Stuart Rowe puts his start in payments down to two factors; love, and the weather. The first of those led him to trade in his university degree in history for a future in Santa Barbara, with some rudimentary computer design skills paying the bills. Fast forward a few years, and with computer design having progressed to financial data systems, Stuart found himself working for AT&T’s payments division in Seattle - “a beautiful place, but just too dark” he recalls.
What those 18 months lacked in daylight hours, they made up for in a schooling about payments. “I went from companies processing hundreds of thousands of dollars, to doing millions worth of incredibly complex billings.” The draw of the Californian sunshine proving too great, and with an inkling that payments might be a lot more interesting than people gave it credit for, Stuart took up the offer to head back south to set up the billings operation for a small telco. Less than a year into that, Disney came calling. It was 2006, and the entertainment icon had decided that mobile phones were their future. With telco and payments experience on his fledgling CV, Stuart was recruited to build up the new function from the ground up. “I loved it. There was nothing to inherit. I could design it exactly how I wanted it to be.” Alas, the American public wasn’t quite ready to make the leap from theme parks and much-loved cartoons to handheld telephony, and much of the work was consigned to the cutting room floor.
But Disney is a big company, and Stuart’s work hadn’t gone unnoticed. He was asked to stay on, and manage payments across the whole of the organization. “It exposed me to payment processing in a lot of different environments and industries,” he says. “One day I’d be looking at online sales, another day it’d be quick food and beverages, then cruise lines…if I tried to get that sort of experience serially, it would take 10 years.”
If AT&T had been his schooling in payments, then Disney was his PhD. “Until then I hadn't appreciated just how much there is to payments; how many players are involved in just one transaction. I soaked it all up.”
From there, he moved to Google to work on the launch of Google Wallet, and then to EA to manage their various payment partners around the world. Today, Stuart heads up global payments for Gen, the company spun out of Symantec’s consumer division. Including his Symantec years, he is pushing a decade with them, and has overseen the amalgamation of multiple payment operations as the business pursued a relentless acquisition strategy. The latest - a merger of NortonLifeLock and Avast - has created one of the world’s largest consumer digital security providers, with those brands and others such as Avira, AVG, CCleaner and ReputationDefender serving five million customers worldwide. And it must all be carefully stitched together.
Stuart describes it as the unglamorous side of the job; legal entity structures, bank account admin, KYC underwriting have been his world for the last year - but this is an unavoidable necessity. “Take recurring payments,” he explains. “An issuing bank and card network look at billing history to approve or reject a payment instruction. So if we haven’t got all that right in the background, there’s a real risk to revenue.”
That necessitates a company-wide approach to running payments, he says. “I’m always talking to security, IT, tax, legal, product, accounting, finance…you make so many friends in this job!”
He says the biggest change to payments during his career is in how companies perceive the function. “Payments used to be seen as cash-management, which is a cost-center, and so it was all about how you could do it cheaper. Today, merchants are understanding that their payments operation is really about revenue generation…that how you do payments, from the methods you offer to the partners you work with to enable them, has the potential to grow your business.”
In this new paradigm, an emerging skill of a payment professional is stakeholder management, says Stuart. “There’s a temptation to talk about payments as something highly sophisticated. Whenever I’m convincing a colleague about an idea we have, I talk about the primitive nature of payments. Sure, it’s super high-tech, but really the whole system is still lacking finesse and grace. And because of that, there are lots of opportunities to improve how things work. It’s almost like a game where you’re trying to find a new trick.”
A curiosity with data is the route to finding those improvements, he says. “Ultimately, digital payments are just ones and zeros. So if you don't have accurate data that tells you what's going on, you're doomed.” Data is a virtuous circle, he says, giving you the mandate to experiment and make further impact. “Always be ready to prove how the decisions you take on payments have a direct impact on profitability,” he advises.
He is lucky, he says. His CEO and CFO at Gen are both knowledgeable and interested in payments. “They know what a payment network token is. You can’t say that about most executives,” Stuart jokes.
Exposure is the best way to educate executives, he suggests. “Even if you only convince them to tag along with you to payments trade shows and conferences, it’ll be a real eye-opener for them. They’re always amazed there’s so much to payments. You can see the spark it ignites.”
Stuart demands that growth mindset of himself. In a profession that is constantly evolving, the proliferation of new payment services providers is the one constant. Failure to keep pace with the innovators can quickly leave you playing catch-up - but he cautions about being thoughtful in how you select the right partner. And, in many cases, locality is key. “A few years ago we expanded into Japan. It made sense to find a partner that is really deep in that market, that could give us better processing and support there.”
That example points to one of the challenges of managing a global payments operation, namely the diversity of standards and systems around the world. “In Europe we have to work with SEPA, and PIX in Brazil, but in the US people are deeply attached to credit cards, and sharing your bank account details with a vendor seems inherently risky. FedNow might change that, so we have to be ready for that too. One of the big challenges of my job is to look across all our markets and make sure we are accommodating all these different payment cultures.”
Once you’re comfortable that your partner network is adequately localized and mitigating counterparty risk, the question of how many payment partners is the right number really comes down to your appetite for optimization, explains Stuart. “The more you have, the greater your flexibility to dial up and down their services. But that requires constant monitoring. There’s no point setting up a new partner in January, and waiting until December to review their performance.”
Today, there is no shortage of choice, with new payment companies sprouting up seemingly daily to offer their innovations. What is changing is the increasing interest from regulators. “Governments are really just waking up to payments.” He admits to having mixed feelings about it. “Regulation is ultimately in the interest of consumers, but good intentions can have negative outcomes. I’m not saying we should go back to when I started my career, when we could just try anything, but equally we don’t want to stifle innovation.” The key is for regulators to develop policy in collaboration with merchants, he says. “Regulators tend to think about customers first, and then banks, and then themselves. We need more awareness for merchants too, as what we are asked to do ultimately affects the customer experience.”
He points to chargeback deflection as an example. “You go from having a transaction being between a customer and their merchant, to suddenly having a third party involved. And that creates a lot of back and forth, which can be quite confusing for the customer. I’m interested in schemes like Visa’s new ‘Rapid Dispute Response’, where they essentially step back and let the customer and merchant settle things quickly via an app.”
His subtext is that regulators need to empathize more with merchants. It is a principle he values across the payments supply chain. “It’s tempting to go into conversations thinking about where your leverage is, but it’s equally important to demonstrate that you know where others are coming from, whether they are internal stakeholders or external partners. You’ve got to make an effort to understand their motives, because it’ll either persuade you that they are right, or it gives you the framing to explain why they are not.”
That can be easier said than done when your working day can start in the early hours, with calls to India, Japan and Europe. But Stuart says he has learned to regulate his energy through the day. “I take it as a marathon, not a sprint. Business might happen round the clock, but you can’t.”
Extend the analogy, and you sense that Stuart’s career has many miles left to run. He has lost none of that wonder for his industry. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and some days I realize there are whole areas I don't know anything about. For someone who hates to be bored, it’s the perfect profession.”