Q&A with Ryan Williams

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In November 2014, Ryan Williams (MBA Class of 2010) hit a milestone many would envy. His company, Fidelis PPM, that he co-founded had just finalized a partnership with Vero Products (a division of CU Direct). This project, which was an idea that began during his time in the DeVos Graduate School, would now be able to reach a broader audience.  The partners formed DRIV Technologies, so we reached out to Williams to tell his story about this endeavor.

NU: You were enrolled in the DeVos program. Tell us a little about that.

Ryan: It was the inaugural class of the Dealership MBA program. It was an executive MBA and we did part time on campus and then online as well. It was a fantastic program for me. The timing was unique and strange in that it was the heart of the recession. So it was interesting to be studying and going through an MBA specific to the automotive world during the worst automotive crisis in US history. It was interesting to say the least.

How did you hear about the DeVos program?

Automotive News, actually.

So you’re thumbing through the magazine and you happen to see this?

I was familiar with DeVos from my undergraduate work at Northwood, but as it relates to the launch of the program, I just coincidentally happened to see the article and the press release that it was being launched, and it was great timing I guess.

Tell us your 30-second elevator pitch of the business you created, Fidelis PPM.

We created a cloud based prepaid maintenance platform for Dealerships, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], and TPA’s (Third party administrators), to create and maintain their own pre-paid platform.  It is a product and a strategy that has gone highly underutilized until late.   We private label this now for seven different third party administrators, administrators and banks in the country.

What brought you to this idea? What was the brainstorming process for this?

When working for Zurich I had a client in upstate New York that had an old pre-paid program that was provided to them through an administrator. The program was priced poorly and really more beneficial for the administrator than for the dealership or the consumer. They didn’t sell very many of them.  It was there where I met my three future partners.  We did, however, believe in the concept of PPM delivering industry leading customer retention.  We set out to have a pure play for a dealer.  Something fully transparent on costs, benefits and without any hooks.  If we could allow the dealers to keep the money, keep the forfeiture dollars and let the customers get a great value, the customer would return to the selling dealership and create an organic lift customer retention.   Retention is the backbone of any successful dealership operation. We thought if we can create a platform to deliver all we thought it would while proving a substantial lift in customer retention proven through DMS integrated reporting, we would have a winning platform and idea on our hands.

How difficult was it to manage the creation of a new business plus graduate school?

You know you should probably ask my wife that. To her it was pretty difficult. I had two small kids and a wife. I’m sure for her it was very, very difficult.  It probably didn’t help that I wanted to quit working for a large well-respected insurance company to go off and play start-up in the middle of the recession either.  Graduate school is fun. I think it’s a pretty big misnomer that people don’t really get. As long as you do what you love to do, and you study what you love, it should be fun regardless of the amount of work you put into it. It was probably a lot of work, at the end of the day though, it was pretty awesome. I had the opportunity to assess a future business idea with my cohort, my fellow students, and my professors to plan and roll this out in a kind of sandbox arena. This is a safe place where I vetted it and looked at it and said, “Yeah it’s a good idea. Let’s keep doing it. We should do this.” It was pretty cool!

So you’re in grad school, and you were actively using your faculty, your colleagues, and your cohort, bouncing ideas off them. That’s interesting. That’s cohort as focus group almost. Were there a people in your cohort that had a variety of industry experience?

Yes, I would say we had a broad base of automotive industry experience as a whole. From F&I, AFIP, to dealers themselves, to finance companies, to OEMs. You really couldn’t have picked a better depth or breadth of experience and roles in the industry if you tried.

If you could give some advice to a group of current students, what would you tell them?

Work hard and put yourself out there so you see opportunities. Look for what’s broken and realize that you can probably fix it. Surround yourself with people who can help you, mentor you, and push you in the right direction. And never underestimate the value of an MBA, a PhD, or anything else in education.

The timing of mine was great, but the MBA was a feather in my cap for the sale of the company. When my new partners realized I had a pedigree from the F&I world working for Zurich Insurance, but also had an education to back it up and run the company, I know that was a huge selling point to them. Get as much education as you can. Don’t stop.

Dave Robertson (MBA Class of 2010), who is a mentor of mine, was in my cohort. I’m not sure how old Dave is, but he was the oldest guy in our class and getting an MBA. He was a great example of someone who just doesn’t stop learning. You hear that a lot but he’s a guy that actually does it.

So, look for opportunities, and realize that a lot of things need to be fixed, and a lot of things still need to be done. If you’re pigeonholed into something, make a change. You’re in control.