As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need to Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Frey, President of Cambridge Global Payments.
As President of Cambridge Global Payments, Mark has played a key role in growing the Cambridge business and firmly establishing the company as a market leader in areas of cross-border payments and currency risk management over the course of close to 10 years with Cambridge. A proven leader with 20 years’ experience in trading and treasury operations, Mark is responsible for leading all aspects of operations, risk management, dealing, and finance, and has been instrumental in driving the organizations revenue and EBITDA growth, leading up to the successful acquisition by FLEETCOR. He is well known in the industry and frequently provides insight to financial and business industry news services such as The Globe & Mail, BNN, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, 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’ve spent my entire career in cross-border payments. I wrote my final university exam on a Friday and started making cold calls as a sales rep the following Monday. I thought I would do that job for a year until I got a “real job” in investment banking or corporate finance, but I fell in love with the business and how dynamic and fast-faced the industry was, and continues to be. It’s truly a 24-hours-a-day, around-the-clock business, 6 days a week and that is both exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.
I made up mind early on that this was the career for me and have worked hard for 20 years towards my dream job.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There was one incident where a colleague of mine accidentally selected the wrong currency when making a trade. He had intended on trading 55 billion Indonesian, but ended up accidentally selecting 55 billion USD, creating mass havoc that couldn’t be fully rectified for days.
This accident, while funny now, was not funny at the time and it illuminated the importance of attention to detail to me very early on. When dealing with payments and FX trading, execution matters — and it has to be precise.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The Chairman and CEO of our parent company has left a significant impression on my career. He often speaks of key ideas that have become guiding principles for me in business.
The most impactful for me, is his belief that our role as leaders is to continually work on “building a better business.” I’ve taken that to heart, and it has become a mantra of mine that I recite to the team on a daily basis. While we must be focused on day-to-day execution, we can’t lose sight of the big goals we have with respect to generating value each day for our partners, clients, employees and shareholders. That focus on continuous improvement and efficiency guides us each day.
I worked for another CEO earlier on in my career as I was just becoming a senior manager and commercial leader. He was fond of saying “that there are very few problems that can’t be solved with more revenue.” While this is of course somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek comment, it highlighted the importance to me that no matter how focused you are on improving the inward-facing components of your company, you can’t lose sight of generating value for your customers by ensuring you are doing everything that you can to support your commercial teams.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When Cambridge Global Payments started in 1992, it stemmed from one of the founders recognizing a need for foreign exchange in his existing business within the diamond industry, with the goal of creating an ancillary service for the jewelers he traded with that had a need to buy USD in the city of Toronto.
Today’s vision for Cambridge Global Payments is to carve out a unique place where we are a true financial technology company, with the backing of a large corporation. We want to be nimble and a leader in the fintech space, while also continuing to be a sustainably profitable business — sitting directly between fintechs and big banks in a manner where we have all of the financial stability of a large financial institution while retaining a focus on the customer in building innovative solutions that solve their business challenges.
It is our mission to provide our clients, and our partners, with superior service and expertise in foreign exchange and global payments. As Cambridge continues to expand into new markets, our vision remains constant: to find inventive ways to connect our clients with success, as the leading provider of cross-border payment and currency risk management solutions.
From a leadership perspective, I can clearly recall thinking early in my career that those value statements developed by executive teams didn’t really amount to much more than a poster on the wall. Within the FLEETCOR group and at Cambridge, our values are guiding principles that point us to our true north each day. Whenever we’re faced with new challenges or a big business decisions, we rely on our values to help illuminate the path forward.
Leading During Turbulent Times:
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly impacted every business and every individual in the world. It has forced us to rethink our business moving forward, and challenged so many long-held assumptions. It has also presented all leaders with an opportunity to step up and lead no matter how difficult the environment may be or how uncertain the future may seem.
To continue to lead during the pandemic, we had to know our business and our customers and make decisions with our gut and intuition, and we have been very successful in doing that. When you know your business and do the analytical and data-driven work ahead of time, you can make difficult decisions and trust them during uncertain times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never considered giving up, but there were days that were tough. However, despite all of the chaos and uncertainty, I always knew I had to push through.
I knew then, and I know now, that there are a lot of people relying on our organization and on me as a leader — for their livelihoods and for their families. They depend on me and expect me to lead with certainty and consistency, so retreating from the multitude of challenges is simply never an option. We are a critical operational and financial partner for thousands of clients around the world and our team steps forward to meet that challenge each day, no matter the circumstances. With respect to the pandemic, we simply had to keep charging ahead.
As for what sustains my drive, I love what I do and I love this business. Monday is my favourite day of the week. There is no question the pandemic has challenged that energy at times, but I’m always optimistic and have an intense belief that our team can solve any challenge that comes our way. It’s up to us as a team to go forward.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
You have to be present. You must show up — you can’t ever allow your team to feel as though they are going it alone.
You also have to communicate. Even when you feel you’re overcommunicating, people need to feel that you empathize and that you care. It is the responsibility of leaders to illuminate the path forward and communicate consistently and with purpose every step of the way.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It’s very important to have a vision and values as a foundation. We understand there are challenges, especially in the current economic environment and with our teams all working remotely, but understanding the vision and the values of the organization helps to act as a guidepost, so you can continue to move in the right direction and push yourself and the team to be better every day — for our partners, our customers, our shareholders and for each other.
Some days are easier than others but staying focused on what you’re trying to achieve is crucial — and making sure everyone in the organization understands that vision and how their work contributes to it. We strive to be a better business every single day. My job is to make sure we get there, together, by building a plan and driving towards executing that plan with unrelenting focus and ensuring our entire team is focused on doing the critical work that contributes to those goals.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First, it’s important that all leaders understand that people want to hear from you. The best way to communicate is to be direct and clear. It is often a great practice to let others in the organization share good news as much as possible, but as a leader you need to be the one that owns and shares more difficult news.
It’s also important to be as transparent as you can be, depending on the situation. You might not have all the answers, but be as transparent, honest and forthright as possible — including openly admitting that you do not have all the answers or when you have made a mistake. You have to own the decisions of the business, even when the outcomes are impacted by forces outside of your control or that could not be reasonably foreseen. Accountability is key, and that starts at the top of the organization.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Our role as leaders is to plan and chart the way forward, no matter how unpredictable the future may be. Crucial to success is balancing the focus on both the short term and the long-term objectives even when the present situation is chaotic.
While it’s important to focus on the immediate quarter and how to adjust or pivot, I always aim to consider the five-year plan and the impact that today’s decisions will have with respect to keeping us moving towards our strategic vision. We try not to lose sight of our longer-term goals, even as we’re chasing down short-term objectives.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
As part of FLEETCOR, we build very robust annual plans with several critical product and people initiatives each year. We track our results continuously against not only the key financial objectives, but the operational components of the transformational initiatives that will allow us to reshape the business in the future. We’re very dogmatic about this as we see our roles as leaders to build a plan and then ensure the collective strength of the entire organization is harnessed to meet our objectives.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
First, I’d say many businesses struggle with finding the right balance between long and short term goals during difficult times, and that’s a mistake as both micro and macro decisions are both equally as important.
Next, many businesses — and many leaders — struggle to communicate clearly and honestly during difficult times, and some struggle to communicate enough. The guiding principle I maintain is that if I’m not communicating on difficult topics, the team will fill in the gaps in their knowledge with worst case scenarios. I need to ensure that I share a contextually accurate picture of the current state across the business, so we can all remain focused on doing the right work while minimizing distractions.
Not having firm values and a vision is also a major impediment for many businesses. This can be dangerous during uncertain times, as it can lead to the team losing sight of what matters and what they are working towards. It’s important to continue to be goal-oriented and continue to focus on your aspirations, not matter how difficult times may get. Adjust the goals or the timelines if you must, but a lack of direction or focus is the enemy of value creation.
Values aren’t just words on a website. They are what leads you, and they’re what you believe in — how you treat people and how you make decisions. They are your true north, especially when the path may feel uncertain.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We build our strategic plans with great detail and rigor based on math, analysis, and capabilities, and we build budgets based on those elements. All of our strategies take into account the financial environment, and allow us to pivot as and when needed, while still keeping our long and short-term goals in mind.
We set timelines, milestones and financial goals and strive to achieve them, holding both the executive sponsors and underlying teams accountable for each and every one of those goals.
We have a very clear vision of what we want to achieve in the long and short-term, allowing us to measure where we’re off course or need to reassess how we allocate our scarce resources. When things are uncertain, it’s not the time to throw the plan out the window, but instead to lean on the plan and refine it to make sure it fits the current environment.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
For me, the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain times include:
- Communicate — Leaders should communicate often, clearly and with precision. You also can’t sugarcoat the truth. Be transparent and don’t be afraid to acknowledge when things aren’t going as planned and how you aim to get back on track.
- Execute — Leaders should be very clear in communicating the goals of the organization and ensure that the objectives are meaningful in terms of contributing to the future success of the business. Once clearly articulated, you must follow through to the natural conclusion of the project — there can be no partial commitments.
- Be accountable — It’s important for leaders to own the big stuff and ensure everyone in the organization understands not only the goals and how their day-to-day work contributes to the business, but the “why?” Why is the business going in the direction you’ve laid out and how does this re-shape the future? This also includes leaders admitting when they make a mistake and providing context to explain what went wrong and how it can be addressed in the future.
- Be transparent — Leaders have to be transparent and honest enough to share the current status of the company and any other items that can impact employees and partners. You might not have all the answers, but be as transparent, honest and forthright as possible and don’t be afraid to solicit ideas from every corner of the organization. Great ideas aren’t just developed in the corner office.
- Set an example — Everything you do as a leader will be held to greater scrutiny than others on the team and everything you do will have an impact. There’s a responsibility that comes with that, and leaders cannot behave one way and ask others to behave another. You have to lead by example.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a motto that I try to live by each day and I often share with team members in terms of how I make decisions. This motto can essentially be summarized by saying that I try to make all decisions and conduct myself in a way at all times that if I had to explain my actions or decisions to my kids, I would be proud to do so and that they would in turn be proud of me. Whenever I am contemplating a decision with imperfect information or where there are imperfect alternatives, I want to be sure that I am comfortable sharing my rationale and the reasons why I chose the path I did to the stakeholders involved — comfortable to shine a light on the decision making process and the outcomes that result. As a final test, I want to be sure that the choice I’m making is the one my kids would be proud of me selecting if I shared it with them.