, so you might leave things vague. Well, the software vendor can’t read your mind and the software wasn’t written for your company. So, you need to really understand how you want to do everything, document it properly, speak to the software vendor about it. And then, if they say, “Well, actually, this software doesn’t work like this, it works like this instead,” consider that and think, “Well, that could work, that could be better.” So, prepare, prepare, prepare.
Don: Yes I think that preparation is absolutely paramount. You have to get it right. But I think that the most important part of implementing a new leasing system is grasping the fact that you’re actually implementing a new system instead of a new version of the old system. So you have to ask yourself, “What does the system do? How does it work? Out of the box – how does it work? So therefore, how can that fit into my business processes?”
One of the SOFT4Leasing strengths is the fact that the platform it’s built on is written by Microsoft and it’s really, really flexible (note: Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central). It can do whatever you want it to do, within reason. It works in a robust and efficient manner. Perhaps you want to adopt some of the processes that it already has? But it’s sometimes a really difficult thing because some of the more experienced members of the staff that are really vital to the process, might be very stubborn when it comes to buying-in because they’ve always done things in a certain way. You need to engage with these people, you need to get them to understand the real upside of how the new system will work and then prepare in the light of that, making some early decisions about the way your business is going to look because if you make late decisions, you end up redoing a lot of the work later.
Most companies discuss software implementation as a “finite project”, with a starting and ending date. How did your project go?
David: When we started, we considered it to be a phase one. Even now, it’s an ongoing living project. I think everyone in the business recognises that you don’t just buy this, put it on the shelf and it’s done. Everyone understands that it needs to be revised and changed. Continual improvement is vital if we’re going to grow as a company. We can find all the sticking points, all the things that aren’t quite right, all the things that could work better and refine them. And if we’ve been live for 18 months now, the software now is very different from what it was 18 months ago. But the changes were small, so every change wasn’t a big deal by itself but when taken in as a whole, these changes have made people’s lives in the business so much easier. A big plus and a real competitive advantage of SOFT4Leasing for us was the underlying Business Central package (note: Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central. SOFT4Leasing is a certified addon on the D365 BC platform). The accounts are so good, so we knew that we didn’t have to worry about that. It made the deal for us. We knew that whatever we did for leasing, the accounts part was going to be perfect. And it really has been great. So that’s something we’ve got an enormous value out of.
Don: The interface is just so information rich. Once the staff got over being a little daunted by being overloaded by information and understood that they couldn’t break this information they wanted to have, once they got over those two hurdles, it’s been invaluable, and our staff’s been really engaged in developing the processes and the system to the extent where it’s now really efficient. Now, we have very few problems. The business works very, very smoothly. Our business is entirely workflow-driven, and we can see how we’ll get to the results we’re trying to achieve. Overall, it’s been an interesting and rewarding process.
If you looked at the project three years ago, it was a mountain, but we’re past it now. We can see the path to our goal. There’ll be small hurdles along the way. But there’s nothing to stop us now. It really is a case of what we want to do.
For SOFT4, working together is about the partnership. What is it about for you?
David: Well, I think working together is quite rewarding. We just spent some time today sort of looking through the upgrade path to the new version of SOFT4Leasing. It’s quite rewarding to see some of the changes we’ve made and suggested being incorporated into the wider SOFT4Leasing product. So, we kind of think that we’ve added some value, even if it’s a bit egocentric of us. (Note: SOFT4 team are nodding their heads and totally agree – our customers with their insights bring the most of value to the new product releases!).
Don: I think the first thing to say is that because we deliberately chose a non-single source code partner, it made a huge difference, because we knew that we could ultimately, depending on how much it cost, have what we wanted. It certainly was a big factor in making the decision to purchase SOFT4Leasing. And I think when you’ve bought that sort of product, and particularly when it’s on a Microsoft platform, which means that it’s quite malleable, you are inevitably going to build a relationship based on partnership. It’s not about the vendor and the customer, it’s about partnership because there are upsides for both sides and the wider SOFT4 community. Everybody needs to grow and get involved with it because the more people use the product, the more ideas and development enter the pool of knowledge, the more refined the SOFT4Leasing product will become.
I would also say that with somebody who’s more of a partner than just a vendor, and it’s something we’ve had real value out of, is how quickly your analysts have understood the problems we’re facing. We have a conversation with them and they’ll often make suggestions we haven’t considered because they know leasing and aren’t just trying to sell us on what the software does. They truly understand the problems we have. It’s a real pleasure to know that you can voice your concerns or challenges and know that they may have a solution you’ve never thought of. And there’ve been several times where the SOFT4 team has come to us with a solution for a problem that we wouldn’t have thought of.
Any advice or insights to other leasing companies, or your peers?
Don: The key thing about any leasing system and business is that they tend to change every five or ten years. But why do you need to change? The only reason for change is that the software product has become outdated. Now, one of the key reasons we bought SOFT4Leasing (obviously apart from the lovely SOFT4 team themselves), was that it’s a Microsoft-backed product. So we’re fairly confident that Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central – or whatever Microsoft is going to call it in the future because they love changing the names (Note: what today is called D365 BC, previously was called Microsoft Dynamics NAV and Navision) and SOFT4Leasing, will still exist and we will be using that system for as long as the business itself exists because it’ll only get better and more refined. And having worked in the industry for 30 odd years, there tends to be an attitude of, “Well, there must be a better system out there,” and people go looking because their existing system doesn’t do something cool and maybe the author of that software won’t do that. And with Business Central and SOFT4Leasing, you’ve got something that can always be developed and will be developed. It’s going to be fit for the 21st century and maybe even the 22nd.
David: If you’re a larger company, you’ve got different challenges. You know it’s going to be harder to implement. You’ve got tens of thousands of contracts. But for us, our problem is always going to be resources. There were only so many of us working at this, while also operating day-to-day. And when it comes to the partner that you have, it’s essential that they appreciate your resource shortcomings and will fill it around you. And you need to trust them to do that instead of upselling you, to not do what suits them rather than you. For a smaller company, that’s extremely important. Normally, when it comes to implementation, you might have a team of three or four people. Until it’s done, implementation is their permanent job. But we didn’t have that. There are plenty of systems I’ve worked with in the past. You just couldn’t implement them with the resources we had. So, for us, it was great. There were other out of the box products that are big in the UK market, but we’d have rather stuck with what we had as they weren’t really an improvement. Some were a sideways step at best, others better in some ways. But they were not worth the effort of a massive change like this. So to get something with this degree of flexibility and power that could be implemented by a small company? It’s very unusual.
Thank you and appreciate Black Arrow being a customer of SOFT4Leasing!