Angela Armstrong is the president and founder of Prime Capital Group of Companies, a direct lender specializing in the equipment finance and lease solutions that enable businesses to scale and grow. Armstrong and her team focus on competitive, creative, responsive solutions for clients and companies, and they never stop evolving to meet the needs of a changing marketplace.
For Armstrong, the decision to go from an employee of a large firm to a business owner in an extremely challenging field wasn’t what she expected from her career.
“I was running a branch of a company and was with them for 14 years after graduating from university,” Armstrong explains. “It was my first full time job. I had actually gone to university to train as a lawyer but I was recruited to that firm and I said okay, I’ll try it for year. Fourteen years later I was in business development running a branch from Edmonton – the youngest branch manager at the time in the company’s history.”
But in the business world, change is inevitable.
“The company did the math,” Armstrong continues. “They decided to scale capacity by using technology. It was the right decision, but it meant closing the branches. My job went away. For a while I lobbied to have a job in their head office in Winnipeg without leaving Edmonton but unlike now, the technology wasn’t there for remote work in 2000. It was either move into a sales position, move to Winnipeg, or leave the company. I had a four year old and a newborn. Moving the family wasn’t the right choice, so I parted with the company on good terms.”
She thought that was that, but her former clients had other ideas and kept coming to her for help.
“I got busy helping previous branch clients so I thought, why not do this for a year working from home? Things kept getting busier and I needed to expand. A friend of mine said why don’t you open a leasing company?”
Armstrong’s first response to her friend was, “What? I don’t know how to do that!” To which her friend challenged her right back, “What don’t you know? Let’s have lunch next week. If you don’t have an answer for ‘why not,’ let’s talk about what else you can do.”
Within the space of a week Armstrong thought about it, researched it, and applied for a business line of credit. At lunch with her friend the following week she said, “Well, I got capital, so I guess I’m opening a leasing company.”
Prime Capital was born.
“We started with $40,000; now we have millions in capital,” reminisces Armstrong. “Looking back, do I have any regrets? No. I’m really happy with the journey I have been on. I’ve learned a lot and sometimes the hard way. Kids fall down when they walk. They fall off their bike when they learn to ride, but they want to do it anyway. Somewhere along the line as an adult you become fearful of risks, and that’s a shame. When you fall but get up and realize you can keep going, it is such a great feeling to know you are doing something incredible.”
Armstrong was at a crossroads and took her own path, but she does see the future she would have had if she stayed the course – and it’s not a bad view.
“That company was acquired by a major bank and is driving impactful change in the industry, but I’m still in the market and I get to innovate things on my terms, my way.”
That agility has been vital for Prime Capital to be able to pivot, fast, when necessary.
“The 2008/2009 crash transformed the market for private industry. A lot of small entrepreneurial companies were being acquired by large institutional lenders because of the state of the market. Suddenly if you couldn’t scale, you couldn’t compete.”
Angela chose to compete.
“We invested in technology and figured out more operational rigour. We worked really hard to stay relevant because the only other choice was to sell the business.”
It wasn’t just Armstrong’s leadership, her team’s tenacity, or the investments in scaling and acquiring technology that kept the company growing. Prime Capital distinguishes itself among its competition by focusing obsessively on client relationships.
“There is a tendency to think of finance as transactional,” says Armstrong. “The transaction is the act of acquiring equipment, getting an invoice, getting the terms for the customer, etc. Then you pay the vendor and start a contract. For Prime, however, sometimes I meet a client and it takes two years before we start doing business with them because we are curating the relationship. We spend the time getting to know them and their business. It’s what we have done all day, every day for 21 years, first locally, and now with our clients and vendors in the US market. We curate relationships from the minute we meet the client, so if we don’t have a Prime solution, we can introduce them to someone that can help them succeed. The relationships matter to us; it doesn’t matter if the transaction is through Prime Capital or not.
Prime Capital’s four core values also help enable the company’s success. Those values are:
- Creative mind: never say no unless all creative options have been exhausted
- Value: everyone’s contributions and feedback are valued with equal weight
- Commitment: not to “just good” but to excellence
- We’ve got your back: we do what it takes to make the team, clients, and vendors feel supported
Armstrong also knows that growth does not happen in a bubble. She advises, “Business owners live a bubble of their own intention, not because of ego, but because of the focus it takes to do this. You are busy; so very, very busy. This is why you need to bring in people that are not afraid to tell you that you’re crossing a line from which you can’t return. You have to be humble enough to say, ‘I brought this person on board for a reason.’ If you don’t listen to them you are a fool – and I don’t want to be a fool. The barrier to growth is often the business owner. When you start a company, everything is up to you. You must recognize your capacity limitations and find the right people to help you get past that capacity and on to the next phase.”
One of the people Armstrong credits as being instrumental in her personal and professional success is her husband, Dan Forest.
“Dan came from a family of entrepreneurs and he had a curiosity about software development,” she says. “When I worked as a branch manager, I asked him if there was a better way for me to create contracts. This was back when server farms still took up entire rooms in the office and we were doing forms in triplicate on a typewriter. In response, he learned how to program and code and created a product for my team that pulled information from a database and automated it into a contract. That was the start of his career in programming. He now manages ERP systems (enterprise resource planning software) for a large, global company.
She reflects, “Every entrepreneur in a relationship is familiar with the conversation when they go to their partner and say, ‘I’m going to quit my steady job and do something from scratch.’ Remember, I had just given birth to my second child and had no capital when I made my decision to start a leasing company, but at no point did he ever say ‘you are crazy, we can’t afford that, it’s too risky.’ Coming from a family of entrepreneurs he knows the journey is not smooth and he has trepidation about risk, but he’s always been supportive. There are many nights he stays up helping me with work problems, and the family has seen me on my laptop for half the day while we were away on vacations.”
Armstrong also admits to having a hard conversation with her spouse about household management.
“When he migrated from an office to working from home, I asked to renegotiate the roles in the family. Like all families we have roles that work for us, but I needed to change things. I asked for five years so I could put all my effort into the business. At that point the kids were in their late teens, so we made some shifts that gave me more continuity in the business and more work hours. There was a lot of company and professional growth because he was prepared to be that support person in addition to his job.”
Knowing firsthand how challenging it is to be a female small business owner, Armstrong passionately helps bring the stories of other female entrepreneurs to light, showcasing their journeys, their success, and most of all, their innovative spirits.
“Innovation can be service, the way you create a client experience, how you remove redundancy – it’s not just about technology,” Armstrong points out. “Innovation can be improving corporate culture. It’s about being proactive to the changes that keep you moving forward. Complacency is the enemy of innovation!”
Prime Capital has innovated, evolved, grown, and succeeded through its startup phase and through times of economic uncertainly. Now, it’s 20th anniversary passed during the throes of the global pandemic. Rather than muse over the regret of not being able to gather the team, clients, and supporters to celebrate this milestone, Prime simply looked to its fourth core value: we’ve got your back.
“Instead of celebrating when everyone has pandemic fatigue, we decided to hold a celebration later when everyone has breathing room after COVID. Meanwhile we are focusing on positivity and sharing the success stories of other entrepreneurs. Those stories fuel us all.” Readers of Business in Edmonton magazine can enjoy those stories in Prime Capital’s sponsored segment, where two female entrepreneurs are profiled each month.
In 2018 Armstrong was celebrated with a Business in Edmonton Leaders award.
“That was meaningful for me as I am proud of industry awards that stem from recognition by peers,” she says. If you care about something and put effort into it with the goal of improving situations for others and your industry, peers see and recognize that. It means a lot.”
Armstrong is also thankful for an Alberta Business Award of Distinction and several nominations for the Royal Bank’s Women of Influence Award, as well as being recognized by her industry peers as a Member of the Year on three occasions. She is the industry’s first female board chair and credits the industry with its efforts on its diversity and inclusion, from its new Future Leaders initiative to its three-year old Women in Asset Finance group.
“I want to give back just as much or more than I’ve gained. Recognitions acknowledge you are achieving that and doing something great from an independent standpoint. We graciously, humbly, accept the validation.”
She concludes, “I stand here only because of the team that stands beside me. I’m a little embarrassed to see my face on things because it doesn’t truly represent what goes on beneath the surface. I’m the cheerleader. I’m the coach. I’m the figurehead, and maybe an inspiration and the visionary. That’s my job, but without a team, my mentors, my supporters, my community and my family, there wouldn’t be Prime Capital.”
It’s been 21 years since Armstrong couldn’t come up with a viable answer to “why not?” when asked about starting her own leasing company. That’s more than two decades of growth, of change, of evolving, and doing everything it took to carve a path forward through seemingly unsurmountable odds, but as the times change, so does Prime – and Armstrong is excited about the future.
“Our next two year objective is to grow our eastern cohort and diversify our product lines. We’ll also unveil a digital ecosystem that will disrupt how business is conducted in the capital lending space. It’s fun to be a part of creating something that has yet to be done.”
For Armstrong, when it comes to moving forward with confidence, capitalizing on the opportunities with grit, tenacity, and determination is the name of the game, and she can’t wait to keep innovating the lending industry and developing solutions alongside her team.