As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Doubles. Brian Doubles is President of Synchrony, one of the nation’s premier consumer financial services companies.
Brian is focused on Synchrony’s continued leadership in digital payments, accelerating growth across the company and driving the company’s strategic initiatives. Brian leads several key functions, including business strategy, venture investments and M&A, enterprise data analytics, customer experience, marketing (including new product introduction, product management and digital platforms) and the expansion of the company’s direct-to-consumer banking and products strategy.
Brian was named President in May 2019, after serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for 10 years. As CFO, he played a pivotal role in Synchrony’s initial public offering in 2014 and separation from GE in 2015. He was also responsible for investor relations, financial planning and analysis, tax and treasury. Brian has a proven track record operating in various economic cycles and has earned a strong reputation for his deep domain expertise, strategic thinking, and financial and risk discipline. Prior to Synchrony’s founding, Brian served in various roles of increasing responsibility and management at GE.
Brian founded the Doubles Dive, an annual polar plunge event to raise money for various charitable organizations globally. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Michigan State University. He is married with two children.
Thank you for joining us Brian. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Michigan and attended Michigan State University. Upon graduation with my Bachelor of Science in Engineering, I joined GE’s leadership development program, which helped shape me and my leadership style today. I spent most of that time on program living and working in Asia as part of GE’s aviation business. After program, I went on to live and work in different countries, supporting different businesses, and growing and developing as a leader. In 2009 in the midst of the Financial Crisis I became the CFO of GE Capital Retail Finance business (now Synchrony).
Candidly, GE was the company I thought I would spend my entire career with. It wasn’t until 2013 when that idea changed. In 2013, we began exploring what it would look like to spin off the business from GE and take the company public. During that time I worked very closely with Margaret Keane CEO and we developed a great relationship. We completed the IPO of Synchrony in July of 2014 and completed the separation from GE in November of 2015. I continued to serve as CFO 2014–2019 and was honored when Margaret and the Board appointed me to President in 2019.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, I had an experience living and working in Singapore. There was one night where the team and I were working late. It was probably 10 or 11 pm a night. Tired, I took my shoes off and put my feet up on a table. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but short while later I was approached by one of my teammates who shared with me that in Singapore — as in many Asian cultures — showing someone the bottom of your foot is a sign of disrespect. I could not have been more embarrassed.
What it taught me is how important it is to consider each and every person in the room — always. To this day, I try to be incredibly aware of the cultures, perspectives and individuality of each person I work with, lead or interact with. Our differences are what make us great, Respecting, understanding and learning about those differences is at the heart of building teams, culture and collaboration.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
My favorite business book is ‘Too Big to Fail’ by Andrew Ross Sorkin. Having lived through the great financial crisis as the CFO of a financial services business this book had so many relevant lessons that I still draw from today. The historic events of the financial crisis that are outlined in the book around the intersection between Wall Street, Main Street and Washington all help to think about leading through a crisis.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you separated from GE what was your vision, and purpose?
When Synchrony became a standalone public company more than five years ago, we built an organization whose inclusive, innovative culture is a competitive advantage. From the boardroom to the contact centers, we designed diversity into our corporate DNA. Our distinct culture and values are really the backbone of how our employees engage with and drive value for all of our stakeholders.
Synchrony’s vision is to help people reach their ambitions, from offering financing options to creating innovative technology solutions. Now more than ever, purpose-driven businesses are counted on to help customers and partners navigate the future.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Decide and deliver. During these unprecedented times, moving with speed is critical. You’re not always going to have all the answers, but that’s where acting as an Agile organization becomes so important. Moving with speed, committing to progress, but not being afraid to adapt, change and refine. Those we serve — our partners, customers, employees and shareholders — all depend on us. In good times and bad, we must deliver and can’t let indecision stand in the way.
That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with incredibly smart, talented people. As a leader, sometimes the best thing you can do is step back, trust your team and empower them to make smart decisions and deliver great outcomes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Today more than ever our work and personal lives have become one. As a father of two elementary school-aged daughters, one of the biggest challenges has been balancing home schooling. As I work from home, it’s not uncommon to go directly from a virtual meeting with our Board of Directors to solving a third-grade math problem during a break
The challenge of balancing our two lives is hard. I won’t pretend to have it all figured out, but each day I learn something new from my children while also talking about these challenges with members of our team and learning from their experiences.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
There were two big challenges that we faced.
First, our top priority was ensuring the health and wellness of our employees. Therefore, the first challenge was getting our more than 16,000 employees safe and set-up to work remotely from home — which I’m proud to say we accomplished for the majority of our employees in just a matter of days. This allowed us to ensure our customers have access to credit and their bank deposits for their vital needs, as well supporting our partners as they work to maintain their businesses.
The second was the time we spent to re-prioritize our strategic initiatives across the business. It became clear pretty quickly that we would need to accelerate some projects and put some others on hold in light of the pandemic.
The shift in our 2020 priorities was a thoughtful and deliberate exercise to ensure our continued success. I led a team of cross-company leaders to work on this re-prioritization. We identified the critical capabilities needed to stabilize our business and position Synchrony for future success. That also meant we needed to put some projects and initiatives on hold until 2021. The entire team rallied around this effort as we redeployed our best talent against these initiatives
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As a society, we need to talk about the importance of mental health. Our people are our greatest asset and we have a responsibility to do our part to support our team. Like many others, we’ve added virtual mental health benefits like virtual one-on-one counseling sessions, video series with mental health professionals on pressing topics, and wellness apps where employees can message a licensed therapist or access clinical techniques to reduce anxiety and holding weekly calls with medical and mental health experts dedicated to answering employees’ COVID-19 questions.
We’ve also gone further, focusing on our employees’ total wellness, launching our Synchrony360 platform — a holistic approach to supporting all aspects of our employees’ lives, including health, financial, personal and professional.
Creating safe, inclusive environments are key to begin breaking down barriers in mental health awareness. As leaders it’s our job to recognize that sometimes our people won’t ask for what they need. It is incumbent on us to recognize where support (professional, emotional, health or otherwise) is needed and to act.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The very nature of crisis requires that people think differently, and that can be what leads to fundamental change. If we go back to a time in history when people were dealing with a different health crisis — the 1918 flu that proved so deadly. By the mid-20s, all states in the country were participating in a new national disease reporting system. By the mid-30s, the United States was starting to use national health surveys. And by the mid-40s, the first effective flu vaccine was discovered.
When we apply innovative thinking and look at where the opportunities are as a society we all succeed. For our part, we are exploring more about the ecosystem of payments, we’re seeing contactless transactions accelerating as people are more hypervigilant about germs. Even with a contactless credit card, the customer may still have to touch a couple of buttons on the point of sale device. This will be an opportunity for merchants to deploy point of sale systems that can process contactless and mobile payments during checkout.
Now is the time for businesses to be digitally transforming their efforts to reach customers. We are working with our retail partners and small businesses to help them through — discussing digital point of sale capabilities, servicing, marketing and loyalty programs, establishing a bigger digital footprint and deepening our digital and mobile plans.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
In the workplace, companies and employees have needed to be more flexible and adapt faster than ever. It goes far beyond just working remotely. We are re-imagining every aspect of our business, from how we work together as a team, how we support our partners and customers and even how we think about talent.
Culture is something that has differentiated Synchrony for years, and it will continue to do so in this new environment. We need to think about how our business is going to survive and thrive for another 80 plus years.
Consumer behavior will definitely change coming out of the crisis. I believe the insights we can draw from data will become even more essential as we think about and respond to how consumer behavior is changing.
We need to think more systematically — The combination of data and digital will help to accelerate and change every aspect of our business, from how we personalize our offerings to our customers, how we support our partners and how we engage with our employees.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our long-term strategy remains the same. That said we are looking at ways to help parts our business and our partners grow. For example:
The retail landscape was already changing pre-COVID-19. With new economic realities we expect this change to accelerate.
Synchrony, through our deep understanding of the consumer and their buying trends, is in a unique position to help retailers through this crisis.
Our technology investments, early embrace, development, and implementation of digital tools is helping retailers weather the storm.
With many physical locations shut down, and those that are reopening doing so in with a different footprint, an omni-channel presence is required to succeed. We realigned our teams to help partners accelerate their digital transformation. Some examples of technology includes:
- Accelerating digital point of sale and the digital customer experience: A good example is our dApply platform: Radically simplifies the credit card application process, allowing consumers to quickly receive a new card from their mobile device, tablet, or desktop. More than 50% of our credit applications now done digitally.
- Contactless Capabilities: More of our partners are asking us for contactless cards and even going a step further with a completely digital payment experience.
For nearly 90 years, helping America’s small businesses has been a core part of Synchrony’s DNA and today we are accelerating our efforts to ensure that our small business partners stay strong.
Synchrony partners with nearly one million small businesses, including those in the home, retail, and auto industries, as well as healthcare providers — from veterinarians to dentists to physicians.
As the crisis disrupts life for millions of businesses, we are helping to equip small business leaders with the tools they need to revitalize their recovery, build resiliency and bolster communities across the country through our core business and philanthropic support.
Synchrony has fueled small business growth for decades and today furthered that commitment with the launch of Synchrony for Small Business, a new program to provide greater financial support and intellectual capital to help small, local businesses recover and grow. This comprehensive program includes funding of small business grants through community organizations, access to customization digital tools, and consulting expertise for small business owners throughout the United States.
Synchrony for Small Business will connect small businesses with resources like expert advice on topics like digital marketing and building loyalty, deep research and insights on market trends and how to navigate the new and ever evolving business environment.
Diversity and Inclusion:Now more than ever, this is an opportunity to leverage the power of diversity and inclusion. Our communities are hurting, and they need leadership. Having inclusion at the core means putting people at the center — accelerates innovation, unlocks opportunity for unprecedented change.
At a time when more will be asked of our employees, inclusive leadership is essential to retaining diverse talent and moving the needle. This is not the time to lose sight of our goals.
Here are the emerging opportunities that I see:
- Diversity and Inclusion Starts at the Top
- In today’s complex times, diversity of thought is not a nice-to-have. It’s critical to drive a better return on investment.
- Grow Talent Pipeline
- Prioritize developing diverse talent through a focused, data-driven approach.
- We are reimagining our diversity development programs to ensure they continue progress. Now more than ever, we need to be providing mentors and sponsors for diverse talent.
- Prepare Workforce for the Future
- Synchrony has expanded Tuition Reimbursement for employees to continue to learn and get reskilled.
- Provide emergency grants to organizations that help minority-owned small businesses, disadvantaged communities
- Synchrony has committed $2 million to LISC to provide emergency grants to help small business leaders, including minority-owned businesses in undeserved communities.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Our country is facing two crises all at once. The corona virus pandemic is taking the lives of far too many — and is driving people further into poverty and attacking our way of life.
At the same time, incidents of racism and bias remain far too common for too many Americans for far too long. Now is the time for companies to act. We must engage in behaviors and actions that are consistent with our values and beliefs. I believe it is not enough to reaffirm our company values. We must work together to root out intolerance and support fundamental human rights.
That means that we need to engage with people not only to shape opinion, but to change behavior.
We have a lot of hard work in front of us. No one company, government entity, community or stakeholder can drive the systemic change needed in our country. I hope this is a turning point for our nation. It is time we stand, united, in solidarity and for change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” — Henry Ford
This quote is particularly relevant in these very uncertain and challenging times. There are many challenges that are surrounding us today, and the true test of leadership is how you respond to and deal with these volatile and uncertain times. It’s so important to persevere and not to let setbacks keep us from trying again or from winning.
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