OB Rawls IV | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Providing Solutions Beyond the Transaction
By Karen Rosen
OB Rawls IV has been handcuffed to felons on three continents, processed Cuban refugees from the Mariel Boatlift with the U.S. Army National Guard and worked as a repo man.
“We were the M and M guys,” says Rawls, who left his job as a parole officer to work in collections for a bank. “We went for the money or the metal.”
Rawls is still involved with money and processing -- but now as part of the payments industry. Instead of handcuffs, his tools are solutions giving merchants the freedom to grow their businesses.
At First Data, Rawls is Senior Vice President and General Manager ISO Client Sales. Since April of last year, he has led the ISO client sales portfolio and Third Party distribution system. Rawls oversees all new sales and relationship management activities and is responsible for $400 million in revenue and $20 million in new business distribution.
“My role is to sell all the products and services that we make available to the small to medium business market today through distribution partners,” says Rawls. “We are selling solutions to help them grow.”
First Data has more than 700 distribution partners.
While the company processes over half of the transactions in the U.S., or about 2,000 transactions per second, other tools enhance the business experience for clients.
“I think payments are fun now because it’s a big business to us,” Rawls says. “When you look at what really happens in the small to medium business market, these are people who are entrepreneurs. They have dreams. They’ve thought all their lives about how they’d run a restaurant or how they’d handle a landscaping business or a dry cleaner and they need tools to run their businesses to be better.”
First Data sells a device called Clover, an Android tablet-based point of sale system developed in Silicon Valley.
“We’re in the cloud, but we wanted to be able to bring all of this ingenuity to the countertop,” Rawls says.
According to First Data, there are more installations of Clover than the other tablet competitors combined.
Clover has its own app store with more than 50 apps such as inventory tools, a loyalty product called “Perka,” “Weigh & Pay,” “Coupons N Combos,” age verification and online ordering. “Commerce Sync” takes the merchant to QuickBooks.
The Clover screen swivels to face the customer at checkout, presenting options such as gift cards or charitable contributions.
The line is continually evolving and Clover Mobile, a handheld device that is EMV and Apple Pay compliant, will come out in April.
“If I can give you tools that make it easier to run your business, that allow you to focus on what you really want to do – like plan your menus -- and be better at that and thus make more money and stay in business longer, then that benefits all of us,” Rawls says.
The 39 people on his team are focused on relationship management and new business development with a mission, Rawls says, “to 1) keep what we have, 2) grow what we have and 3) get more, so it’s really simple.
“This ISO channel accounts for about half of our new account production,” Rawls adds. “I like the challenge of working through third parties. And when you have a direct sales team and good relationship managers, it’s easy to make things happen -- because you can control it.”
Rawls says one of the biggest issues in the small to medium business market is attrition.
“People start small businesses and they don’t understand what it takes to run them,” he says. “They don’t really have any coaches or teachers or anyone to help them.”
His sales team is taught to perform a business needs analysis. “It’s as simple as ‘Give me 10 minutes, answer 10 questions and I’ll come back tomorrow with 10 ways you can improve your business,’” he says.
Clover offers an analytic tool called Insightics which enables merchants to compare sales over time -- and even in different weather conditions -- to similar establishments.
Rawls enjoys watching businesses change and grow, which reflects back to his own career.
“There are things that are important in life, and I’ve done it myself multiple times, which is transform who I am,” Rawls says. “You get a different business challenge, you accept that challenge and you transform.”
Rawls grew up on a farm in Washington, N.C. He jokes that OB stands for “Odd Ball,” but it’s actually O’Bealie, a name that first belonged to a Scottish ancestor who came to America. Rawls’ grandfather went by Bealie, but was often called “Billy.” That didn’t sit well with him.
“He said, ‘Just call me OB; that’s what stuck,” Rawls says. “The unfortunate part about it is not having a middle name.”
Although Rawls has a son named O’Bealie, he and his wife also gave him a middle name so he is not the fifth in the line.
Rawls graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in social work and corrections, which he likens to a psychology degree because of its behavioral studies.
He took his first job as a parole officer for the state of North Carolina.
Rawls did some extradition work, bringing felons back to North Carolina from other states as well as the United Kingdom, Brazil and Argentina. Standing 6-foot-3 was an advantage.
“This was the mid ‘70s, so there was still a lot of residual stuff left over from the drug era,” Rawls says.
He liked the travel, but not the complacency he found at the state level where older colleagues weren’t keen on “young kids who worked really hard.”
After a couple of years, a friend working at NCNB (later NationsBank) recruited Rawls to become an outside collector. “I didn’t know what it really meant, but it paid more money than I was making,” he says.
Rawls eventually worked his way from repo man to branch manager after attending the bank’s first branch management school. He lived in eight cities in North Carolina and Virginia and earned his Executive MBA in Finance and Marketing from Queens College in 1991.
Running the credit card acquiring program for NationsBank introduced Rawls to the payments business just as interstate banking was beginning to unfold.
However, NationsBank had some real estate loan problems and -- like other banks with similar issues -- decided to jettison its merchant portfolios because it was important to get cash.
“We created a joint venture,” Rawls says, “sold half of the portfolio to an Atlanta-based company called First Financial Management Corporation (FFMC), which also acquired Western Union. In about a year First Data came along and bought FFMC, so they got us and Western Union and helped leverage the company and grow.”
Rawls left NationsBank, where he was SVP of merchant services, to become President of Unified Merchant Services, a NationsBank/First Data joint venture that was the ninth-largest merchant processing company in the U.S.
He subsequently went to the United Kingdom to build the Lloyd’s Bank joint venture for First Data, creating Cardnet Merchant Services. That marked Rawls’ first foray into international activity.
“It was a lot of fun, especially for a country boy from North Carolina,” he says. “It put a lot of really good tools in my toolbox, negotiating with the Brits, learning the other cultures and that everything’s not the same way it is in Atlanta.
“It was the beginning of an eye-opening, mind-broadening process. I’d lived a pretty sheltered life, growing up and working for the bank. I was always very comfortable. I really didn’t have an understanding about how big the world was.”
Rawls left First Data to join Caredata.com, a healthcare technology company in Atlanta. He was EVP Sales and Operations responsible for $37 million in revenue. During his three-year tenure, the company purchased and integrated 20 healthcare data companies, becoming the largest physician credentialing organization in the U.S.
Rawls then spent seven years with Hypercom Corporation as SVP. He was responsible for global sales and operations teams (inclusive of software development, distribution and logistics support operations) that produced more than $400 million in revenue.
In his office, Rawls has a photo of Hypercom executives ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
“There were times when we were a troubled company,” he says. “We were doing really well in the public space, but it took a lot of money to grow the business.”
Rawls returned to the United Kingdom in 2006 to rebuild the Hypercom distribution network outside the U.S. He traveled to 46 countries in 2006 and 37 in 2007. That included a lot of time in Brazil working with a support business that serviced 250,000 countertop terminals.
After a change in leadership, Rawls and Hypercom parted ways amicably. He spent time in international consulting before being asked to rejoin First Data.
Rawls ran the company’s hardware and technology divisions where he was in charge of the distribution business for credit card companies. “We supported all of First Data’s business and then we sold the hardware at the point of the distribution business to the rest of the market,” he says.
Rawls returned to Brazil for the first rounds of negotiating a business venture, then came back to the U.S. to run First Data’s national large merchant sales team. At the same time, he was running the TASQ sales team and hardware sales team. Rawls had responsibility for the entire large merchant portfolio, including McDonald’s, Shell and Sears, spanning everything from new selling to relationship management and client support.
When Frank Bisignano arrived at First Data from JP Morgan Chase, he asked his top executives to create a more narrow focus, a new mentality which Rawls calls “refreshing.”
Under the new leadership, Rawls spent his first year responsible for the national and mid-market portfolios and the ISO channel. In April, First Data hired someone to take over the first two channels and Rawls was able to focus on the ISO channel.
“The small to medium businesses in America are the heartbeat of this country,” he says. “They hire people, they grow, they build the economy and they’re important to all of us, especially all of us in the acquiring community.”
He admires these entrepreneurs for their vision. “I know it sounds corny, but it really is part of the American dream,” Rawls says. “And we want to help people realize that.”
Rawls and his family have homes in Marietta, Leesburg, Ala. (on Weiss Lake) and Reston, Va., where Rawls’ wife, Lisa Shipley, is executive vice president and runs global sales operations for Transaction Network Services (TNS).
Rawls follows a philosophy that emphasizes respect, fairness and winning.
“Principles are important,” says Rawls, who retired after 21 years of service with the Army and U.S. Army National Guard. “I treat people like I want to be treated. I want a deal to be fair for both of us -- or you don’t do business well or not for long.”
But Rawls adds, “You have to win.”
He says a former boss once said of a member of Rawls’ staff: “On his best day he was average.”
“That’s a pretty bad insult,” Rawls says. “I don’t want to be average. I want to be better than that. I want to be first in the race. I think that’s important.
“You coach people, you teach people, you lead by example. You help them win. You don’t leave anybody behind. And there should be no surprises.”
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