Gary McMahon’s career is a mirror of the transformation of the payments industry. Straight out of university, his first job was at Barclaycard, where he spent his days manually comparing the signatures on paper cheques to determine their legitimacy. Twenty years later and he is heading up online payments for Sainsbury’s, one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK. Over the course of his career, the death of the cheque is far from the only development he has witnessed. He has seen the emergence and subsequent take-off of ecommerce, and the birth of now-established payment pillars such as PDS2, SCA, and SEPA.
His own experiences cover pretty much everything there is to do in payments. Merchant onboarding and client services; multicurrency operations; team management; risk management; business analytics and product delivery are the main highlights from his 15-year stint at Barclaycard.
Gary recalls that at that point he thought he knew all. A new role at Disney made him reassess that, though. “Coming at payments from the merchant side rather than as an acquirer was a real steep learning curve…you need an absolutely different mindset.” His role there - Senior Project Analyst - is perhaps a misleading title for a job that “was always all about creating an amazing customer experience.” Those customers spanned Disney’s full empire: parks, travel, tickets, TV, stores, online. “They are very different customers and different payment experiences. You’re constantly switching contexts and adapting to the specifics of each situation.”
He describes his four years at Disney as “the perfect breeding ground to learn and expand. When it came to payments, it was like working for five or six different companies at once.”
There are similarities with his role at Sainsbury’s, where he is Group Product Manager, Online Payments. His current remit covers Sainsbury’s, and also other brands in the group, including Argos, Habitat, Tu and its own banking arm. In simple terms, his job is to work out how to leverage the equity of each brand, while behind the scenes developing shared payments infrastructure and capabilities.
With all this on his plate, what is top of his mind right now? Tokenization, open banking (especially in relation to recurring variable payments) and wallets are three of the big topics he is thinking about. “These open up the opportunity to have that single customer view, more relevant or seamless customer journeys, or to stop someone who has committed fraud with another of our brands.”
Key to exploring these opportunities is where his team sits, organizationally. “At Sainsbury’s, payments is a product division, so we’re responsible for driving income.” It’s a trend he is seeing more of. “In the past, payments weren’t widely acknowledged as important to a business. Then it was just operational. Now, more and more companies are seeing payments as a revenue driver; as something that you can really drive and develop and that customers will make specific decisions based on.”
That momentum is not accidental. It has come about by people like Gary owning their achievements. “Payments teams have to showcase the income and the benefits they drive,” he advises. “It's about telling the story in a way that senior stakeholders are clear about the impact you are having. So don’t just report that you’ve seen a 6% increase in authorization rates, as an example, but translate that into monetary terms. That’s what makes people sit up and go ‘Oh, what else can you guys do?’ And that then gives you the mandate to experiment and build more success.”
Despite almost two decades of exponential innovation in the payments industry, Gary says there is no substitute for foundational knowledge. “Get a solid understanding of what happens from the moment a customer submits a payment to when it hits a bank account. Only once you've got that can you start to adopt a challenger mindset, “because you’ll learn that not everything is set in stone. It gives you the right to ask: ‘Times are changing. Can we do this differently…better?’”
If knowledge is the enabler for this innovation, passion is the driver. Or more specifically, passion for the customer’s experience. “You can’t do this job properly if you don’t really care about making the customer’s life easier. If you look at people who have been in payments for a long time, this is what we have in common.”
Gary is certain of this not simply because of his longevity in the industry. He knows it because he spends time with other professionals. “You can’t have that passion and not be open to collaborating and building connections. Otherwise, you’re closing yourself off to the potential solutions, and ultimately letting down your customers. So I’m always telling my team to go and explore, bring your ideas back, and let’s see if we can make it work.”
He appreciates this spirit of openness may jar with companies that have a more ‘winner takes all’ approach to business. But that is a false economy, he says. “There’s still so much room for growth in the digital economy…there's enough there for everyone. When everyone’s sharing knowledge, we’re making the space bigger.”
He looks upon the new generation of payments professionals with slight envy. “They are already at the decision-making table, because of the work that has gone before. That’s been a real shift in the past few years.” Ultimately though, this is a positive. “Now the case has been made for how payments can drive extra turnover, it’s going to open up so many new doors to innovation.”
But, as Gary explains, open doors are meaningless without the passion to walk through them. It’s the number one attribute he looks for when recruiting. “You can teach people payments, but you can't teach them that drive and that passion needed to make a difference. So I look for people who get excited when I talk to them about what payments can actually achieve.”
He is realistic that a career in payments can be a tough sell. “It’s complex, there’s lots to learn, and increasingly lots of responsibility. So I see lots of trepidation and doubt from candidates over whether they will be good enough. His advice to them; “Say yes, and then figure out how to do it. People are often more capable than they give themselves credit for. I value those who back themselves.”
He values a ‘renegade spirit’ to his profession, actively mentoring those who he thinks could have bright futures. “The more of us there are, the better we will become as a profession and an industry.”
Those that he mentors can count themselves lucky as Gary brings not only his payments experience, but also his life experience to the table, advocating for the importance of mental health and giving yourself a work-life balance. As a new and dedicated father, he understands the importance of taking time off, but also acknowledges how difficult that can be when you are working in payments. Luckily, his attitude is reflected at Sainsburys: “We have a smarter working policy, which means I can be flexible when I work.” He is strict with himself about using it and also takes time to destress when he’s at work. “I take half an hour, take a walk, clear my head. When I return to my desk, I’m a better version of myself. I hope I empower my team to do the same”.
And other advice that he passes on is that anyone going into this industry should ‘back themselves’, “I always think back to a Richard Branson quote that still resonates with me to this day. If you are offered an opportunity, say yes and then figure out how to do it. I give this advice to a lot of people that want to get into this industry because there is still trepidation for many when they think about becoming payments professionals. But if you have the passion, there is so much for you to learn and so many opportunities for your career!”