Alliance Data Card Services President Melisa Miller on the market niche her company has claimed in co-branded and private credit cards, and why the target retail card user is generally a "she."
In the private-label credit card market, Alliance Data Card Services has carved a niche for itself: a $26 billion niche. Those billions in credit sales were generated through the more than 36 million consumer credit accounts the company managed for 135 retail brands in 2014.
And business will keep growing under the leadership of Melisa Miller, president of Alliance Data Card Services, a division of Alliance Data Services.
"In our world we're crystal clear on our mantra, which is to double the size of our business every five years," says Miller. From her office along Easton Square Place, Miller gestures proudly at her company's expanding campus as it nears completion. The $80 million expansion will add 700 new jobs to Alliance's 3,000-member Ohio workforce.
Most prominent among the company's partners, L Brands made up approximately 11.6 percent of Alliance Data Card Service's receivables in 2014. Though Alliance has secured partnerships with major online retailers in recent years, including Overstock.com and Wayfair, Miller says the company remains committed to its core brick-and-mortar retail partners.
Miller carries out her company's mission to help consumer-facing companies know more about their customers in order to sell more. Alliance's three main lines of business, including its Card Services operation, administer customer loyalty programs, marketing and analytics services, private label and co-brand retail credit card programs for over 1,500 companies in total, according to its 2014 annual report.
"Everything we do is through the lens of the partners that we support, whether that partner would be Ann Taylor or Pottery Barn or Virgin America. If one of their customers needs to contact us, our number is on the back of the card, and we're pleased to deal with them," says Miller.
Miller judges success on more than financials. She finds the energy and commitment of her employees to be the most rewarding part of her work.
"We try to make our operation look very simple, but it is complex. There's a lot to know here and we command a great deal from our associates. They just deliver quarter after quarter," says Miller.
She spoke with Columbus CEO about her company, its niche in the financial services industry and the continued growth she expects in 2016.
Is it important for your Card Services operations to be based at Easton, surrounded by retailers?
It's a very, very important aspect. In fact, we had choices to go outside of Columbus. There were a number of well-known cities that had great deals to offer us. This is the hub of retail. At the end of the day, while we serve many markets, retail is at our core. We feel incredibly loyal and devoted to those brand partners that have been with us for 20 and 25 years.
What are the different operations that comprise Alliance Data?
Think of Alliance Data as the parent company. There are three very important, distinct lines of business underneath that umbrella. Card Services, which we are very proud to lead. We represent about 45 to 50 percent of the revenue and about 63 percent of the profits. The other two lines of business are Epsilon and Loyalty One.
Have marketing and the financial services industry always been integrated, or is this a new model?
That has always been our promise and our strategy. We think that's what sets us apart from others in the financial-services industry. We have two banks that facilitate the movement of money, and that, of course, becomes very important when you're generating $26 billion in credit sales. But we see that as an enabler. Our sole focus is to engender loyalty for the brand partners we support.
The marketing and loyalty orientation has always been our promise. We're sort of that best-kept secret, and we like to stay that way with those proud men and women behind the curtain and on the back of the credit card. You'll never see our name on the front of a credit card.
Why won't we ever see Alliance on the front of a credit card?
We are here to serve our brands. When a card member calls us, they generally think that they are dealing with the brand whom they love. That's really what makes us a little different. We are not working to make ourselves a better bank, we're working to make our partners better at what they do, or at least strengthen the value that they bring.
We answer our phones in their brand's manner. We refer to their customers in the same way that they would refer to them. We immerse ourselves in our brands.
What can Alliance Data Card Services do for a brand?
At the highest level, there are really four words that we would use to describe the value that we drive: "Know more, sell more."
We have those words plastered all over our buildings, on our desks, on our business cards. We exist to help our partners pull detailed information about their customers so they can sell them more. How do we do that? That's the secret sauce. We take the best of what a partner knows about their interactions with you: what you bought, when you bought it, did you buy it online? We match that with the best of what we know: where do you live, how long have you lived there, what type of automobiles do you have, do you have children, are you a homeowner?
We combine that art and that science. That's how we help our partners really do one-to-one marketing. You may be like your neighbor, but you are different. And we help with how to market to those differences. It's all about communicating to you in a relevant way through the channels you use to communicate.
Can you give an example of a brand that Alliance helped in that manner?
I don't want to name names, but when we welcome a partner to our family, much of what we do starts with the voice of the customer. What does she know about the brand? What does she know about the card program? How would she valuate the value that she gets each time that she shops with the brand? What would make her shop more often and through more channels?
We can sit here and think we know best what our card members might say, but if we talk to them they actually give us an awful lot of insight. We build unique value propositions that would really help to incent her-and we refer to most of our card members as 'she'-to shop more, shop more often and spend more when she shops. That would be an example of how we help our partners.
The female head of household is making 85 to 90 percent of the buying decisions in that household. Even those women who are not gainfully employed outside the home-because we all know being gainfully employed inside the home is probably the toughest job to do-she is still the one by-and-large that is making the buying, shopping and timing decisions.
For the most part, if you looked at the nearly 40 million card members that we have, the vast majority are female. As we embarked to expand our horizons into some of our other programs-examples might be Gander Mountain or our Virgin America program-we are welcoming more men to our world. But if you were talking to any one of our retail partners, they would refer to their customers as 'she.'
As a female executive and as someone involved in WELD, how do you take what you learn about your clients and your business to serve other women?
I'm not sure I've ever been smart enough to correlate the two, except to suggest that maybe as the female head-of-household in my home and as the mother of three who has always driven the purchasing, timing and affordability decisions, I think for me that's just always been an assumption. And as the mother of two daughters, it has always been important to me that as my daughters have gone off to college, they understand how to write a check, how to go grocery shopping, how to make an appointment.
What we appreciate about our customer being a she is that many of the executives serving in our partners are also women in business. We have a really great opportunity to form some really unique bonds.
Speaking of WELD, we've taken it on wheels this year. For WOW-Weld on Wheels-we've invited women from other parts of our organization to join us here for some of the key WELD meetings so that they can have an opportunity to network and connect with their peers within Alliance Data and the working community. It's been really well received. Our associates view it as an investment in them.
How crowded is the market in which you operate-are you pioneers in this industry?
It's so crowded. We would tell you that we pioneered many of the tools that are used to acquire new card members. Over time, some of the issuers have replicated some of the tools that we pioneered in the marketplace.
We would also tell you we are a David in the David and Goliath of the marketplace. We love that. We believe that we are hungrier, that we will work harder. To our organization, a smaller brand may mean a larger amount of attention. We really like being that. Above all else, we want to be known as the partner that delivers on their promises.
How important is technology to your operation?
Technology is a huge enabler for our organization. Our innovation lab is really almost a petri dish. At any given time, we have things that are just ideas, we have things that are truly in a prototype, things that we have fully rolled out and some things that we have rolled out and killed because it wasn't a good idea. Innovation and ideation and incitation are really an important part of what we do. We know that with those commitments come investment. Sometimes those investments don't pay off or don't pay off for a long period of time.
You can't dabble. You can't claim to be a company of innovation if you do it two quarters out of 15. That's not an innovator. That's an experimenter.
How many quarters would you stick with something, and when do you know to cut your losses?
I would tell you it's both an art and a science. We have to give things long enough (time) to succeed and call it when it's an obvious failure. That's the really hard part, because great ideas and really bad ideas look exactly the same in the beginning. Then, suddenly, they diverge.
We work really hard to create an environment where if I miss it, and I sometimes do, that folks aren't afraid to say, 'That is not working.' Whether it is an idea for a partner, our associates, ideation, we try really hard to create an environment where folks have the empowerment, the courage to stand up and suggest that something be re-evaluated. We try hard not to roast people for contrarian decisions.
How do you balance openness with decisiveness?
I think, in all transparency, anyone who is leading an organization is not expected to be the expert. I think that is a mistake that senior leaders often make: 'Oh my gosh, I have this title that my parents would be so proud of, now I must be the expert in everything.'
It's almost to the contrary. My sole accountability is to surround myself with people that will do my job much better than I will when they get it, and who are much more informed. I think the most important characteristic to be a senior leader is to not be afraid to have people from whom you learn. You will not be the smartest person in the room. You may have to be the most courageous. If you are afraid of failure, you've not earned the right to be a senior leader, because you will make wrong decisions. Be wrong, don't be paralyzed. Paralysis brings down companies more than wrong decisions.
How did you come to that knowledge?
Truly through mistakes and being given the gift of experience through the years. I had mentors who were not afraid to make big decisions and be wrong. I also had mentors for whom I worked who were paralyzed by making a decision. I saw how debilitating it was. While it wasn't fun to be involved in an initiative that was tried and failed, I always learned it was debilitating to be involved in non-decisions. We work hard here, we don't get it right every day, but we work really hard here to decide.
There are some leadership essentials that we think distinguish good companies from great companies. (One of these essentials) is courage. The shame of courage would be that you're selective with when you use it. Making courageous decisions isn't always planned.
What quality do you strive for as a leader?
Consistency. It would hurt my heart and soul very deeply if I thought people were walking in the doors and asking themselves, 'I wonder what kind of mood Melisa will to be in today?' I think that would be an epic failure. I would hope that if that was the kind of environment I was guilty of inspiring, that someone on my team would have the courage to have me taken out. Because if a leader who has an opportunity to influence so many families is leading only for their own good, then he or she has lost their way.
Is that responsibility hard to bear?
It's a great gift, actually. Do I literally worry about 7,000 families? Of course I do. We have families with grandmothers they're supporting, children with special medical needs, we have people on our watch who I know are victims of domestic violence, just by the sheer number of people that are on our team. We have women that are battling breast cancer. We have people who are battling depression.
Do I worry about it every day? Absolutely. And what a great gift I have been given if in some teeny, tiny way we can make a decision that can create financial strength for the organization that can be shared with folks.
Leadership can be regifted. We have to remind ourselves of that. We work hard every year to give out a discretionary CEO bonus. If we have a good year, we work very hard to see if we can give it back to those associates who are most in need. When you're handing out a $500 gift card to someone who only makes $500 a pay period, you get a chance to alter lives. What a great gift we have if we can create some amount of financial recognition for the good work that our folks do. That to me is very gratifying.
Kitty McConnell is associate editor of Columbus CEO.