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Rahul Gupta on Fiserv’s Greatest Leadership Challenges

By: Leader's Edge Staff

Rahul Gupta is Group President of the Digital Payment Solutions Group for Fiserv, a leading global provider of information management and electronic commerce systems for the financial services industry. Gupta, who joined the company in 2006, has more than 25 years of experience in financial services and payments. Since October 2011, he has led a group that includes several strategic payment platforms, including electronic bill payment and presentment, biller solutions, card services,  and global payment solutions. 

Each year, more than $1 trillion is moved using Fiserv technology. The company serves 16,000 clients, primarily banks and other financial institutions, including all of the top 100 U.S. banks. Last year, Fiserv managed 20 billion digital transactions. Among the top 50 U.S. financial institutions, Fiserv is the leader in online banking, bill payment, and person-to-person payments. Popmoney, the company’s popular P2P payments network, reaches more than 1,600 financial institutions and approximately 40 million consumers. Fiserv also operates one of the nation’s five largest debit and ATM networks.

 Recently, Rahul Gupta was interviewed by Leader's Edge.

1. Online banking and mobile payments are a fast-moving, highly-competitive space. What was Fiserv’s greatest leadership challenge in positioning the business to meet this challenge?
It is a fast-moving space with lots of new competitors with different business models emerging all the time. Our challenge is to not only build best-in-class products and services in this highly competitive landscape, but also to help our bank and corporate clients roll out and market those capabilities to consumers. So our business model is clearly more complex than some of these new market entrants who can launch and then directly reach customers on the web.

2.  Fiserv has made a number of acquisitions, including the acquisition of CheckFree five years ago.  What were the management challenges involved in integrating these businesses?
Since it was founded in 1984, Fiserv has made more than 150 acquisitions. CheckFree was a transformational acquisition.  More recently, we completed another transformational acquisition: CashEdge, which operates a leading person-to-person payments network, Popmoney. Integrating acquisitions is something we do well. But it is always a challenge. We have a multiplicity of platforms and products—each with a committed product roadmap.  Often, a newly acquired product must be integrated into multiple platforms. We are not just integrating software; we also offer many services on an ASP basis.  This complexity can slow down the integration of a new acquisition, because the integration work displaces something else that is also important. This creates huge demands on our team. We are also often melding cultural differences. There are significant benefits when you pull it off.

3. How does Fiserv, a $4 billion+ company, innovate against competitors that are smaller and potentially more nimble? 
We are constantly innovating. Our business model is oriented toward listening to our clients and building the innovations they want into our product model. So we are doing many, many product-level innovations to meet client needs. We are also constantly trying to improve our business model to drive more revenue, more income and more benefit for our customers. There is also a need for more out-of-the-box, white space innovation. We do some of that internally, but we also often identify third-parties to partner with or acquire. When we do Big Bang innovation, such as our state-of-the-art account processing platform for credit unions or our new voice recognition technology for online banking, we generally integrate these types of innovations with existing technology. 

4. What management challenges do you face in serving so many clients in the U.S. and around the world? 
Each client has common needs as well as unique needs so we have to service clients in a common but also an individual way. Getting that balance right is a constant challenge. It is not possible to be completely customized because that would destroy the business model. But we also cannot be completely generic because that doesn’t deliver best-in-class results for our clients. So we have account teams and consulting teams that deliver our products to clients in a unique way.

The challenge of getting the balance right is further complicated when serving clients outside the U.S.  In some cases, the people who are needed to support these clients—the expertise that the clients are looking for—might be working overseas. There can be issues of language, culture, and local market knowledge. We build local teams, of course, but distance can further compound the challenge of serving these clients uniquely.

5. What were the management issues you faced when you became Group President of the Digital Payment Solutions Group for Fiserv in October 2011?
First and foremost, the challenge was in setting up a strategy to grow the business and win in electronic payments, which is one of the company’s five strategic pillars. To do that, we need to have the right portfolio of products and services, package, and deliver those products in a high-quality way and build a great team. Those are the three principle challenges. There will always be others, such as competition or the economy, but I focus on the challenges that I can control.

6. What obstacles have you faced in implementing your strategies and plans?
There are always external issues. The market moves quickly. Competitors launch new products and services. So we have to adapt our plans constantly. That’s number one. Second, we are still in an economy that is growing slowly, so our client base is cautious in terms of their buying behavior. And of course we have the kinds of challenges I mentioned earlier, such as integrating acquisitions and taking advantage of the opportunities that exist.  So we have an environment in which we have to move quickly in order to grow, drive profits, and manage quality.  Balancing all of those things requires significant execution skills. That is the battle every day.

7. What leadership and management approach did you apply to address those challenges?
At the end of the day, it’s about setting the vision and the strategy, communicating effectively, and having the right team. It’s absolutely crucial to be very clear about goals and expectations at all levels, from the group level to each department and individual.  Are the goals clear? Are we communicating the best we can? Do we have the best team? Those are the key things that I focus on. These questions must be evaluated in the context of your strategy, which itself is subject to the fluctuating market. As long as you can keep your eye on those three things, you can meet the challenges. 

8.. The financial crisis and recession deeply affected your industry. How did you respond?
We managed our expenses very carefully. But more important, we responded by paying close attention to our customers. As is always the case, some were more affected by the recession than others. For those who were severely impacted, we worked with them to provide products and services that would make them more efficient or realign their product portfolios so they could survive. During this period, other customers were choosing places to grow and gain market share. We worked with those clients to more aggressively introduce new products and services. Overall, we became even more targeted in our approach with clients. As a result, the company performed solidly during the recession and has emerged as an even stronger and more profitable business.

9. How have you transformed the Digital Payment Solutions Group for Fiserv to seize opportunities in the fast-moving world of payments?
We have always done a very good job identifying and seizing opportunities within each line of business. What we are doing now is connecting the dots across those lines of business to have a more cohesive strategy. In the past, we might have eight different business lines doing their own thing, each with its own strategy. Now, we are moving more aggressively to have an enterprise strategy that is integrated across multiple product lines. That’s the way our markets are evolving.  In this day and age, products like mobile wallet and social payment networks are spanning multiple product lines.  We’re increasingly evolving our strategy to do this more effectively. 

10. What are your priorities for the business and how will Fiserv remain on the forefront of this digital transformation?
The priorities for this business are quite simply to continue to help our clients be successful. For this to happen, we believe clients must have a broad portfolio of electronic payment products integrated into the channels their customers want, whether online, mobile, or branch. Our priority is to create that portfolio and work with our clients to make them successful. When this requires innovation, we will innovate. When this requires an acquisition, we’ll do that. We try to keep our eye on what will help our clients serve their customers better, rather than merely compete against fashionable, new market entrants.

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