Neal Tichelkamp spent time in the payments big leagues, but the Missouri native is more comfortable with a smaller, more personal sales environment. Tichelkamp, a merchant level salesperson (MLS) since 1989, started with Concord EFS (Electronic Fleet Systems) Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., and even stayed with the company for two years after it was acquired by First Data Corp. in 2003.
But Tichelkamp wanted to set out on his own. In August 2005, he founded Ladera Business Solutions, a division of Big Well Inc. In less than three years' time, Tichelkamp and his staff of four built a client portfolio of just over 2,000 merchants.
In a manner that reflects his easygoing sense of humor and personable style, Tichelkamp, Ladera's President and Chief Executive Officer, joked that "all five of us just took important looking titles."
The Green Sheet: How did you get your start in the payments industry?
NT: How I got into Concord was kind of a fluke. I didn't actually apply for the job. I was at a bar waiting for a buddy to go to a high school football game. I took the only empty seat next to a lady named Kathy Murdoch, who it turns out was at the hotel interviewing MLSs for a position at Concord.
I didn't know anything about Concord or the industry, but after half an hour of conversation she offered me the job.
GS: What inspired you to launch Ladera Business Solutions?
NT: Well, First Data was just too large for me. Coincidentally, my stepson was also in the industry, so with him and a couple of friends I started a little sales shop where I can do things the way I want to do on my time and deal with the people I want to deal with.
So, three years ago we did just that. And by being in control, I mean that this allows me to treat my customers the way I want to be treated.
GS: What kind of value added products does Ladera offer that generate additional revenue streams?
NT: I think we probably offer the same ones that most everybody does, like POS systems, tech services, and gift and loyalty programs. I don't know if one is any better than the other, but one thing we did when we started Ladera - and it's kind of a unique value add for us -was to do our own equipment financing. Most merchants in this business have a lease option. We have a true rent-to-own.
I can rent someone the equipment. I don't get the upfront money by selling the paperwork to a lease company, but over the length of the contract we end up making more off of it. It's a little more work because we have to ACH [automated clearing house] the merchants, but it also allows me more flexibility. And it eliminates a lot of the logistical problems I had early in my sales career.
GS: How do you generate leads?
NT: I've been lucky because I've been around a long time in the same area. I got into payments when it was first growing around here, so people know my name, and I get a lot of referrals from that. I have family members in the medical profession, so that helps me get my foot in the door, so to speak. We also employ a lead and appointment setter who has been with me for six years.
GS: Do you have a method for ensuring account retention?
NT: We install the merchants personally. When we can, we follow up with phone calls often, and in person at least once a month. And we always say thank you.
GS: What kinds of merchants does Ladera serve?
NT: Our biggest niche has been the agent bank programs that send us good, solid, everyday merchants. We have also done really well in the medical sector and in the resort areas of Missouri, like Branson [home of the Country Music Hall of Fame].
GS: What advice would you give MLSs with regard to choosing an ISO?
NT: One of the things I can tell you is to talk to the ISOs that interest you, visit them. My stepson and I decided about six months ago to move away from the one ISO that we had. We identified about a dozen ISOs to interview. When we narrowed it to four, we thought would make a good fit, we went out and saw their operations, spent the day with them and had lunch, let them talk to us on a one-on-one basis.
It took us another month to decide, but, in the end, we went with our gut and chose the ISO that seemed the best fit for us. Everyone is different, but I think the best advice I can give is don't be afraid to communicate.
So many times when people are trying to negotiate with an ISO they want to talk and not listen. But you need to listen, communicate what you are looking for and be diligent enough to find the right fit before you start.
GS: Has The Green Sheet been helpful in any phase of your career or business?
NT: Around November of last year we went with FastTransact, and we actually found them on The Green Sheet and have been extremely happy with that decision.
I read GS Online's MLS Forum and articles daily and wish I would have known about GS earlier. It would have made my professional life easier.
GS: How have your sales techniques evolved over the years, and how have you seen yourself grow as an MLS?
NT: Selling chainsaws [in a former job] was a tough gig, but it taught me a lot because I dealt with people that had little bitty lawn mower repair shops, all the way up to big hardware stores, so I had to learn how to interact with people on their level.
Now, I couldn't have walked into the local retail store in a little southern Missouri town in a suit and tie; they would have thrown me out. So I had to learn how to fit in and treat each situation uniquely.
My knowledge, patience and persistence have grown over the years, but my core belief is that people want to do business with people they like and respect.
There's a million different ways to make a good impression. I do it by joking around, being lighthearted. And if you can get that customer to like you, then that's half your job. Also, realize that a no today doesn't mean a no forever.
GS: What has been your most significant learning experience?
NT: I had some great mentors at Concord. They taught me a lot about the industry, but they also gave me the freedom to be myself, to know that there's not one certain way to be successful. Yet, a lot of the same qualities, like being personable, persistent and driven to put in the time necessary to make money, are in every successful person, and that's what I tell young people coming into the industry.
GS: What advice do you have for newcomers?
NT: Get a mentor; learn the industry; don't get discouraged when things are bumpy - and above all, have fun, and be yourself. That's what the merchants will connect with.
GS: Are there any issues regarding some of the new federal laws and regulations that you feel could hamper your return on investment?
NT: I always worry when there are rumors about the government getting involved in my business. That's just a red flag to me - no pun intended.
I try to stay abreast of it, but I can't see something like the Credit Card Fair Fee Act as a good situation for anybody except the government. I honestly don't believe that a three-judge panel is going to be able to set pricing in an industry as diverse as ours.
The merchants might save a little money in certain situations, but I also believe they will sacrifice a lot of personal attention and service.
There are times when I think this should be a call for MLSs to band together, and I sometimes wish I had the gumption to be more of a leader there.
GS: Is there any new technology on the market that you are excited about?
NT: I don't know that there is any one piece of technology I'm excited about particularly. I've always been one that, when something comes out, I set around for a while, watch and wait. I've got to be convinced that it's worth my time and energy to learn it and sell it.
GS: Do you think there will always be street sales?
NT: I hope that street sales will always be there, because that's what I've tied my wagon to. I really don't see how it could go away.
There are too many people who want that personal touch, and you don't get that virtually or over the phone. And I hope I'm right, because I really don't want to start another career.
GS: What is it about payments that keeps you motivated and inspired?
NT: It's not just selling a commodity. You're doing something that theoretically increases another person's business, helps it run smoother.
There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in that. And the camaraderie with fellow MLSs and customers I've met over the years is like nothing I've ever experienced.
Just the other day, a customer who I signed up 15 years ago called out of the blue to say hello and talk about the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. I don't know that you get that in a lot of other industries. This is a huge industry but still people-driven, kind of like a big city with a small town feel.
GS: Do you have a philosophy on life or a motto that you live by?
NT: My father, who passed away a few years ago, was a laborer. He worked hard every day of his adult life, but I saw how he treated people, how he cared for and loved his family. If I can end up to be half the father and person he was, I will consider my life successful.
GS: If you could change one thing about this business, what would it be?
NT: The way we treat each other, I would say. Obviously, it's not every case, but I think if we treated people better on a daily basis, our industry would be infinitely more pleasant than it already is.
I just think we have too many people and companies that have forgotten why they are doing this. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, it serves no one.
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