At its office in the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico County, West Creek Financial is using cutting-edge tools of computing and old fashioned customer service to build a national business.
The company, founded in 2014, provides point-of-sale, lease-to-own financing for consumers to buy home appliances, furniture and mattresses.
It has signed up hundreds of retailers — about half small, independent stores, and half larger chains — across the country to offer the financing for customers. West Creek itself has hired 26 people so far and expects to have 70 employees on board by the end of 2017.
“We have pretty aggressive growth plans, and we are right on track for that now,” said Boomer Muth, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
West Creek’s “secret sauce” — as Muth puts it — is a proprietary computer program that enables it to analyze large sets of financial data and approve more customers for lease-to-own deals, in a way that is more transparent for the buyer than the typical kinds of deals offered in the lease-to-own marketplace.
“We are taking data science skills and applying them to an industry that does not have a history of using data science,” Muth said. “Our key is getting as much information as we can to make the most intelligent decisions, utilizing machine learning and big data.”
While the company does not reveal details about its computer algorithm, Muth said its decision-making methodology enables it to get approval rates exceeding 70 percent for lease-to-own deals that typically average about $1,000 in value.
West Creek looks at larger data pools than simple FICO credit scores, and Muth said the company looks for reasons to say yes, “where our competitors look for reasons to say no.” Yet even with higher approval rates, the company is able to use its data systems to keep its risk profile in line, he said.
Since booking its first retail customer in November 2014, West Creek Financial has sold its services to 550 retail stores in 32 states. Mattress Warehouse, the Maryland-based chain that has more than 200 locations in 13 states including the Richmond region, is one of its largest customers, Muth said.
Muth estimates the U.S. lease-to-own marketplace at about $11 billion a year, with a handful of major competitors that offer financing including Progressive Leasing, Acceptance Now, and Simple Finance.
To win customers, “we also have to be a company that is very service-focused,” Muth said. “My goal is not for us to become the biggest, but what I want to do is become big enough that everyone knows we are the best.”
Muth graduated in 2002 from Virginia Tech with a degree in mechanical engineering and started his career as an analyst for credit card issuer Capital One Financial Corp., where he was introduced to the tools of big data mining and machine learning.
In 2007, he started a home health care business, called Richmond Home Helpers, specializing in senior care.
He sold that business in 2012 and co-founded West Creek Financial in 2014. His other co-founders now serve on the company’s board.
Soon after, Muth was joined in management by Mark Every — a former manager at AMF Bakery Systems, Capital One and International Paper Co., and a former U.S. Navy officer — who became West Creek’s chief operating officer in early 2016.
Also joining the company as chief revenue officer was Bob McCarthy, who had worked for 12 years as a sales manager and division vice president for mattress and pillow company Tempur Sealy International and its predecessor Tempur-Pedic.
McCarthy is now building a national sales team for West Creek Financial.
In 2015, the company got $3 million in equity funding to support its operations, including hiring staff, as well as a $25 million secured credit facility, which West Creek is using to fund its leasing activities.
The lead investor was Victory Park Capital, a Chicago-based investment firm focused on private middle-market debt and equity investments. Ten other angel investors joined in the $3 million investment.
“I think (the investors’) interest shows the growth potential” for West Creek, said Rob Finnegan, a West Creek board member and a partner at 2nd Order Solutions, a Henrico-based consulting firm. “It won’t ever be an Altria or a Capital One, but it could be a very substantial firm and a regionally big employer for Richmond.”
The use of big data and machine learning is “gaining momentum and you will see it become more common over time,” Finnegan said. “Consumers won’t really see it. What they will see is better lending practices and higher approval rates.”
By machine learning, the co-founders of West Creek are referring to programming that enables computers to analyze large amounts of data and find patterns or insights without explicitly being told to do so.
The lease-to-own marketplace often has gotten a bad rep for hitting its customers — who often lack good credit history or have limited funds — with hidden fees and other costs that are not explicit in the deals, Muth said.
West Creek’s goal is to bring more transparency to the process, its managers said.
“Most importantly, we want customers to understand the terms of the deal they are entering into,” Every said. “We are overtly transparent on the terms of the arrangement.”
One of West Creek’s first retail clients was Atlantic Bedding & Furniture on Mechanicsville Turnpike in eastern Henrico County. Owner Clark Cavaliere said the company signed on with West Creek as a lease-to-own provider after experiencing “complications” with some previous providers.
“With the ones that we were using, the process was very overwhelming and cumbersome, with the kind of paper documentation and online applications the customers needed to fill out just to get something as simple as an approval,” Cavaliere said.
West Creek offers a more streamlined process with approvals that take only minutes, he said.
“It is very simple and clean,” Cavaliere said. “A big selling point for us to our retail customers was (West Creek) were one of the least expensive with fees and repayment rates.”
He said about 30 percent of the business’s customers do lease-to-own financing. Approval rates are 15 to 20 percent higher than before the business contracted with West Creek, he said. “They definitely offer a lot of value for our business,” he said.
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