Episode 114: Gary Norcross Talks Business Growth and a Leader’s Need for Self-awareness

March 10 , 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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Born and raised in Arkansas and a proud Walton alumnus, Gary Norcross is now the chairman, president, and CEO of FIS, a financial technology company. They employ over 50,000 people and serve around 20,000 clients at over 100 locations. In this episode of Be EPIC, Gary details how he assumed these roles, the different avenues of business growth, and the importance of self-awareness within leaders.

Episode Transcript


0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today Gary Norcross, who is Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of FIS, and he is also an alum of the Walton College. Gary, thank you for joining me, I really appreciate it.

0:00:45.9 Gary Norcross: Matt, great to see you and great to be with you today.

0:00:49.7 Matt Waller: Gary, in your career, you started really early with FIS, and you've held so many different positions, and since you've been chairman, president and CEO, many things have happened. Of course, I've been following, and I remember one of the events that I followed really closely was the acquisition of Worldpay, which I'd like to talk about. But FIS now has 55,000 employees worldwide, more than 20,000 clients in 120 locations, so your responsibility is mind-boggling. I can't imagine how you can be the top person in an organization like that and get your head around it, and also all of the acquisitions you've been engaged in. But you're originally from Arkansas, and of course, we're very proud of what you've accomplished. Would you mind just sharing a little bit about your path from graduation to present?

0:02:00.5 Gary Norcross: Yeah, no, look, I've... It's been interesting, I think when you graduate college... And I'm a proud graduate of the Walton school. And when I went to the University of Arkansas, I think you and I've talked about this in the past, I was born and raised in Arkansas. I thought I was gonna go back and be a part of the family farming operation. But when I started getting close to graduation, I realized there was a unique opportunity for me to go get experience outside of the farm, going through the recruiting process at the university where at that point in time, probably still do, major corporations would come on campus and interview, and there was a company based in Little Rock, Arkansas called Systematics. And Systematics showed up and interviewed me and actually offered me a job. And I never will forget, Matt, I was coming up on my graduation in May, and they called me and said, "We've got bad news, we have to pull the offer 'cause we lost funding for the new job." So for me, I'm sitting around with two nickels I couldn't rub together, and I thought, "My Lord, I've gotta find a job." So I ended up scrambling around and getting another job in a sales role, and then a year later, Systematics comes back and says, "Well, now we've got funding, we really wanna join."

0:03:14.5 Gary Norcross: So I've been with the company since 1988. I started out as an entry level programmer. I didn't have a programming background coming out of the Walton School, but Systematics taught me how to program and I found it really interesting. But I realized early on in my career, and I tell this to people all the time as they're getting their careers started, you really can't make a bad decision early in your career, as long as you're growing and getting new experiences. And so for me, I always had this in the back of my mind that I would go back to the family farm. And so when I joined Systematics, it really was all about the experience for me. What was the new opportunity, what was the new exposure? Where could I take the most risk?

0:03:55.0 Gary Norcross: I went very broad in my career and moved from programming to client support to implementations to client management to sales, and then got my big break in 1996 where I had an opportunity to take over a failing business within the company, and I never will forget this, it was before email and everything, back then people would actually pick up the phone and call you, they didn't text you. And so I take this job and we send out the announcement across the company and my phone just lit up like, "What did you do wrong? Who did you upset? Why would you take that kind of demotion? Nobody... That's a black hole. Everybody goes to that business and it always ends their career and ends in failure."

0:04:40.8 Gary Norcross: And so for me at that point, I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I took over our worst performing business. And at that point in time, it was doing a little over $3 million in revenue and was losing $2.5 million a year. Doesn't take a business major to understand those aren't good results. We quickly transformed the whole strategy of the business, we really leaned into sales, which was the experience I had, we leaned into product development, product design, which was an experience I had, we really leaned into the existing customer base we had, and quickly we turned that business around and I...

0:05:15.0 Matt Waller: How old were you at that point?

0:05:19.6 Gary Norcross: Well, 1996, I was 31, so I was young at that point in time. I was the youngest Vice President in the company at that point in time, and really pivoted the whole business. It was my first opportunity to lead a business where literally I had several people that were reporting to me in their 50s, and that was a whole different design as well and a whole different leadership challenge when you're now leading people who are quite a bit older than you. And we turned the business around very quickly, and then we started growing and then we started doing some M&A activity. And by the time I became Chief Operating Officer in 2007, we'd grown that business over $3.5 billion, and at that point in time, we're doing well over $1 billion in profit, and I became Chief Operating Officer of the company, and then got promoted to President and then CEO in 2015, and Chairman, added the chairman title in 2018.

0:06:16.0 Gary Norcross: So it's been a really interesting trans... It's been an interesting career for me over that period of time, but the one thing that I learned was had I not in those early years really went for exposure and not worried about the title, not worried about who I reported to, but really worried more about the opportunity and responsibility... When I took that opportunity in 1996, I literally went from reporting to the president of the company to someone four levels deep in the company at that point in time, so it was viewed as a huge demotion. But for me, it was all about the opportunity, and that's really played well for my career.

0:07:00.8 Matt Waller: It's funny you mention that. I just recently interviewed a young man, it was episode 105, his name is Jonathan Thompson, he graduated from the Walton College. He is the CEO of the largest producer of vanilla, it's called Nielsen Massey. But he said something very similar recently that some of his friends would be always trying to take promotions in a vertical direction, and he didn't do that. He was willing to take other positions, and that helped prepare him for more general management kind of a position. So one question I have for you about that, when you all of a sudden were put in the position of turning around this business unit at the age of 31, I know that you had experience in sales and in product development, and that certainly was great, but it's another thing to lead people. Having that expertise means you're competent, but leading people, there's a lot of competent people that don't lead people well. So did they help you at all in terms of developing your leadership skills to prepare you for that?

0:08:16.5 Gary Norcross: Yeah, I think so. And I look back on my career even before that, and I go back even to the time when I was on the farm and I was working full-time during the summers with people that were a lot older than me. I think part of leadership is no matter where you are in your career, you always have an opportunity to lead and influence whether you're actually running the department, running the business, or just a key contributor. But I do think when I took over in 1996, having people that I could lean into as mentors, having people that I've always been willing to ask the question of, "What do you think? How should we approach this? Give me some ideas," and listening. Always having a viewpoint, but really having an openness to be inclusive and listen. I think those are all key attributes that really make a good leader. And so when I was thrown into that position... And on another podcast there's some really funny stories about how that happened. But the real reality is, is what I realized quickly is I didn't know anybody on the team, I did not know the product, this was an entirely different division within the company that I'd had zero exposure to, and it was well-known that it had been failing for years.

0:09:39.4 Gary Norcross: And so I immediately pulled everybody together on the very first day and I transparently said, "Here are all the results of this company," and you could see people's eyes just lighting up, and I realized in that short period of time, they've never been told transparently what's going on in the business. And so when I got to that, I said, "So I'm here not to close this business, we're here to turn every metric from a negative to a positive." And if you really take that proactive result and then empower everybody to help, I think the results... You can get phenomenal results out of it. But it is important to certainly take advantage of people on your team that have differing experiences to you, and any good leader really does that.

0:10:25.4 Matt Waller: Well, taking a company from losing a few million dollars per year to making $1 billion per year, that's a big change. How many years did that take?

0:10:41.2 Gary Norcross: When we got to 2007, which is when I got promoted as Chief Operating Officer, that was the growth curve. Now, we didn't do that all organically, we did that through a lot of M&A as well along the time. And I make sure... People always ask me about mergers and acquisitions, and I'm real careful with that when I explain that, because the reality is if you're not growing organically, if your existing business is not successful, you really don't have permission to do M&A. And so as we started turning that business around, we then started realizing where there were marketing opportunities, but gaps in our solution that needs to be filled, and we did that through a series of organic build, but also did it through inorganic activities with M&A to gain speed and access to those markets. And that strategy really, it played well. And really, Matt, it's been a strategy that we've continued at FIS all the way through the last acquisition we just did, which was Worldpay, which had you asked me in 1996 would we ever do a $43 billion acquisition or a merger, I'd probably say no. But the reality is, over time we've been able to grow the company and continue to get permission from our investors to make those kind of strategic moves with a well-thought-out strategy.

0:12:03.4 Matt Waller: Well, the acquisition of Worldpay was enormous, but it also turned out to be a really good acquisition. You see so much M&A activity where you don't see positive results, so the amount you invested in this turned out to be a great investment. Would you mind speaking to that a little bit?

0:12:25.9 Gary Norcross: Well, I think it all starts with strategy. There's an old joke in golf, which by the way I'm a horrible golfer, but you win the bat on the first tee. Mergers and acquisitions are successful if the strategy's right. If the strategy isn't correct, then no matter how hard you work, most of the time mergers and acquisitions don't work out. And so for me, I've always been very patient in our M&A activity. For me, the company has to fit within financial services because that's the industry that we play in. In fact, part of our strategy has been to divest things that don't fit within financial services. Now, we wanna be the broadest provider in financial services, but it has to start with... It's gotta have applicability for financial services. It has to bring us a new capability in an existing market we serve, or it has to break into an adjacent market within financial services. And the perfect scenario, like Worldpay, was both. And then finally, timing and culture have to work. I find a lot of times I'm talking to people that have really struggled with M&A and they said, "Look, the due diligence was just a nightmare, and we were... "

0:13:42.4 Gary Norcross: And you have your answer right there. If going through due diligence, you're finding cultural impact and major cultural differences, that's the time to walk away. You're not gonna be able to integrate it successfully and get the results that your investors or shareholders are looking for. So we've always focused on that criteria. And I would tell you, looking back at Worldpay, there were many times we tried to do that combination. I always used to laugh. The former CEO and I are still good friends, Charles Drucker. He and I talked off and on for 10 years. And one of those things wouldn't work, it was never a culture. At one point in time, he was doing something and then... So timing was bad for him. Or I was doing something, timing was bad for me. Or our stock prices were trading differently and so financially it didn't make sense at that point in time. But really keeping that relationship was very, very important, and then we were successful putting the two companies together. And as you said, the integration of that and the return that we've made and the value creation we've created has been just an outstanding success story.

0:14:51.0 Matt Waller: Maybe one of the most successful acquisitions I've followed closely. It just seemed like it made so much sense from a strategic perspective, but then even financially it turned out to be tremendous. Gary, I'd like to go back to one other topic, and that is you have 55,000 employees worldwide, 20,000 clients in more than 130 countries, and it's a lot of responsibility. You and I have talked about this before, and you are always quick to talk about the people you've hired and put into leadership positions. That's easier said than done, picking good people. And obviously, I know one of your strengths as a leader is your strategic thinking. But again, it's not easy to find these people. How have you been able to do that over the years?

0:15:49.9 Gary Norcross: Well, you're exactly right. I think when you look back as a leader or when you look at any successful organization, to say that you don't have world class talent, those two would just highly disagree. And so meaning, if you're not successful... I always tell my team, there's no such thing as unsuccessful businesses, there's just unsuccessful leaders. When you see a business that's not performing properly, we need to ask ourselves, "Do we have the right talent at this point in time in the strategy or at this point in time to address that issue?" And so I've not been perfect in my 30 plus years with the company. But what I would tell you, all along the way, when I feel like I have a talent gap, I've been very proactive in addressing that. And one of the things I've always embraced... You talked about one of my strengths, which is strategic, and that's right, that's one of my top five strengths. And we've gone through and with across all of our leaders, we really had comprehensively done studies, Gallup does them, etcetera, where you can say, "What are the individual strengths of an individual?" And one of the things I've always tried to do, Matt, is I always try to hire people that are different than me. So if I know what my top five strengths are, human nature is you wanna surround yourself with like-minded people. So if I'm highly strategic, I want everybody to be highly strategic.

0:17:22.8 Gary Norcross: Well, that didn't work that way. That doesn't build a great team. For me, I've always tried to understand more about where my weaknesses are as a leader. As you rate all of the strengths, where do I struggle the most? And those are the kind of people that I look to add to my team because I want them to fill in those weaknesses. And really, if you do that and really drive diversity and inclusiveness across that team, I think that's what pulls together a winning team and allows you to be successful.

0:17:56.8 Matt Waller: I've seen some studies that show that one of the most important characteristics of successful leaders is self-awareness, and many times it's underestimated in terms of its impact, but being aware of your strengths and weaknesses is a key part of this concept of self-awareness.

0:18:19.6 Gary Norcross: Absolutely.

0:18:21.6 Matt Waller: People who are good, good athletes, good academics, good leaders, whatever it may be, they're always paying attention to where their strengths and weaknesses are, and then trying to overcome them either through hiring or through performance management kinds of techniques. But when you are looking... So even though you need a diverse team, you also need other leaders who are self-aware. And in some cases, if they're not self-aware, they may not be able to communicate what their strengths and weaknesses are. And some people are more accurate about what their strengths and weaknesses are than others. I know when you and I were talking about this and I went through an assessment like that, I don't know if you remember that...

0:19:06.2 Gary Norcross: Yeah, I do.

0:19:07.5 Matt Waller: I don't know why I'd never done it. We have students do it. I've just never done it. And I shared it with some of my family members, and none of them were surprised. I shared it with my leadership team, none of them were surprised. I felt kind of embarrassed about a couple of them. I didn't know I was so weak there. But in hindsight, now I realize, "Yeah, that is definitely a strength." And you have told me this story before and I've used that in putting together my team, my leadership team, which has made a big difference. I have a really good leadership team.

0:19:46.5 Gary Norcross: Well, but part of that, Matt, is just giving the tools necessary to your team for them to understand that, because isn't that really part of it, right? It's one thing to have self-awareness, but if you don't have the tools necessary to understand that once you're presented with, Okay, I realize now that perhaps communication might be a weakness of mine, well then okay, so how do I form around me a team that can augment that communication gap? I can only improve so much on that, and then at some point in time I need people around me that can take it to the next level, as just an example. And so I do think one of the things we do at FIS is across all of our leaders, is we give them the tools to understand. And we just wrapped up our leadership conference actually this week, and one of the things we talked about was we had everybody that joined in on Zoom, in the background were their five highest strengths so that when you were engaging you could look down and interesting and see where people's strengths really came out through the analysis. So I think it's important that we provide people with the tools necessary to understand that, and I'm sure you've gotten a lot of benefit out of that exercise.

0:21:03.3 Matt Waller: Oh definitely, no question. Gary, we graduate about 1,400 undergraduates in business career, which is a huge number. We also graduate hundreds of graduate students as well. But particularly for the undergraduates, as you know we have an unusually... For a top 30 public business school, we have an unusually high percentage of first-generation college students, which I love. I think it's an opportunity for...

0:21:38.5 Gary Norcross: Well, you know my passion around first-generation college students, so I do as well, and that's what I love about the Walton School.

0:21:45.9 Matt Waller: But what advice do you have for students that are graduating this year?

0:21:50.5 Gary Norcross: Well, it's interesting, my youngest son is graduating this year, and for all of my kids, I've given them the same advice, and for all of our new hires at FIS, which we hire a huge group of new college grads every year, it's gonna be the same advice that I told you that really I pursued when I graduated college, which is early in your career, you're really not gonna make a bad decision. What I would tell you is find an opportunity that interests you and always stretch yourself to be uncomfortable. You always want to be ahead of what you know. Take the opportunity and really stretch yourself. Take the risk. You're early in your career. And if you do that, and not only are you gonna grow as an individual, your learnings are gonna be exponential. It's kind of like in school, take the Honors class, take the advanced class, really lean in and get the most you can and stretch yourself, and I think your career is very similar. For everybody graduating, find something that you're interested in, stretch yourself, always push yourself to take new opportunities and new risk. You're gonna have to work really hard.

0:23:11.0 Gary Norcross: It's highly competitive. Don't fear work, enjoy work. And get in there and always try to make a difference and try to ask the questions, find the mentors, get people that can empower you to help you take your career where you wanna go. And don't be scared to pivot. At some point in time, you might have a lot of passion around a topic and you're two years in and find out, "This isn't exactly what I thought it was gonna be. Even though my degree might have been in this particular area, I wanna move, I wanna try something different." And if you do that, I think you'll have a phenomenal career.

0:23:51.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching "BeEPICpodcast", one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, Be EPIC.