case_oct06_125.jpg

As one of the winners of Ernst & Young’s ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR PACIFIC REGION program, Jim Case submitted himself to intense scrutiny by a top accounting firm and hard-nosed panel of judges, and came out on top. He was deemed a winner in the category of Business-to-Business Products and Services.

Jim Case, CEO of Travelers Financial Group Jim Case ignites each morning with an extra-strong cup of Kenyan coffee. But it’s not just the java that lures the CEO of Travelers Financial Group to the kitchen of the bustling Burnaby office. Simply wandering into this corner of the office is like getting a flurry of memos on his approximately 150 employees’ activities, both personal and work-related. How’s Jim’s wife coping with her teething baby? Is Janie enjoying her new job responsibilities? Did Mark get the chance to tie up that accounting report? Case understands how important employees are to a business, and if any cracks begin to form in employee relations, he’s the first to find out about it. “Our philosophy is, to be the best, ¬retain the best,” he explains, sipping his dark coffee at his desk. “This is a young, dynamic, high-energy workplace. People want to come to work.” Whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working. The group expects to generate $375 million in revenue this year. Travelers Group comprises three divisions: Travelers Leasing Corp. (automobile financing), Travelers Financial Corp. (equipment finance and leasing) and Travelers Acceptance Corp. (consumer finance). Perhaps its biggest success story to date is the creation of Travelers Leasing Corp., which today is the third-largest independent non-prime auto finance lender in Canada, attracting 15,000 applications a month. TLC provides financing to customers ranging from young buyers with no credit rating to new immigrants, the self-employed or those with a troubled credit history. While its head office is in Burnaby, TLC also has a regional sales office in Mississauga and is in the midst of breaking into the Quebec market with a new Montreal office. TLC has forged partnerships with more than 1,700 of the 8,000 auto dealers across Canada, and aims to reach 2,000 by the end of October. It expects to generate revenue of $200 million this year and the three-year plan is to hit $1.7 billion. Case, 46, has been a pivotal figure in Traveler Group’s growth. Starting his career at Citibank, he joined Benndorf Verster Ltd., ¬setting up a leasing and finance division, which led to the formation of Lease West Financial Corp. in 1986. Its first acquisition was of Travelers Acceptance Corp., a consumer ¬ finance ¬business, in 1993. Two years later, Lease West acquired Custom Lease, an auto finance business, which focused solely on the prime auto finance market, financing higher-end cars to those with good credit. It also acquired Essex Financial, an Alberta-based commercial finance business, in 1997. One year later, the company rebranded the business under the name Travelers Group. In 1998, the group’s consumer finance division began to finance car dealerships involved in non-prime auto finance. In 2000, TLC took its non-prime auto finance business national. “We entered the non-prime auto finance market indirectly at first, but as we began to ¬understand the business, we decided to get into it on a direct basis and looked at taking it ¬national,” says Case. “The whole notion of the non-prime auto finance market was just emerging, so the timing was great. We got into it just when the industry was still in its youth and it is still very youthful. I wouldn’t say we’ve even reached the adolescent stage yet.” Sitting in his modern office, Case has surrounded himself with mementos of significant deals gone by and milestones passed. A bookshelf lined with paraphernalia features two wooden ducks, a plastic Mickey Mouse hat, plaques and a can of Budweiser marking TLC’s 10,000th application, received March 31, 2006. On the day of our interview, Case is ready to set sail on a three-week holiday within a few hours’ time with his middle-aged son. But he says his battle to the top hasn’t always been an easy ride. Forced to sell two houses and remortgage homes in the past to generate funds, Case is now able to sit back and reap the benefits. “In any risk-reward equation, unless you’re willing to risk time and energy, it’s hard to ¬demand big rewards,” he says. “You need to have persistence and patience.”