By Heather Somerville and Anna Irrera
SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Under the leadership of Chief Executive Mike Cagney, Social Finance Inc (SoFi) set its sights on becoming a one-stop shop for every well-to-do millennial looking for financial services and a romantic partner.
One of the most valuable private financial technology startups in the United States, SoFi’s $4.3 billion valuation was based on expectations it could develop into a major lender but Cagney's departure this month and the circumstances around his exit complicate efforts to create a new-generation bank that could compete against JPMorgan or Bank of America.
"This will be a headwind for them for some time," said Robert Wildhack, an analyst for financial technology and marketplace lending firms at Autonomous Research.
"It is hard to see how management turnover wouldn’t delay the growth and penetration of products."
Cagney stepped after a lawsuit alleged he presided over a hostile work environment for women that enabled senior executives to harass female employees.
Cagney did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. In a blog post to SoFi employees before he resigned, Cagney said the allegations were "being thoroughly investigated by outside attorneys we have engaged."
The company has hired headhunters over the past few days to help find his replacement, but an appointment is not expected to take place until the end of the year, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The gap at the top is likely to stall SoFi's application for a banking license, according to the source, because regulators assess whether a company has a capable CEO before allowing it to accept deposits.
In addition to Cagney, SoFi has to replace other senior executives that have left over the past few months, including former chief financial officer Nino Fanlo, ex-chief revenue officer Michael Tannenbaum and former chief technology officer June Ou. The CEO search is the company's first priority, according to a spokesman.
A banking license was a key part of Cagney's push to grow SoFi beyond its core business of student loans and unsecured personal loans.
"Longer term deposits are a key financial product obviously, so their ability or inability to offer that is an opportunity for borrowers to jump to a competitor," said Wildhack.
Rare for a startup, SoFi is profitable. It earned $61.6 million in the second quarter of 2017, after adjustments, for depreciation and amortization, taxes, stock-based compensation and other miscellaneous charge offs and investments.
Cagney, a former bank trader, had been the driving force behind SoFi's big-time ambitions, pushing it into mortgages, personal loans up to $100,000, wealth management services and life insurance. He told investors after the second quarter that the company was undertaking aggressive growth.
But without Cagney at the helm, the emphasis is expected to shift.
The company will be more disciplined about testing new products before selling them widely, a source close to the company said.
In 2016, SoFi announced that it would no longer factor FICO credit scores into its underwriting process. The company scrapped the initiative after default rates started ticking up for loans that had been FICO-free, according to a source familiar with the matter.
SoFi went back to using FICO among other data points when assessing borrowers' credit worthiness, according to a spokesman.
SoFi's core business is still the $1.4 trillion U.S. student loan market and there are plans to set up in Australia and Canada, where students graduate with average debts of $22,000 and $20,000 respectively. Those plans have been put on hold as the company awaits the appointment of a new CEO, according to the first source.
The spokesman said the company had no changes to announce on international launches.
“People fundamentally want this product,” said Manu Gupta, general partner at Lakestar, a venture capital firm that has invested in SoFi. “While we had a lot of confidence in Mike Cagney, we still have high expectations in the company because everything is not about one leader.”
DATING APP SCRAPPED
SoFi started in 2011 offering student loan refinancing to graduates of top-tier schools such as Stanford University. It could offer a better interest rate than federal government loans, on the basis that Ivy League graduates will have higher-earning jobs and are less likely to default.
But competitors quickly appeared. So SoFi added new products. It also ensured its marketing tactics differentiated it from rivals. Customers referred to as "members" are invited to SoFi-hosted events from cooking classes and yoga sessions to cocktail parties and single meetups.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a finance company, we think of ourselves as money, career and relationships,” Cagney said at a technology conference in May.
In line with this philosophy, he had championed the creation of a dating app but that idea has now been scrapped.
SoFi was successful in getting its members to sign up for other products. In the second-quarter letter to investors, Cagney said 40 percent of SoFi's mortgages and 56 percent of its wealth accounts came from existing members.
The problem is that SoFi’s core clients -- so-called Henrys: high earners not rich yet – do not have the means yet to be lucrative wealth management clients.
SoFi Wealth had amassed only $12.25 million in assets under management at the start of September, according to a company filing.
Investors say Cagney's successor will need to communicate a steadier growth strategy.
"I think the company needs to slow down, focus on winning products, dump others; build a resilient non-frat house culture; and take a longer term view," said Ryan Gilbert, a partner at venture capital firm Propel Venture Partners, which has backed at least a half dozen fintech companies but not SoFi.
(Additional reporting by Gregory Roumeliotis; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Susan Thomas)