Spending six years developing a European-wide payments platform with €0.5bn to spend and an 800-plus strong development team is a big, complicated job, but it hardly calls for a rocket scientist, does it? Even if it did, that would be no problem for Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers: he is one.
I interviewed him in a room on the ninth floor of Visa Europe’s headquarters in London’s newly-built Paddington commercial campus. Marks & Spencer and Kingfisher – big indirect Visa customers – are neighbours. From that height, a good part of West London is visible and it’s a suitable backdrop for our discussion of the very future of cash and paying for things anywhere in Europe.
Chambers isn’t a large man, but he has a big presence. This Geordie has a prize-fighter’s demeanour and it’s easy to imagine people going out of their way to avoid seeing him angry. This is borne out by his assumptions on why he was chosen to head up such a mammoth task.
“I’m not shy,” he says. “Visa Europe is a very collaborative, consensus-driven organisation, but when you get into execute mode, you have to transform into a command and control approach.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking Chambers is all about brute force though. He’s as adept at the subtleties of corporate politics as any other blue-chip business leader.
Chambers was brought into Visa Europe at the payment system’s inception six years ago. The company was responding to its European member banks’ demands for a durable and compliant authorisation, clearing and settlement system for the 21st Century. The system had to adapt to cardholders’ increase in usage and pave the way for new business lines – factors that presented a constantly moving target to Chambers and his team.
“There are new product offerings, more service offerings, six-monthly releases into the payment universe. Development [on the new system] had to be in synch with the existing Visa platform, which is constantly in motion,” Chambers says.
The stakes were high and failure to deliver would damage the company’s brand ambitions to be the most trusted currency in Europe.
“When you go shopping, you expect the result to be a swift conclusion. You expect to make the payment and it’s going to work,” says Chambers. “It’s an event if it doesn’t work. You trust the experience will be painless.”
The system sits between the card-acquiring banks and the card-issuing banks. It’s the hub through which one euro in eight spent in Europe passes every day.
“The most extreme test is at Christmas, when you’re looking at about 1000 transactions a second across Europe. When I talk to my team, I constantly remind them of how crucial their work is.”
Chambers built his development team almost from the ground up, because the company was going through a split from its American operations at the time. He had to build the company’s IT organisation alongside building the system.
Here Chambers’ political nous shows through. He admits it would have been a mistake to go in with a completely new team, so chose to balance new joiners with existing staff. But 25 years in the payments space meant he didn’t find it hard to fill critical roles from outside if he needed to.
The same diplomacy had to be extended to the payment system’s stakeholders and Chambers and his team leaders stayed in constant communication with their Visa Inc counterparts in the US.
Even more important was keeping member banks happy, all of whom are sensitive to this change in the way Visa delivers payment services.
“The first step was to get communication channels open. I set up a member workgroup who were kept in the loop at all times and whose job it was to approve milestone deliverables on behalf of the member banks,” Chambers explains.