Sean Farrell’s family business, which sells and services ATMs, money counters and other banking technology, boomed as the nation’s lenders thrived. But in the aftermath of the financial crisis, work at Quality Data Systems Inc. slowed to a crawl.
“We were the pinnacle of profitability,” said Farrell, who took over recently as chief executive of the Monroe company his father started in 1983. “But when 90 percent of your business is financial institutions and they are not buying anything, it’s obviously going to hurt.”
Business is picking up again at the company, which employs about 20 people and serves clients across the Southeast. But the products and services banks and consumers are looking for have changed.
Farrell, 31, spoke with the Observer recently about the changing finance sector, staying ahead of trends and managing through a downturn. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How has your business changed since the recession began?
Financial institutions kind of went into just-trying-to-survive mode. And recently the weaker ones have gotten gobbled up by the stronger ones. They have also seen a lot of revenue streams reduced by government regulation – the amount of money they make when customers use debit cards at a merchant, for example, has been cut.
A lot of our clients now are looking strategically, because the revenue isn’t there, and they have to find a way to get themselves profitable again, get their stock making money again. Bankers are trying to find new ways to do business with folks.
Q: What role does your company play in those discussions?
We are helping people drive expenses down. We consult with clients and say, OK, if you would like to enhance your deposits, this technology is the way to do that. The majority of our time spent in financial institutions is involved in the teller line: How do we make that more effective?
Banks are rolling out self-service teller lines, where one teller can service two or three stations, kind of like grocery store self-checkouts. Mobile banking has become very successful, too. We can deliver a custom-branded mobile app. One thing we’re involved in is being able to deposit a check from your phone. There is cost involved in improving what customers can do from their mobile device, but it’s obviously much cheaper than doing it in a branch.
Q: With all the talk of mobile banking – and with some lenders, including Bank of America Corp., closing branches, do you see the industry moving away from branches altogether?
There’s a delicate balance. Banks are trying to bring the cost out of transactions, but if no one ever goes to a branch, it’s probably hard to cross-sell them on other services. A lot of the cross-selling is still done at the branch level. If you walk in and have a question about a credit card, four out of five times they will close you on that product.
There are still people going to branches. The big focus for us right now is going back and automating the branch. It’s really looking at the operation and seeing where we can make people more efficient. It’s not necessarily cutting headcount; it’s how do we make the existing people more effective? Instead of having their head down completing a transaction, they’re cross-selling and talking to people.
I think branches are going to get smaller, and there’s going to be more self service. There is also going to be a move toward status. That’s kind of a service differentiation of, we’ve got all the things we need for Joe Consumer, but we’re really after the wealthy guy. Banks might have a velvet rope area, putting more focus on higher-end, more profitable services.
Q: As a small-business owner, what was your biggest challenge during the recession?
Access to capital. It has been amazing to be in business as long as we have and to have it be so hard to get credit. We had to go outside of traditional financing to get money to survive. Now we’re here, we’re profitable, cash flow is good. But having to fund payroll every two weeks, it became a challenge.
That’s certainly been a lesson learned. We had run our business very close to break-even for tax purposes. I think it taught us to have a little more cushion. And it taught me how much I hate debt now. I don’t want to have to rely on a bank anymore.
Q. What advice would you give to other business owners about managing through tough times?
The best advice I can give is truly knowing what drives your business, who your customers are, where your profit comes from. Knowing what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be focusing on. Rather than potentially adding products that might put a strain on cash flow, maybe focus more on what you’re already carrying and what drives the majority of your profits.
As a service company, we have always stressed service over profitability, but maybe we were a little overstaffed and not making the money we needed to make to be as profitable. It’s about figuring out what staff you need and the best way to utilize them. We were growing at a steady pace, and we were staffing up to meet the demand. Then, with little or no warning, the faucet got turned off, and holy cow.
Q: Where does your company stand now?
Now we’re back in growth mode, hiring more sales people and service people to keep up with demand. There is demand for what we’re doing right now. In general, the system is healing. A lot of people are waiting to see what happens with the election, but for us, the climate is good. We had a record year of revenue last year, and this year we’re on pace to grow another 15 percent.
And we really enjoy what we do. We get hugs from tellers just about every day, and that’s the rewarding part of our business. You’re literally improving people’s daily activities.