President Harry Truman was often quoted as saying that the most important quality a leader can have is the ability to make decisions without delay, based on the best information available. Hugh Gallagher, the Head of the STAR Network at First Data, wholly agrees. “A leader frequently has to make decisions based on incomplete or imperfect information,” he says, “and if he isn’t willing to do that, he won’t be a leader for long. The pace of business makes waiting for better information a losing proposition in most cases.”
Gallagher was born in Chicago and attended high school in the Chicago suburbs. After attending the University of Illinois he started work for the National Bank of Detroit in downtown Chicago. He worked mostly in the international division. “Our international work was mostly transmittals and financing for companies in Chicago doing business outside the US as well as foreign companies wanting to do business in the Midwest. The biggest money maker was foreign currency exchange. Letters of credit were a big thing,” he says. The bank, and Chicago itself, were oriented toward manufacturing companies and the then “rise of Japan mystique” made Japanese business the most desirable for many members of Gallagher’s team. “I had a clear path to doing as much work in Europe as I wanted to do, whether it was focused on manufacturing or not,” he says, “and I took advantage of it.” Eventually the Japanese bubble burst but Gallagher was still working with and getting to know customers in Switzerland, the UK, Italy, Austria and Germany. “It was a great experience for me – getting to experience different cultures early in my career,” he says.
Gallagher completed his MBA at the University of Chicago after leaving the bank. “Business school at the University of Chicago was a great experience, the professors and lecturers were superb,” he says. The school has so many Nobel Prize winners in economics that Gallagher had a number of them teaching him personally.
After obtaining his MBA, Gallagher got into payments in a big way. He was hired as employee number 17 at First Annapolis, the respected consulting company for the payment processing industry. “Payments were still an overlooked area for the large consulting companies at this time,” Gallagher says, “and I was blessed to get into payments when I did. The industry was much smaller then. With First Annapolis, I worked with many of the entities that became the large payment processors we know today.”
He also learned the key leadership skill of making decisions and solving problems with imperfect information. “The industry was growing rapidly and decisions had to be made fast,” he says, “waiting for better information that might not come was not an option. You had to get comfortable with that.” The other valuable skills Gallagher gained from working at First Annapolis was the ability to present well to demanding, high level executives as well as greatly enhancing his execution and project management capabilities.
In his four years at First Annapolis, Gallagher worked not only with payment processors but also with the top twenty largest banks in the country as well as all the network brands like, Visa, Mastercard and American Express. He and his wife then decided to move to Milwaukee to be nearer to her family as they began to start a family so he accepted a job at E Funds. The payments business was two thirds of the company, which Gallagher ran. After their IPO, the company wanted him to move to Scottsdale.
At this point, Gallagher and his wife made the decision that they did not want to have to move constantly for his work and looked around to where he could always find a job in payments. “The obvious answer was Atlanta,” he says. Joining Edgar Dunn as a Director and Partner in 2003, Gallagher managed client relationships and projects in the payments industry as well as working with the firm CFO. In 2007, he was recruited into SunTrust to help restate the bank’s payments focus. After a 90-day review, he concluded that the bank did not have a good customer service focus and thus was tasked with dealing with that first. Having identified the problem, he was essentially given the bank retail P&L of over $3 billion to fix.
Although the economy was going bad in 2007 and 2008, a number of the fixes that Gallagher implemented moved the bank from worst to first in terms of increased customer acquisitions and customer deposits, debit card usage, bill pay and a number of other areas.
In 2011, Gallagher mover from SunTrust First Manhattan Consulting Group, where he led the firm’s global practice area. “First Manhattan was the most intense learning experience of my life,” he says. “Working with some of the most capable people I have ever encountered, we were regularly called in to consult to the CEOs and boards of directors of the largest and most successful financial services companies in the world. It was awesome.”
In 2017, Gallagher left a voice mail for then First Data Executive Vice President Barry McCarthy to see about getting some consulting work. Instead of getting a call back from McCarthy, Gallagher got a call from his First Data recruiter to see if he would come on board as an employee working for Barry. Gallagher was hired to grow First Data’s STAR Network, one of the nation’s largest pin secured debit card networks.
Rolling up his sleeves, Gallagher’s first job after joining was to transform and turn around the business unit. Declining revenues were reversed by client contact, getting ahead of contract renewals to improve performance beforehand and then setting up a pipeline of new prospects. Profitability was immediately improved by using more efficient, lower cost vendors as well as cutting unnecessary expenses.
Things started to improve for STAR right away and continued steadily, quarter by quarter, to climb. “Because of the constant improvement I was able to do a full transformation over time,” he says.
Perhaps it’s the consulting background, but Gallagher definitely seems to have a skillset that allows him to take complex points and boil them down to ideas and actions that people can work with and implement.
“I like being able to move in and make a positive impact quickly,” he says. “Both the improved metrics and the improved morale of the team are personally satisfying. Although I’m fairly recent to First Data, I’m proud to be part of its journey. The improved cash flow, pay down of debt and overall innovation story are all things that everyone at First Data can be proud of.” The ultra-competitive Gallagher is looking forward to the next chapter and working to take market share from the competition.
Gallagher and his family have enjoyed living in the Druid Hills neighborhood near Emory University, but their daughter enters the University of Virginia this fall.