Charles Sutherland, Chief Product Officer at Sagent Lending Technologies, joins us today for Episode 101 of the Real-World Branding Podcast. Charles shares his lessons learned through branding Sagent, which branched off from Fiserv, and the power of experiences. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
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Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I'm Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy. And you are back with us, and we're so excited that you are, to hear from Charles Sutherland today. Charles is the chief product officer at what is now known as Sagent Lending Technologies. And one of the important topics we cover is the path to this identity. It is the result of basically a joint venture between Warburg Pincus, the big private equity firm, and Fiserv, which was the previous sort of owner and operator of Sagent. Sagent was the Fiserv lending solutions group until very recently, and they provide technology products that underlie mortgage and auto lenders. And it's been a fascinating process to get to know this company, and to be sort of part of this story. And Charles has a really interesting career, from Accenture, all the way through today. Enjoy Charles Sutherland.
Bill: We are here. Actually, we're talking through the inner tubes or Interwebs with Charles Sutherland, who's the chief product officer at Sagent Lending Technologies. And Charles, we're grateful for your time.
Charles Sutherland: Thanks, Bill. It's great to be with you today.
Bill: Indeed. So let's start as we normally do, and I know that we have a lot to talk about, some new things on the horizon for you and for Sagent. And we'll sort of talk through that story in a minute, but let's start a bit with your own kind of career journey and some of the high points there. Would you mind taking us on a twirl through where Charles has been, and what brings us up to today?
Charles: Sure. So I started my career, oh, almost three decades ago in Canada, in a management training program for-
Bill: Where is that, by the way? Where is Canada? I'm joking.
Charles: Somewhere north of the 49th parallel.
Bill: Fair enough.
Charles: ... so with an Italian computer company, Olivetti. And they had a global management training program, and I started there. And I was supposed to be a pre-sales architect, they realized that was not my calling, and became a product manager; and spent the first six years with them, ultimately running marketing for the subsidiary in North America. And then I went and did my MBA in France, at INSEAD; and from there, joined up in '96 with what was then Andersen Consulting, and began a 16-year career with, first, Andersen, and then living through their brand change to Accenture; through, to leaving as a partner in 2012. They had a role running the strategy for their global business process, outsourcing, and infrastructure business, which was a multi-billion dollar part of the larger Accenture.
Charles: And after that, I did a short stint trying to take a BPO company public, and decided that wasn't that interesting. And then I peered up with a friend of mine who had a startup, kind of industry challenging, industry analyst firm in the IT and services world. And I ran research there for a few years, until landing at what was first Fiserv, and now, for the last six months of the last two and a half years, as chief product officer for the brand new Sagent Lending Technologies, which is our spinoff of what was the Fiserv lending division.
Bill: Right, super cool. And we'll definitely get into that. Just since you mentioned it, living through the Accenture sort of rebranding, what was that like on the ground? I mean, I remember when it was happening. And obviously, I think there had been some ... You know, Andersen had been confused a bit; the consulting side, the accounting side. What was it like to be on the team as all of that was taking place?
Charles: Well, it was fascinating. I was actually in the London office at the time, which was a joint office of Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting. So there was all sorts of tensions, and we were competing. And we were aware of the value of the name, and we had tried various logo evolutions of Andersen Consulting as well. But there was a recognition, as the company split, that there was a real value in a new name. And so it was a global competition. They had brought in Interbrand, I believe it was, and a couple of the other big brands. And we got to see some of the ideas. I happened to be in a sort of broader user panel. And they weren't really ... They were very much of that era, of the sort of mid-to-late '90s, late '90s era; and they didn't really land.
Charles: And I think it was either out of Norway or Sweden, I can't remember, but it was an Accenture consultant who actually came up with the name. And it was interesting, because at first, no one liked it. And then very, very quickly, it just kind of took root. And now, I'm sure you'd never find anybody, any alumnus from there who would say there was anything wrong with that name, given this phenomenal brand value that's been created from the success of the business and the clarity of the messaging that they developed over the years, once it launched.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, I remember around that time, there were a couple of really high-profile, what we would call neologisms, newly created words that were launching. Lucent launched around then. Verizon launched around then, and Accenture certainly did too. And being in that, you know, in my own professional infancy in that business, it was so fascinating to watch. So you've been a B2B guy, a tech guy, a services guy, it seems like, most of the way. Was there something early on that drew you to this part of the world? Or how did your ... Any light bulb moments, or how did you sort of figure out what the right path was going to be for you?
Charles: I think, interestingly, a lot of the path along the way was often about an appreciation and an interest in design. That was what drew me to my first job with Olivetti. They were historically one of the great product design companies of the 20th century; back to the typewriter days, and all the way through the PC era. And I found that fascinating to watch, you know, the design element in play in regular office business products. And then I kind of always stuck with that, even during my time at Accenture. The first half of my career there, I actually spent in the media and entertainment industry as a strategy consultant, doing a lot of design work for sports clubs, and music, bands, and things like that.
Charles: And then the second half, what drew me into it was actually taking the principles of design thinking, even though it wasn't really called that, and trying to think about how that could change business services in the way they're developed and designed. So you know, all the way through, Bill, design has always played a role, leading, even, up to what we've done here in the last six months.
Bill: Yeah, definitely. And so reflecting on some of those experiences, and obviously bringing it forward with Sagent, which we'll get to in a minute, are there keys to really good sort of branding on the B2B side, when it comes to corporate and sort of solution-level considerations? Are there specific nuances to tech? What's kind of your take on what makes really effective and well-crafted B2B branding?
Charles: I think what makes it really effective is having a simple narrative for who you are and what value you contribute; and recognizing that in a B2B brand, even when your clients are ultimately, whether they're serving for the business clients or serving consumers, your proposition is still going to be integrated into something greater than you. And if you recognize that in advance, and kind of are thoughtful about the construct, so that you're able to use your messages as building blocks into your client's larger message, then I think you can be successful.
Charles: When people fail, they sort of have ambitions that go beyond helping their first-line, direct clients, and wanting to be something bigger and better. And sometimes those are ambitions for, you know, attracting bankers or public markets. And sometimes, their just ego. And I think the success of a B2B branding effort is often about subsuming your ego, both as a leader and as an enterprise, and realizing that you'll get carried through to success by the way that you enable that first line of client in the business beyond you.
Bill: Right. So it isn't always about making the world a better place for the good of humanity. Yeah, they're-
Charles: No, exactly. And that is-
Bill: It sounds like journey sort of awareness, and-
Charles: Yeah, it is. You know, it can be tempting to, especially now, where we all want to be associated with something larger than ourselves, to want to claim this larger branding space. And you know, we have to recognize that, like in our case, it's about making the lending experience better for everyone. But that means helping our first-line clients achieve that broader goal. It isn't us, you know, as the sort of mass-transformation efforts of the global lending industry. We're just an enabler for our clients to make things better on an incremental basis through what they're doing.
Bill: Right, makes sense. And to your point, it is tempting, certainly, if you're in the lending business, to start talking about, "Everyone gets homes, and everyone gets cars." But that seems to ignore multiple steps in the value chain, and kind of, really what you're doing day in and day out.
Charles: Absolutely, it does. And you know, I had an experience earlier today, even, that helped ground that for me, which is we were meeting with JD Power, and they were taking us through how our clients, lenders in the auto industry, are seen by their auto dealers as partners. And you know, it helped us. We did it so we can understand how our technology might enable the lenders to then help the dealers, to then help the borrowers. And when you think about that layer of a Russian doll, or layer cake, or whatever metaphor you want to use, you realize that you're just a component within it. And as much as you would want to always say, "Hey, here are all these direct things that I'm doing," oftentimes, you have to recognize that your role and your contributions are more indirect or more implicit in the building of that story.
Bill: Right, right. Make sense. And so here you are, you know, take the job at Fiserv in June of 2016. This is a large, well-known, well-regarded financial technology company. You're role is VP of product management and strategy for the lending solutions division of Fiserv. And the decision is made that this division, under the offices, I guess, of Warburg Pincus, as well as Fiserv, will spin out to become an independent entity. Could you take us through a little bit about ... You know, so that happens. What are the priorities associated with a transition like that? How do you guys process that, kind of intellectually? And we'll get to the branding story in a minute, but tell me about what that experience is like.
Charles: So it's an interesting experience. I've bought and I've sold companies in past roles before. This is the first time I was involved, really, in the creation of a joint venture. And what we were aware of is, first and foremost, we were motivated by doing the right things by the clients. It wasn't about what we were doing for ourselves, or even for the rest of our associates. It was for the clients, it dictated first. And then we had to walk back and say, "Well, okay. What two make sense? What is the value, and what are the roles that make sense for us, still, with Fiserv?" And they're a technology partner for us, a services partner, still in what we're doing, still partial owners. But we also needed to strike out on our own independence.
Charles: And so through the whole process of setting that up, we, as a leadership team, were always thinking about, where is that balance? What parts do we want to take from the past? What parts do we want to start afresh with, or do in a new or novel way. The practices we had as 5% of a large, publicly listed company are going to feel different as, you know, a mid-sized, multi-hundred-million-dollar, but still mid-sized revenue business that's independent.
Bill: Right, definitely. So there's, sounds like a whole host of operational considerations, in part, related to relationship management and account management; and then a lot of, in a short period of time, mind you, pretty deep thinking about vision and about opportunity. What were some of the advantages that you saw, or potential advantages, in sort of declaring independence and proceeding under an umbrella of your own making?
Charles: I think the first was being able to tell our story to the specific set of clients that we have. You know, it's a B2B company. Reality is, for what we do in auto, consumer, and mortgage lending, there are, at best, today, 200 potential clients for us; clients or prospects. And so, you know, I think there's five or six decision makers or influencers at the top of each of those. That's 1,000 people we're trying to speak to. Our ability to be independent allowed us to create a specific message, now and going forward, to that 1,000 to 2,000 people that mattered for the growth of our business and what we wanted to achieve. That's different.
Charles: You know, when we were with Fiserv, we were part of a machine and a corporate entity that was messaging to thousands of community, regional banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions in North America. So our ability to tell a story specific to the product set, and the types of clients, and the types of client roles, and BI roles we had, was limited; because if you're a $5 billion company, you don't necessarily want a steady stream of messages about auto lending to captive auto lenders; that you've got a lot of other stories to tell about payments, and investment services, and credit cards, and bank services, and the like.
Charles: So I think being independent, Bill, has given us an ability to cater a very specific message, again, that's in support of a B2B audience, that is looking and listening only for that message, and not necessarily wanting to deal with a broader set of messages about fintech or services.
Bill: Now it makes sense. Looking inwardly, I mean, one of the topics that we tend to get into pretty frequently here on this podcast is brand, as an internal concept. You have a team of folks who were also spinning out of Fiserv with you. What was sort of the, I guess, the task, as it related to culture, and sort of functional expertise, and knitting together ... I mean, was it a big task? Was it a small task? How did you all think through the internal aspects of this?
Charles: It was a relatively big task. We had an opportunity, as a leadership team, that many of us, many of which were relatively recent to this industry; to determine what were the things we wanted to keep, messages, values, business practices, culture; and what did we want to supplement that made sense, or create that made sense for the business, that we were trying to be in the size we are today, and the size we want to be in the future.
Charles: And so, you know, early on, actually, we had the luxury of announcing this transaction back in February, and then closing it in March of 2018. And then we didn't actually launch the new brand until late September. So that period of March to September gave us the opportunity to both create this brand and what it stood for, but importantly, early on, internally, to set the message around the vision we wanted to have and the five core values. And those values were incredibly important, because we were asking people that had built their career in either Fiserv or in other entities that had previously been absorbed; and to now attach that to what then became Sagent.
Charles: So we felt, all along, that it was the values that were going to get us through what has been a very active nine months of this year, from the point we announced this, through to when we'll be fully independent as a company on December 31st of this year, from a systems point of view.
Bill: Yeah, exciting. So let's get into the branding part of this, which I know is a small but important part of the overall kind of integration and go-to-market; the process from Fiserv Lending Solutions, ultimately to Sagent Lending Technologies, and as you said, Charles, a lot that lies beneath that; vision, mission, values, a whole new look and feel, obviously naming and logo. Reflect, if you would, on that process, and some of the seeds that led to Sagent, and kind of the team's perspective on all that was sort of part-and-parcel in making the switch.
Charles: Well, I think the first thing we had to do was recognize back to the very beginning. And when we're creating a brand, we're still creating a brand that's ultimately in support of our direct clients. Our intention was never to create a consumer-facing or mass-market brand. And so it started with that. So how do we create something that is strong enough to tell our story, but isn't overwhelming what our clients do? And that was particularly important because there had been a lot of brands created in our markets in the last two years, from startups who have that broader, life-changing ambition. So there was a perception of those brands, and we wanted to make sure we weren't being pulled along in that riptide. So that was a big consideration early on.
Charles: The other consideration was recognizing we have this duality. We're both in auto and mortgage, and we have origination products and servicing products. And those have different buyers, different attributes, different value propositions in some cases. And so our brand had to represent a couple of things, early on, we realized; one was a journey, that this was a journey from Fiserv and its predecessors for our business, into something new. It was a journey about where we're taking lenders, and it was this journey that we were doing in partnership; whether with clients, or with business partners, and with their own associates. And that helped form a lot of the early thinking and the feedbacks of the workshops about what we wanted to achieve.
Charles: I think the other thing we did early on was, we were, while we were trying to keep this, on one level, to a fairly small group, just for logistics and managing awareness in the market or rumors on it, we did do a good job of pulling in leaders from the different functional groups; and getting a chance at different age groups, and different role responsibilities, and locations, and job experiences, to kind of comment on what was important in a brand, a new brand, for them. And I think that was very helpful. So we didn't suffer from, you know, groupthink from a limited group that was in a walled conference room, and not pulling in from broader perspectives within our own organization.
Bill: Right, no doubt. So the name is Sagent Lending Technologies. Maybe you could take us through a little bit of the story of the name and of the logo, that I'll let you describe it, and ask our listeners to click on it and take a look. But tell us the story of the identity.
Charles: The identity, we recognized that we are in the business of providing expertise; that we are a business that, in previous generations or iterations, had been around for generations. We have employees who are second and third-generation auto tech and mortgage technology after their parents, and grandparents, in one case. And so we wanted to recognize that we had this wisdom, and an ability to help our clients, whether startups or established, grow and make the lending experience better. But we also recognize that ... And that's where the "sage" part comes from in Sagent. The "agent" part merging in there comes from recognizing that we really wanted, we felt that we were and wanted to be recognized as an agent of change; that we weren't about tying things down and locking things in place for decades to come. But we were facilitators of whatever new trends, evolutions, requirements were happening in lending.
Charles: And so Sagent was a nice way of bringing together the ability for us to have a vision and wisdom, but also to be an agent of change and a catalyst. And so hopefully, people see that in the construct of the name. And if they're even more industrious, if they look at some of our early advertising to establish that brand, you can see that duality come between, you know, being the engine block that drives growth and the inspiration coming from wisdom, and good practice, and insight to help people change.
Bill: Excellent, excellent. And then the look and feel of the logo and sort of surrounding materials is also distinctive, certainly, for ... It's very different from Fiserv, distinctive in the category. Could you speak a little bit about the kind of energy that underlies it, some of the metaphors, visually, and other things that really connected for you and the team?
Charles: Yeah, sure. You're absolutely right. So early on, we determined we really did want to have a logo. So in the Fiserv world, they had built tremendous brand value of association of the color and the name, to a degree that's really quite amazing and admirable. We wanted to create our independence by not following the exact same group. I think that would have felt strange, both for Fiserv and for ourselves.
Charles: And so we wanted a logo, and an ability to use that, and have some ability to play with that in ways. Early on, I did mention, we wanted our brand to feel very common speak. We wanted to be able to communicate in a relaxed manner that sort of betrayed that wisdom, but also that desire to be an agent of change. And so the leaf logo, A, it tied to sage; B, you see that creation of the duality I spoke about before in the way that the leaf comes together with, let's call it an "S" vein; again, tying to the "S" for Sagent. But also, it allows us to create that sense that we're on a path, and that lending is about, on one hand, automotive. On the other hand, it's about mortgage and consumer. So there's that duality. It's about us and our clients, that two sides to the coin. It's about systems and services, because we're not just a technology company. We're a provider of business services as well.
Charles: So in most ways you could think about us, there was some form of duality. And so the leaf logo has really played that role. And it's great, too, because it creates a brand identifier in an industry where mostly the name itself is what is associated with fintech. Or there's quite a very literal, in some cases, some of our competitors, that the logo is exactly the name. And so there's no real ability to tell a story and build a journey around the logo. And that's what we've been able to create, is something that stands on its own. So in our new offices in King of Prussia, the use of that leaf becomes a common theme in the privacy screens of the meeting rooms, or in the logo of the associates or clients; even to using it as a living wall as you enter into our building, as sort of an inviting sense of something that is; you know, all about growth, and all about feeling the business come together.
Bill: Right, absolutely. And this has launched recently. Could you speak a little bit about the launch process? As noted, there was an internal piece, certainly, over the summer; and as the work came together, a variety of folks who provided kind of key-voice insight and input. There have been some shows, I know, this fall. There's been some launch advertising; some of the kind of core milestones to make this real and begin to educate the market.
Charles: Yeah. So we did a couple of things. One, we wanted to build a sense of excitement. So we ran internal sort of unveils toward this all through the course of the summer. So we had things that hinted at what the letters of the name would be and how we were isolating down color choices. I mean, it was phenomenal. Both clients, third-party advisors, internal associates were all, from the very moment that we announced this, they were all obsessed about what color we were going to be-
Charles: ... because they think it's a reflection and a tribute to how powerful the orange color was for Fiserv. So we had that going on. And then ultimately, we went for a two-step launch. So we launched to a select number of clients and internal associates on the 19th of September. And then on the 20th, we went to the broader. You know, we did everything from drop boxes that brought together sort of the themes of Sagent to people. We did various videos. We did custom videos to clients to kind of talk about their role in helping us make success, being successful. And we spent a fair amount of time and effort trying to build out that initial story of the agent of change and the wisdom, or the catalyst and the vision, in some forms, early on; and give us that launchpad to be recognized, because we were not that known for a period of time to people outside of our core client base, because we were part of this larger entity.
Charles: So you know, it's been a journey to figure out how best to get to and start to build brand recognition amongst those 1,000 to 2,000 stakeholders for us, that drive our business and our success.
Bill: Right. I think, Charles, you are underrating something that sits proudly in my office, which is a Sagent pair of socks in the color, with the leaf. It is a way to ... You know, there was a great brand box, I know, that was sort of developed; which again, this is kind of more downstream stuff. But it had a really well-conceived ... And the team deserve a lot of credit for this ... well-conceived sort of group of premium items, from pens, to notebooks, to socks, that enabled us to bring it into the landscape.
Charles: So there's two things that were very recognizable in that early stage, so I'll speak to the first one. The socks, Bill, is incredibly important. And there was a logic to the socks. The sock was, it even tied to the story from the beginning, which is, we wanted to be something that was there in support, but slightly hidden, but still visible to those in the know. And so the idea of socks were great, because they were ... They're there, and if you see them, they stand out. And they have the leaf image and the name. But at the end of the day, they're still under your trousers or above your footwear. Like, they're there, but they're not there, in a way that a pair of Air Jordans are there, and there's nothing to disguise them, right?
Bill: Right, right.
Charles: And the other part they had is, I really liked the fact that, at least for most people, not everyone does this, but most people wear two socks at the same time. And so it played to that, again, that idea of the duality; that we were the pairing and the partnership side. So it worked on many, many levels. And I now have a box of about 200 pairs in my closet at home-
Charles: ... that I give out to new prospects, partners, and people I meet; and even to the point of, you know, I had the team design for me, because I know myself that I, if left to just hand out socks on their own, would feel a little strange. So I needed some packaging around it. And I also realized that if I had pre-made boxes in my backpack or briefcase, that they just were not going to survive.
Charles: So I had the team build ... I thought back to my favorite packaging from a kid, which was the McDonald's pie boxes; the old-style ones with the sort of oval shape; again, the leaf idea. So the end of the box, when they're created, I pop them up just before I'm going to give socks to someone, to put the socks inside, and that creates that rounded shape and profile of the leaf. And you know, even the two flaps on the end, it's just all reinforcing, and it has the benefit of, they're not crushed and look sad before you even give them to someone. So the socks have been great.
Charles: The part, maybe, that had more of a mixed lesson is, obviously, people wanted mugs. And we went with a planter-theme mug, because you know, the sage seeds and so on. That one's had a more mixed reaction. Most people love it, but my CEO keeps reminding me that maybe people don't want to drink out of a mug that looks like a brown, potted plant. Hits and misses.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt. It always is. It always is. As we wrap, Charles, because I'm taking you over the time that we promised, but thank you so much for being here. You've had a great, sort of fascinating experience that you've just come through, and it's so exciting to see what lies ahead for this company, but also many cool milestones along your own path. Are there any words of wisdom, either about branding or just generally about business, that you would want to share with folks who are listening and have sort of been inspired by the path you've taken? Are there some words that you live by professionally, that we can learn from today?
Charles: Yeah. Actually, there's a timely one, and I'll tie it to Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen movie that's out right now. In my previous career, for a brief period of time, I was the web manager for Queen-
Charles: ... and working with Brian, and with Jim Beach, their manager. This was after Freddie had passed away. And the band was seeking new ways to be relevant. This was before they had, you know, replaced new lead singers, Robbie Williams and others. And so we were working on projects that were digging into the history of Queen; so certain performances, Live Aid, Paris shows. And we built a business for them, taking memorabilia, and building high-end units, and sort of reliving the best attributes of certain live performances. And what struck me there was the power of the experience and the power of the visual element of the brand. And that was near 20 years ago that I was involved in that project, and it still resonates with me all the time. And the timeliness of the current movie kind of brings that to a forefront, because-
Bill: Sure. That's cool.
Charles: ... there's something that still has a brand, still takes on new values. And it makes it experiential. And I think what we're trying to do with Sagent, even though we're a technology and a services company, is find ways to make our value proposition feel experiential. And if we're successful in that, then I think we'll have the basis of a strong B2B brand.
Bill: Right, awesome. So, "Bicycle, bicycle, I want to ride my bicycle," these are the words to live by from that experience. What a cool thing to be part of.
Charles: Indeed, yeah.
Bill: Yeah, awesome. Well, Charles Sutherland, thank you so much for your time, and for the opportunity to take at least part of that journey with you and the team at Sagent. It's a really fun process, but I also can't wait to see what becomes of this company, knowing the strength of the leadership team, and the vision, and all that lies before you. Thank you, my friend, for your time.
Bill: Many thanks to Charles for his time and insight; really fascinating career, and definitely with Sagent, continuing on the upswing. And those socks are really cool. If you're anybody who's in the market for a cool pair of socks, you can Tweet at Charles, or at Sagent, or at me, and we'll try to hook you up. It sounds like he has about 200 extra pair. But thanks to Charles again for great insight on not only the process, most recently with Sagent, but a lot of the other things he's lived through in his career and made happen. As always, three ways to help us here at Real-World Branding, and to support what we're doing. We're back into our biweekly cadence, and we're going to nail this. We're going to do it in perpetuity. We had our 100th episode two weeks ago, which we're really proud of. This is 101. They've all been super fun, and we can't wait to do more as December continues and into the new year.
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