David Trinder is the CEO and co-founder, with COO Kumar Kathinokkula, of F&I Administration Solutions LLC, a Chicago-based provider of administration and business intelligence solutions for the auto and powersports F&I industry. P&A met with Trinder to trace the genesis of his company, discuss the dealer and agent reporting solution they launched this year, and learn why it’s important to conserve diesel while circumnavigating the globe.
P&A: David, we have been friends for years, but I know next to nothing about your early life. You are originally from South Africa. That’s all I got.
Trinder: Let me give you the Cliff’s Notes. I was actually born in Livingstone, Zambia, a mile from the Victoria Falls. When I was young, my parents moved to what was then called Rhodesia, soon to become Zimbabwe. I lived there until I was 18. I left Zimbabwe to attend the University of Cape Town to complete a bachelor of commerce, and I basically never went back. After university, I became a South African chartered accountant, or CA(SA) — much like a CPA — and lived in South Africa for 20 years.
P&A: Is it difficult to be away from the place where you grew up?
Trinder: No, not really. My parents and sister soon followed me to South Africa, so I have no family there. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe just as I left, and it has remained a country in the midst of enormous political upheaval.
We bought the best yacht we could afford — which was not much, a 31-footer — and sailed around the world together.
P&A: We only recently saw the exit of Robert Mugabe.
Trinder: We did. It remains to be seen whether Emmerson Mnangagwa can deliver to the hopes of a long-suffering people.
P&A: Did you practice accounting in South Africa?
Trinder: Well, I never liked the idea of being an accountant. I was always looking for opportunities and I also wanted to so some sailing. After I finished my articles and got my CA, my wife and I worked for two years and did nothing but save. We bought the best yacht we could afford — which was not much, a 31-footer — and sailed around the world together.
P&A: How did you learn to sail?
Trinder: You know, it was actually quite interesting. I went to visit a friend and she had these photographs on the wall of her sailing. I asked her how she learned and she said she took a sailing course. I found out what course it was and did it myself. Then my wife and I started thinking about where we wanted to sail, started saving, and set out on our journey.
P&A: You must have encountered some rough seas along the way. Were your lives ever at risk?
Trinder: No. We went through quite a few storms, but interestingly enough, the toughest times are when you’re becalmed. It’s beautiful, but without wind, it’s difficult psychologically. We left Panama for the Galapagos Islands and it took 13 days to travel 700 miles, which is pretty slow when you consider we usually averaged about 125 miles a day. On one of the days, we actually drifted backward 25 miles. We had to conserve our diesel, because we used the engine to charge our batteries. We had a rule that we wouldn’t run it for more than three hours a day. That meant that we really just had to wait for the wind. I met sailors who had horrendous stories of how they struggled through the calms. In a storm, there’s action. When you’re becalmed, you’re just waiting. A few days in, you can start losing your mind.
P&A: How long did it take to complete your circumnavigation?
Trinder: Three years, covering 30,000 miles. Of course, we were stopping all the time. We spent two days on land for every one day at sea. We visited every island we could.
P&A: What was your longest stretch at sea?
Trinder: Twenty-five days, from the Galapagos Islands to French Polynesia.
P&A: You must have been happy to see land.
Trinder: I suppose. But it became a lifestyle. We were pretty happy at sea. I did an enormous amount of reading. I read Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” twice. I mentioned we focused on saving money before we left, and in that time, we were often hunting for used books. We left South Africa with a huge number of books — all of which my wife and I read.
P&A: Once you had completed the journey, what was your next move?
Trinder: My next move was joining a boatbuilding business. In fact, I was offered a share of the boatbuilding business. But I didn’t take it.
P&A: Why not? That sounds ideal.
Trinder: It was a very depressed industry. And I had options. I lectured at the University of Cape Town and started a construction company with two other guys: Buys, Trinder & Bossi. We started that together and it grew very fast. Right now, it’s huge. Two years later, my brother-in-law and I started InterAccess, a company dedicated to converting typed documents into electronic documents. We built that together and I sold it about five years later.
P&A: And of course your accounting skills were applicable throughout.
Trinder: Absolutely. If I had to choose, I would do the same thing again. But I’ve never had a job as an accountant. After selling InterAccess, I got a job with a private equity fund, and for about three years, I was one of the guys making and managing the investments. We invested in about 10 companies. But I was living in Cape Town and working in Johannesburg. I was basically not at home unless it was the weekend. Rather than move to Johannesburg, we decided to emigrate.
P&A: You emigrated first to Canada, correct?
Trinder: Correct. Emigrating to the U.S. has always been very difficult. You could get into Canada on a points system, and we were accepted. We moved from Cape Town to Toronto in April 2000.
P&A: Why leave Africa?
Trinder: You know, every time I looked at the value of the rand I had saved, it was worth less. But more importantly than that, we looked at South Africa and thought, “Is this the place where our children will have the best future?” We just didn’t feel South Africa would offer them the best opportunities in life. Looking back, we feel it was the right decision. All three of my children attended McGill University.
P&A: You had traveled the world by that point, but I imagine Toronto was still a bit of a culture shock.
They needed someone to run DealerAccess. I was there, waiting in the wings, and they knew me well.
Trinder: It was cold. But it’s interesting. You will forever be an immigrant. I was in my early 40s when we emigrated. I was brought up on rugby and cricket, but quickly had to adopt football, hockey, and baseball.
P&A: And you coached hockey.
Trinder: I did. I coached my son’s school team. And I really only knew a bit about hockey when I started. I had been watching for five years, but it is different when you have to manage the bench.
P&A: I’m guessing they needed a coach and you had the requisite leadership skills.
Trinder: I’ll tell you what it was: I got really tired of watching bad coaches who did not treat everyone on the team equally. I actually had enough after one year. I just decided the only way to enjoy watching the kids playing hockey was to take the next opportunity to become the coach, and I insisted that every child get equal time on the ice.
P&A: I learned to skate when I was 18, and it was difficult. I can’t imagine it’s any easier later in life.
Trinder: It isn’t. Honestly, I never learned to skate very well. When I was coaching, I always used to get another father who was a good skater when we were having practice sessions. And the children were all much better skaters than me. I did play on a men’s team for a year, and my skating improved a lot. But I can’t say I was ever very good.
P&A: What was the first job you took in Canada?
Trinder: I worked with the Bank of Montreal, helping them with all the ebusinesses they had acquired over the years. One of the companies they owned was DealerAccess. After a couple years at the bank, they asked if I’d take over as CEO.
P&A: Is that common?
Trinder: Well, I was only consulting with the bank. I was not an employee. And no, it’s not common. But they needed someone to run DealerAccess. I was there, waiting in the wings, and they knew me well. And of course it was a valuable move for me, to become a CEO in a new country.
P&A: How did it go?
Trinder: It went very well. Ultimately, I helped encourage Dealertrack to buy DealerAccess. Then Dealertrack moved me to the United States and I’m now a U.S. citizen as a result. I worked for Dealertrack for a few years, managing various areas of their business. And in the end, I bought from them, with Kumar Kathinokkula, the SCS Auto platform — and there began F&I Admin.
P&A: When did you first cross paths with Kumar?
We’ve discovered that each agent is used to doing things a certain and often slightly different way.
Trinder: When Dealertrack bought this business in 2006. I quickly realized Kumar was the only guy who really knew what was going on. He became my righthand man. And of course it was much smaller in those days. When we bought the business, it was doing about 400,000 transactions for seven customers. Last year, we did 6 million transactions with about 60 customers. So it really has been a great story.
P&A: F&I Admin is based in Chicago, but you still live on Long Island, correct?
Trinder: I commute. And I have been doing so for the last 10 years.
P&A: Did you ever consider moving to Chicago or moving F&I Admin to New York?
Trinder: I had already moved my family from Cape Town to Toronto to Long Island. My children needed to see their way through school, then college, and I just didn’t see the need to move again. As for F&I Admin, Chicago is where Kumar was, where the team was. It really never made sense to move the office to New York.
P&A: How big is that team?
Trinder: We now have 58 people in the Chicago office, and we’ve started a company in India, where we’ve got 30 people now, all IT operations, developers and quality assurance experts.
P&A: Are you tiring of the commute or is it just part of your workweek?
Trinder: It is really just now part of my lifestyle. And I only come into Chicago for two nights a week.
P&A: How does your frequent flier account look?
Trinder: Pretty good, I suppose. I’ve certainly got a lot of Westin points!
P&A: You have served as advisory board chair for P&A Leadership Summit almost since its inception. What prompted you to take an active interest in the event?
Trinder: I think it’s really important for this industry to have an event where we have an opportunity to get together and talk about the industry and the direction the industry is going. I will do anything I feel I can do to help facilitate what’s good for the industry. I’ve been doing it for three or four years now and it’s worked very well. I get to work with the advisory board, all of whom are leaders in our industry. I enjoy the process. I enjoy the fact that we’ve got an annual conference that gives the industry a chance to come together and talk about issues and new ideas.
P&A: It’s an incredibly focused and informed group. We use the word “educational,” but that doesn’t quite describe it.
Trinder: That’s right. It’s less educational and more topical — more of an effort to ask how people are thinking about things than how they do things.
P&A: Are you open to input from past attendees and prospective attendees?
Trinder: We love to hear any ideas from anyone. It’s really appreciated.
P&A: You launched clearFI, a new dealer and agent reporting system, this year. How is it going?
Trinder: We’ve only just got it to market, although we have been developing the solution for some time. We have built a very good team around it too. With that and the other developments in the works, I am really excited about the future of our business.
P&A: Before our call, I reread an interview you did with this magazine in 2012. It was rather prescient. You predicted that connections among the various systems that run our industry would proliferate and create new efficiencies, and so they have.
Trinder: How interesting. Yes, they have.
P&A: You must be happy.
Trinder: I am. I think that the industry has gone a long way toward that. And I think F&I Admin has been a huge catalyst. We connect to every single menu out there. That’s the first step. We had to come right out and say, “Look, guys, all these systems have to work together.” That is why we’re so committed to clearFI, which will put data in the hands of everyone, no matter where it’s coming from. We are in the perfect position to combine administration and product performance data together with the performance of the dealership and the dealership’s reinsurance position. The connectivity gives everyone the ability to do the transaction, and now we’re giving them the ability to understand the data and make the right choices on what to do next.
P&A: Is the platform ready to roll?
Trinder: We’re in pilot now, but yes, it is there and ready to roll.
P&A: Have you gathered useful insights from the agents who are piloting clearFI?
Trinder: Yes, we have, quite a lot. And what we’ve discovered is that each agent is used to doing things a certain and often slightly different way. It’s remarkable to me how much agents fiddle with the data before giving it to the dealer. We’ve learned that not every agent sees things the same way. We need to make reporting flexible enough to fulfill these many disparate views.
P&A: I have to say that, if I were in your position, I would be disappointed by that. I would want the data to be the arbiter.
Trinder: Yes. But we’re dealing not just with the data but also the interpretation of data. We can’t just deliver a product and say, “Here it is. Make it work for you.” If you want everyone to adopt it, you must deliver the data the way they want to see it. And that’s just reality. I wish it was easier. But if it was easier, everyone would be doing it.