Fintech at scale: how Progressive Leasing is helping credit-challenged customers with a disruptive digital transformation

|May 19|magazine23 min read

You could argue that in no sector is disruption more palpable than in finance. For a long time, new entrants found it difficult to break into the market – but the rise of fintech companies has quickly changed that. These disruptors have helped to usher in a new era where technological prowess and a customer-centric approach have loosened the grasp of incumbents on the market. It’s also provided greater choice for customers, allowing them to select the business which best caters to their needs. But what about the rising number of consumers who are being turned down by primary and secondary financing? Where do those with less-than-perfect credit fit into the equation?

Respecting that these customers were underserved and appreciating this was an untapped market, Progressive Leasing, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Aaron’s Inc., has made its mark. For over 19 years, the firm has provided simple and affordable purchase options for credit-challenged consumers and it now stands as the largest and longest-tenured virtual lease-to-own provider in the US. Ben Hawksworth, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), says the firm ultimately owes its success to two things: its deep customer focus and its significant scale.

“What gives us an edge is our scale – we're the number one in the industry and we have been at it the longest,” he observes. “With US$2bn in revenue, thousands of retail partners and a very loyal customer base, this scale has proven to be a real competitive advantage for us and it’s one we hope to leverage as we move forward.” Indeed, today Progressive Leasing’s lease-to-own option has helped millions of customers and their families, meaning that they can buy the goods they need (whether it’s a mattress or a mobile phone), even if they have imperfect credit or an inability to pay for their purchase upfront. Looking forward, Hawksworth is well-equipped to steer the firm as it grows in size. A seasoned business and technology leader, Hawksworth spent almost two decades at the two largest payment providers in the US. As such, he has first-hand experience of how to scale technology. “When you're dealing with thousands of transactions a second, you have to design your systems and think about your products and processes a little bit differently,” he says. “You have to ensure that they're hardened, that they can withstand the forces of uptime, reliability and accuracy.”

Hawksworth and his team have worked diligently to ensure that the customer remains front and center of the firm’s vision. As a digitally-focused business, this journey starts with software development and, more specifically, product development. “We have an intense focus on our products and solutions and how they meet our customers’ needs,” Hawksworth explains. “From our Quality Engineers to our CEO, everyone is involved in the product experience creation. We measure usability, practice design-first thinking and, at the end of the day, we’re really passionate about taking the friction out of the process for our customers at every step.” To sum this up, one of the firm’s core values is to ‘innovate and simplify’. This simple mantra, Hawksworth believes, is one which is central to Progressive Leasing’s way of thinking.

To put this vision into motion, the business has turned its attention to agile methodology, a software development practice which helps teams respond to the unpredictability of constructing software. Hawksworth and his colleagues have practiced an agile approach at a team level for quite some time but the real challenge was how to scale this as teams naturally became more interdependent on each other and as products became more complex in a rapidly growing organization.

This is where Progressive Leasing first had the idea for an Agile Portfolio Office (APO). Hawksworth describes this as a place which “brings a center of gravity to our software development lifecycle and adds central accountability to the process of development”. Essentially, this helped to put a structure in place which enabled collaboration, allowed the firm to scale and to promote visibility into the product development lifecycle. Progressive Leasing then decided to take this one step further by exploring a dual track, agile product development methodology where discovering what to build is just as important as the building process. “Our analysis showed that we spent too much time figuring out the feasibility of a product or a feature during the actual execution of the sprint work itself,” explains Hawksworth. “Dual-track puts accountability on three people – the product manager, the UX designer and the tech lead – to assess the feasibility, effort and scope of an idea. It allows us to truly determine whether or not an idea is worth building before we start the work.” Successful ideas from the discovery track are then followed up through a so-called delivery track. This allows Progressive Leasing to concentrate its energy and efforts on projects which will deliver value. “By spending a little more time upfront, it makes for a much more rewarding experience for our engineers and product managers,” he adds.

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Hawksworth has only just scratched the surface of Progressive Leasing’s journey. The business is also implementing an API management platform from Google which he says will “give the business the ability to innovate on the edge” allowing it to innovate more quickly, consistently and securely. In line with its customer focus, Progressive Leasing is also exploring new ways to reach and interact with its customers. This often involves tailoring the customer journey to the type of device they’re using. “It means that we’re increasingly putting more and more of the process into our customers’ devices whether that’s a mobile phone or a tablet,” he says. “That’s really where we can take technology and deliver a better experience for our customers and retail partners.” Additionally, Hawksworth highlights how the firm is also striving to make its workflow more “content driven” using a content management platform to deliver real-time, uniquely customizable workflows for its retail partners.

As a digitally-driven firm, product development isn’t just a technology issue at Progressive Leasing: it’s company wide. As the company rapidly grows, constraints and bottlenecks are something that every department faces. Hawksworth says: “I have the ability and the pleasure to be able to sit down with our CEO and talk about how maybe a legacy design or a legacy constraint creates friction or slows down our delivery process. We can easily talk about investing in the foundation as much as in new features and products,” reflects Hawksworth. “We really try to balance staying focused on product innovation and eliminating legacy constraints.” Another challenge with software development undoubtedly lies in customer transparency. It’s a core value for Progressive Leasing which the company won’t concede on. “That’s really the key quest for us,” Hawksworth admits. “We never want to compromise on customer transparency and, simultaneously, we want to deliver the best user experience that we possibly can. Those two things can naturally be at odds with one another and so it’s up to us to find that perfect harmony.”

This is a delicate balancing act that is undoubtedly paying off. Progressive Leasing has grown nearly 10 times in size over the past six years, with its success culminating in a bumper Black Friday holiday. “We had the single most successful day in the company’s history which was a testament to the hard work that our product, engineering, sales and operations teams put into the business,” says Hawksworth proudly. “It demonstrated that we met our own expectations of flawless execution on our most successful day.” However, such growth brings along its own challenges and opportunities – one of which involves attracting and retaining key talent. Today, the business has several hundred people working in its technology and product department with more being added every day. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, a region which has been dubbed ‘Silicon Slopes’ for its buzzing tech scene, Progressive Leasing has to work hard to ensure it not only gets the best talent, but that these individuals also work well within the firm’s culture. Progressive’s innovative recruitment team has turned to firms like Tekmark Global Solutions to find unique skills and the best talent – but for Hawksworth, it’s not about skills alone. “In this competitive market, we have to move quickly but we also feel very strongly about spending quality time with candidates to make sure they are going to be a good cultural fit,” says Hawksworth. “The culture is really one of the main reasons I joined the company. It’s second to none. It’s great to see Progressive Leasing has managed to maintain this culture even though we’ve grown to be a two-billion-dollar company and my job is to make sure we keep it strong and vibrant.  Firms like Tekmark understand how important culture is for us and they speak the Progressive story innately with candidates to attract the right talent required to sustain our growth.”

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Progressive Leasing owes a lot to its team, and it also relies on key partners, both externally and internally, to maintain its rapid momentum. “Internally, my biggest partner is our Chief Product Officer and our VP of Product. We simply can't afford to be misaligned. If we aren't running in the exact same direction, at the exact same target, we will not be able to deliver our vision. Meanwhile, externally, we've leveraged a firm called Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG) to help us to fine-tune our process and ensure that we’re all on the same page.” With this support, Progressive Leasing is set to continue on its upward trajectory and whilst no one can predict where the finance sector will head in the future, one thing is for certain – Progressive Leasing will remain laser-focused on the customer experience. “We believe that really listening to our customers will give us the best roadmap to our ongoing success,” Hawksworth affirms.

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