Q&A: Wells Fargo’s Chad Lyon

By David Gee

Wells Fargo Distribution Finance, part of Wells Fargo & Company, recently announced the retirement of marine industry leader Bruce Van Wagoner after 45 years in the industry and 33 years with Distribution Finance (DF).

Chad Lyon has been selected to lead DF’s Marine group, and we had the chance to chat over Zoom just before this magazine was published. The conversation has been edited for length. You can hear the entire conversation as a Boating Industry Insider podcast episode, available on our website.

BI: First of all, congrats on the promotion. Our first question is simply how is it going so far?

CL: It’s been good. Obviously, we’re in the midst of some really good times for the industry, in terms of retail demand, so I’ve been enjoying it so far.

BI: Share with us if you would your initial reaction when you were named to the role.

CL: I was incredibly excited, of course. I worked for Bruce and had been in the marine industry prior, so I knew and loved the business already, and was very excited to return. Also, I was very humbled to be following Bruce. Our organization is very strong in a lot of markets, and Marine is probably the market we are strongest in, and Bruce was the strongest figure within that market. So there are definitely some gigantic shoes to fill. And the first person to call me when the news was made official was Bruce himself, and he gave me his views on the transition, and what some of our priorities should be. So it was both exciting and humbling.

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BI: How long have you been in the inventory finance business?

CL: I’ve been with the CDF business, the inventory finance business, for a total of 28 years. I managed some relationships in motorsports, got into our technology finance business, and then most recently had been the managing director for our electronics and appliance business, which is a business that finances about 3,000 independent electronics and appliance dealers around the country. It’s very similar to the marine business in terms of the support we give to dealers and their efforts to get consumers to spend their discretionary dollars.

BI: Do you think that broad, cross-functional background will serve you well in this space?

CL: Yes, I think it does on a couple of levels. It gives you some appreciation for the dynamics of relationships and the product positioning. I’ll give you an example. The electronics and appliance business right now is a little ahead of some other business areas, including marine, in terms of e-commerce and purchasing online. The electronics industry spends more, and invests more, in terms of marketing and creating a robust online presence, although I think marine is catching up. Having different perspectives from different businesses at different stages of their lifecycles is important. I am very aware of some of the factors that influence and impact consumer behavior. I also think the 12 years of Marine experience I bring is also incredibly important because this business is unique. Marine is much more relationship-driven, much more trust-driven, than some of the other businesses I have been in. Understanding that coming in is important and will be my number one priority, versus trying to reset a strategy or other things typical for a new boss.

BI: You traffic in spreadsheets, and algorithms and credit scores and lots of data, but your response reminds me you are really in a relationship business, aren’t you?

CL: Without question. At the end of the day you want to do business with someone you trust and who will be with you through thick and thin. So relationships and trust are really important elements. And we do value that a lot.

BI: Let’s talk about the pandemic-driven sales surge and what that has meant to the industry in your view.

CL: It has created a heck of an opportunity for the business, particularly with the dealers initially, because they were sitting on a pretty reasonable amount of inventory. You see a spike in demand, you see lots of new entrants into the market, you see the sell-thru that continued into the first half of this year. It’s been fantastic. Historically good. There are going to be some challenges I think in terms of when supply will meet retail demand. And then how do we as an industry keep people boating and turn first-time buyers into second, third and fourth-time buyers that this industry was built on?

BI: Are you optimistic about the future of the recreational boating industry? That we can not only keep first-time boaters but continue to create a pipeline of new boaters in the future?

CL: What I believe fundamentally is the importance of forming good habits. What habits have consumers formed through the shutdowns and the restrictions and the social distancing? I think that should be a stronger push for new boaters to stay in than someone who wasn’t quite as committed and was just ‘testing it out.’ This is a very early view, which you can appreciate, but it seems like everyone I talk to in the industry feels optimistic that they have the tools to keep up with these new entrants. And as a result, they feel there can be a better retention rate than perhaps in the past. That makes me optimistic that the industry isn’t taking this for granted, that they are taking advantage of these new opportunities.

BI: We certainly appreciate the opportunity to have an introduction over this platform Chad, and look forward to seeing you in person hopefully soon. Congrats again on the promotion and all the best to you in this new role.

CL: Awesome! I appreciate that a ton. It’s not a huge industry and we need to all be connected and understand and appreciate all the different parts of it. 

Check out the rest of Boating Industry’s interview with Chad Lyon via the Boating Industry Insider Podcast.

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