8 Questions with Frank Bisignano

I have had the pleasure to get to know one of the great business leaders in this country, Frank Bisignano. Frank is the Chairman and CEO of First Data, which is at the forefront of global commerce. He has completely transformed First Data in just a few short years at the helm (he previously was with Lehman Brothers, First Fidelity Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase) and his leadership/management style is one to aspire to. 

I spoke to Frank recently about his career and had to share this with all of you right away. Enjoy reading.



Brandon Steiner: First Data just completed its initial public offering. How does it feel to have “FDC” now trading on the New York Stock Exchange after eight years as a private company?

Frank Bisignano: First, it was an unparalleled highlight of my career in financial services to be at the podium of the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell with my colleagues and giants of our industry like Henry Kravis and Scott Nuttall and watch our shares trade publicly again.

I have always considered First Data to be “waterfront property” and I’m enormously gratified that a fabulous group of investors have shared that vision and invested in us for the future. We raised $3.5 billion in a private placement last year – which was historic in many ways – and close to another $3 billion this year with our IPO. So this means that investors have given us a great vote of confidence with over $6 billion in new equity in the last 16 months.

They recognize our leadership positions – the #1 merchant acquirer, the #1 issuer processor, the #1 independent debit market and that fact that we handle about 28% of global e-commerce – and they combine that with the great leadership team we’ve put on the field, the great innovations and solutions that we provide our clients, and the dedication that all of our 23,000 owner associates have to helping our millions of clients grow their business – and they see it’s a great long-term investment.

BS: How important is talent acquisition?

FB: Talent is the name of the game. It has always been the name of the game since I started in banking more than a quarter century ago.

When I was asked to become the CEO of First Data, I was warned that the company might be too big for one person to lead. That’s absolutely right! It was going to take a team – to “spread the offense,” as they say in football. We went from a leadership group that had five people on it to fifteen all-stars from across finance and payments. Legends like Joe Plumeri came on to help lead the locker room, and technology experts like Guy Chiarello joined as our president. Today, we have Dan Charron, a longtime leader in the payments industry and a great Army veteran, running our largest business unit. And that’s just part of the team that goes wide and deep.

I’m reminded of what Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins have done with the Mets this year. They had a lot of talent, but were continually making moves in the front office and on the field to put the best talent out there and have them work together as a team. No one player on that roster helped the Mets get to the World Series – all of them came together to make it work.

In sports, or in business, your fans or your shareholders expect you to assemble the right talent, in the right places, to deliver results. As I’ve found in decades in the financial services business, and now at First Data, it’s not always the first-round draft choice or the top-dollar free agent that makes your team, or company, successful. The key is to find people with not only the right skills but the right work ethic and value system that will allow them to succeed in your company.

BS: You’ve been in the middle of some intense situations. Of course, there’s your time with Citigroup during 9/11, turning around JPMorgan Chase and now your work with First Data. You have developed a reputation as the “Fix-It Guy.” How did you become this person? What’s the hardest situation you have had to manage and why?

FB: If you prepare for the worst, you’ll be able to handle the worst. Back in 1998 and 1999, the financial services industry was consumed with preparation for what was called “Y2K,” the idea that our systems wouldn’t be ready to handle the millennial change when the calendars turned to the year 2000. Some predicted catastrophe, and the only way to handle it was to “war game” every potential scenario so that you were ready to deal with it when it came.

Whether the threat was inflated, or we just over-prepared, the truth was that Y2K wasn’t the catastrophic event some expected. In retrospect, it wasn’t very big at all.

While Y2K didn’t become the catastrophe that many thought it might, the preparation for it trained us to deal with something as horrific as 9/11. We couldn’t know how that terrible day would unfold, or some of the moment-by-moment decisions we would need to make to get 17,000 people near Ground Zero safely out of their buildings and back to work quickly. Our first challenge was to make sure people were out of harm’s way, and then we had to activate our backup contingency workspaces and to help keep the engine of the global economy on track. That’s the kind of business continuity resilience that every organization, large or small, needs.

There are important lessons that great mentors of mine have taught me over the years. First, you can’t do it by yourself, and I certainly haven’t. The best way to “fix” companies or to prepare for trouble – which will always come – is to surround yourself with a top-notch leadership team, people who share your values and your commitment to turning a business or situation around.

When I arrived at First Data, it was a big, storied company, but I knew we could do a lot more. We began by changing the culture. We made everyone a shareholder in the company – all 23,000 of our owner-associates – so that they would feel a sense of ownership in what we were doing. And now we’ve transformed how our millions of clients think of us, from simply a payments processor to a partner that helps them grow their business.

I like to say that when my partners at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts brought our new team onto the field, in football terms, we were facing third-and 19 on our own 7-yard line. Now we’ve crossed the 50-yard line and the wind is at our back. We have a great offense, and it is our game to win.

BS: If you could make every CEO in America do one thing to change the way businesses operate, what would that be?

FB: The United States is blessed with many great things. Among them, stretching back our origins as a republic, is an extraordinarily talented, dedicated and motivated military that has protected our freedom and upheld our values as a nation for 240 years. Our armed forces are also an extraordinarily diverse set of organizations, drawing men and women from all 50 states and all walks of life. This is an incredibly rich pool from which to hire, bringing all of the right training, leadership, commitment and sense of honor and duty that any CEO would want in their business.

Throughout my career, Brandon, I’ve looked to the military as a great source of talent to enrich the organizations I’ve led. We did that with the 100,000 Jobs Mission at JP Morgan Chase and now with First Data Salutes at our company. While we consider it our duty to provide opportunities to those who’ve served and helped to keep us free, the truth is that we in business have been the beneficiary of the tremendous talent that our armed forces grow and cultivate.

If every CEO could look at their ranks of unfilled jobs and think how men or women with superb training and devotion to duty, men and women who were willing to put their lives on the line for an idea, could make those companies stronger, that would be a great change to how businesses operate today. At First Data, we can’t hire enough veterans, and that’s why we’re working with organizations like the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University to provide more training and more opportunities for the best kind of talent a company can have.

BS: What are the top three things young people should do to set themselves up for business success?

FB: First, you have to outwork everyone else. I watched HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in August and September that followed the training camp of the Houston Texans. The Texans have a long way to go, but their star linebacker, J.J. Watt, was coming in early, staying late, and doing everything he could to make himself, and his team, better. Long hours, all alone, pushing himself farther and harder than he’d ever done before. In sports or in business, that’s what you need to win.

You may not be the smartest person, or the most talented, or come from the most advantageous background. But you can be sure that nobody will outwork you. A pro like J.J. Watt is obviously very talented, but nobody works harder at preparation – that word again, preparation – or reaches deeper within himself to strive to new levels.

Second, I would say be flexible and open to change. The job you take may not be the job you end up with. A person who is able to adapt to take on new roles is a very valuable member of the team. Technology is changing every day, which changes the way businesses operate, and you have to be able to adapt to that. You can’t put yourself in a box and limit your options, or you will be limiting your success.

Third, make sure you educate yourself as much as you can. You can never stop learning. I never do. Learn about all of the aspects of the company you work for; learn the intricacies of the industry it’s in; learn how the economy or global change will affect the industry’s future; learn how technology or new ideas can disrupt that industry. Then, think about how all of these things interconnect with one another, and get a sense of how you can apply those lessons to bring value to your employers. The more you know, the more you can do.

BS: You make a decision, but then you regret it afterwards. How do you deal with the feeling of making a mistake?

FB: In business, like in sports, you’re going to make mistakes. The thing to have to always do is confront the problem head-on, fix it, and keep moving forward.

I love the famous Michael Jordan ad for Nike in which he talks about all of the failures in his career. A man widely thought of as the greatest athlete ever missed 26 game-winning shots.

But for someone like Jordan, it was the mistakes and failures that drove his desire for success. For every game-winning shot he missed, he was never afraid to come back the next day and take another one.

When I make a mistake – and I make a lot of them – I see it as an opportunity to better myself. Mistakes give me an opportunity to look back at the decision, learn from what went wrong, and be prepared to make a better decision when the time comes.

BS: What’s the difference between First Data today and a couple years ago when you took over?

FB: Really it’s about transformation – transformation of talent, transformation of products and transformation into a truly global company. First Data is the product of a company that started in 1971 and has had pieces added to it over the decades, but those pieces need to work in harmony. So too do our businesses and operations in other counties. Today we’ve got operations in 36 countries and clients in 118 countries, but what we’re really offering is “one First Data” to help our millions of clients grow their businesses.

The dreams and goals of a business owner in Boston or Berlin overlap in many ways. So too are those of a global retail chain and the operator of a falafel truck near our office. Everyone wants to grow, and the solutions that First Data offers are all tailored to help them do just that.

Among the biggest differences between the First Data of today and the company that existed a few years ago is that we think of ourselves as a tech company and one that collaborates across our industry rather than put up walls.

For more than 40 years, First Data was known simply as a payment processor. While we haven’t taken our eye off of our core strength of processing credit and debit card payments – we power 2,300 transactions per second, or $1.7 trillion in annual transactions, which is roughly 10% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product – we’ve now built a suite of solutions for merchants large and small, developed best-in-class security measures to protect our clients and their consumers, and improved our internal controls and risk management processes.

In every way, we’ve taken action to become a true partner to our clients. It’s a very exciting time to be at First Data.

BS: With First Data, you’re dealing with a wide range of small, medium and large business. There’s been a sense that small businesses are not given the same chance to succeed as larger ones. What’s your hope for the small business owner in this country? What advice would you give to a small business owner that is trying to grow their business?

FB: I’m talking to a small business owner right now, and I know you’re proud of it! Your family has built Steiner Sports from the ground up. You’re the bread and butter of the American economy. You depend on companies like First Data and we depend on you.

And you’re not alone. The Small Business Administration defines a small business as fewer than 500 employees, and there are about 30 million of those in the U.S. Together, they employ over 50% of the working population and they’ve generated over 65% of the net new jobs since 1995.

The bottom line for success in a small business is to work hard, make your business your passion, and put everything you can into what you do. Is that easy? Nothing worthwhile ever is.

And nobody knows that more than our team at First Data, which is why we’re doing everything in our power to help small business owners around the world. You need to be able to quickly, safely and securely process the payments you get from your customers, but you also need to know who your customers are, keep them loyal to you, and reward them for their loyalty.

The reason I’m so optimistic about small business in the U.S. is because the tools available to them have never been better. First Data has an eCommerce platform called Payeezy that gets you up and running in no time. We have a loyalty business called Perka that helps you keep your customers coming back. We also have a business called Gyft that allows small business to create their own electronic gift cards to put them on the same playing field as the largest merchants. And we have an analytics tool called Insightics that lets you to see where your customers come from, what and when they buy from you, and how much they spend. This allows you to make halftime adjustments to get the very most out of every hour you’re open for business.

There’s never been a better time to be a small businessperson in America. As I’ve found at First Data, though, you can’t do it all by yourself. You need a great team around you, and great support from partners who break a sweat to help you succeed. If you put everything you have into your business, and infuse it with your passion and the technology that helps you magnify by many times what you can do alone, the sky is the limit.

BONUS QUESTION: Like me, you were born and raised in Brooklyn. How has that shaped your life?

FB: From my earliest memory, Brandon, God and family have been my guiding lights. We learned that in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, as so many others have in the cities and towns where they grew up.

In Brooklyn, as elsewhere, the great equalizer is education and ingenuity. I got a great education starting out in Brooklyn, and we were surrounded by industrious, hard-working people who taught us the values to succeed later in life.

Brooklyn was very special to us, but it could easily have been Bremerton, Washington or Birmingham, Alabama. If you have the love of your family, the caring and compassion of your teachers, and your faith in God, wherever you come from, anything is possible.

BS: Thank you, Frank!

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