Blackhawk president and prepaid pioneer talks about growing through innovation and not being afraid to take risks.
More than four years ago, Talbott Roche was named president of Blackhawk Network, a technology innovator in prepaid card distribution and marketing. The appointment was hardly a surprise. As a founder of the business and senior vice president for marketing, product and business development, Roche was an integral part of the company’s senior team and deeply involved in industry activities, where she was a highly visible player.
During her tenure as president, Blackhawk has acquired several companies; introduced myriad new products; expanded its international geographic footprint; completed an initial public offering; and was spun out from its longtime parent Safeway, the grocery giant.
In the middle of preparing for a board meeting and shortly before heading off for a family vacation, Roche, who was Paybefore’s Industry Achievement winner in 2010 for her leadership role in organizing a cross-industry group of colleagues to address federal legislative attempts to limit prepaid, shared impressions of her fast-paced first years at the helm of Blackhawk.
Paybefore: As president of Blackhawk, what’s been most rewarding?
Talbott Roche: It’s been extremely rewarding to build a business from the ground up that creates products that succeed in meeting consumer needs. As the business expands, it isn’t always easy to stay focused on consumers, while constantly innovating. But, a consumer focus is necessary to continue to lead in the industry.
We’re expanding our business into new channels, like digital, and entering new markets, such as incentives. It’s exciting to lead a company and be part of a team of talented professionals that make this possible every day. I’m most enthusiastic about fostering an innovative and results-oriented culture that values its customers and employees.
Paybefore: Tell me about those employees.
TR: We have about 1,400 employees worldwide, with the largest number in technology. When Blackhawk started, it was a small entrepreneurial group within a larger company. Now we’re an independent, public company, able to give employees even more opportunity for growth. In the last year we added employees through our acquisitions, continued to drive best practices into our core business and invested in new emerging digital channels. We’ve also continued to expand our international footprint with partnerships and operations in more than 21 countries. There’s never been a more exciting time to be part of Blackhawk.
|“You need to accept mistakes and learn from them, but that never means you have to like losing.”|
Paybefore: Innovation is always top of mind for you. How did that develop?
TR: Blackhawk was founded on innovation and succeeded in forever changing the way consumers shop. Honestly, I’ve always been committed to innovation. When faced with a challenge you have the option of using known solutions or creating your own.
I think my time at Stanford University and working in and around Silicon Valley has shaped my commitment to constant innovation.
Innovation is also part of our DNA at Blackhawk and is always part of my mission. Whether it’s a new product or service idea from Senior Vice President David Tate or a new approach to marketing from CMO Teri Llach, it’s exhilarating to be in an environment where we feed off of each other’s ideas and expand the scope of what we’re able to do through collaboration.
Paybefore: Who are your most significant mentors?
TR: I’m grateful to have some incredible mentors throughout my career. Blackhawk co-founder Don Kingsborough instilled a strong sense of entrepreneurialism. Don is a visionary leader and a valued friend today. I am incredibly fortunate now to work with Bill Tauscher, who’s a committed and brilliant executive. Bill brings tremendous experience and acumen in scaling business operations at a global level. I get great enjoyment from my relationship with Bill and the entire management team. Relationships matter, and you need to enjoy and respect those with whom you work every day.
Paybefore: You were president through Blackhawk’s $230 million IPO in 2013. Is it different running a public company?
TR: As an independent public company, Blackhawk Network has greater flexibility to grow into new channels and further influence the industry. We’re looking at payments and prepaid across all physical and digital channels, and moving beyond retail into new markets, such as the $30+ billion incentives and rewards industry. As a subsidiary of a public company, we’ve had many of the controls required to be a public company for years. There are a few additional responsibilities, such as enhanced reporting and quarterly earnings, and I take these very seriously.
Paybefore: If I ask you the hotspots in prepaid, would you say digital and mobile?
TR: Absolutely, because the convergence of mobile and digital with physical channels is just now starting to be tapped—buying online and picking up in-store and using mobile phones in-store to price check. But, those are just the beginning. Mobile can enhance the payment experience for consumers, providing a richer, more integrated shopping experience.
And, prepaid can capitalize on digital and mobile like almost no other industry, creating a seamless experience for consumers. Everything we’ve developed at Blackhawk to date puts us in a great position to leverage this omnichannel approach.
Paybefore: What’s one short-term goal you have for Blackhawk?
TR: Hiring world-class talent to support our growth. One of my key goals is to continue to attract the talent that can complement the great team we already have at Blackhawk and deepen our bench strength. And, as we enter new markets and enhance our technology, we’re seeking new skills.
It’s an exciting time of growth.
Paybefore: You’re an avid follower of the prepaid legislative and regulatory scene. What do you see ahead?
TR: We operate in a regulated industry, so legislation and regulation always will be a part of this business. Blackhawk has historically taken an active role in government affairs, and I don’t see that changing.
We, along with our payments and prepaid colleagues, are responsible for educating legislators and regulators about what we do, and why and how we do it. In my experience, open dialogue has yielded better understanding and better outcomes for everyone.
Paybefore: You’re clearly always on as an advocate for Blackhawk, but your advocacy role goes beyond Blackhawk. You frequently represent the industry in some pretty visible spots—such as in D.C. with regulators or speaking at important industry events, like the All Payments Expo and Money20/20. On TV, too.
TR: I enjoy speaking about the prepaid industry and payments innovation. It feels natural because I’m passionate about what this industry means to consumers and retailers. It’s rewarding to educate all types of audiences to the power of prepaid products and how we can support consumers in their daily lives.
Paybefore: Are there special challenges to being a leader who is female in this very entrepreneurial industry?
TR: While there continue to be advances, the number of women leading companies, particularly public companies, is still very small. I’d like to see more women assuming leadership roles. It sounds cliché, but I do believe women need to “lean in” and seek opportunities for increased responsibility, advocate for themselves and be deliberate about their career choices to prepare themselves for leadership roles. Not every woman is seeking a leadership role, and you have to do what works for you, but a supportive work environment can nurture that instinct and create opportunities for advancement. Blackhawk certainly does, and a high percentage of our senior team is female.
Paybefore: Do you have a final thought for us on the nature of leadership?
TR: Any successful leader must be able to take risks and try new things—not everything will work, and a successful leader must be willing to accept losing once in a while. Of course, you need to accept mistakes and learn from them, but that never means you have to like losing.
This Q&A originally appeared in the Fall issue of Pay Magazine. Click here to view the digital edition.