Jeff Afonso | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Fast Times in Financial Services

By Karen Rosen

In the “go, go, go” world of financial services, when Jeff Afonso puts away his BlackBerry for the night, “My hip still rings,” he says.

It’s only natural that Afonso can feel a phantom muscle sensation. After all, as Senior Vice President – Global Data Management for Elavon, a US Bancorp subsidiary, his phone competes for his attention all day.

“It’s the ever-evolving, ever-changing world,” says Afonso, “This industry is on the go because your competitors in the past used to be just the banks or big acquirers. Now everybody tries to get into the space with different payment offerings.   PayPal, Bill Me Later. It’s exciting. You want to be a part of it.”

Elavon, which has 3,500 employees around the globe, provides point-of-sale authorization and credit/debit card transaction processing services to more than 1 million merchants worldwide. Afonso is tasked with creating a strategic vision and direction, along with helping implement a solution to address the wide array of challenges in data movement and data presentation.

“In the financial services world, your job is your life,” Afonso says. ‘You’re on call all the time. You can’t have downtime.  You can’t have systems down. You’re on the go. When I was in the manufacturing world, the manufacturing lines become your systems. If they break down, then you have a problem. But if the (IT) systems are down, you have a workaround solution and also some time to get them up and running. Here, every time the system’s down, you’re losing money.”

After working in the hospitality industry, oil and gas and the diaper manufacturing industry, that sense of urgency brought Afonso back to financial services, where he got his start in IT as a software developer at TeleCheck.

“The challenge is what you look for,” he says. “I don’t like being comfortable. If I’m comfortable, then the general tendency is to become complacent. So then you begin to coast in life.”

Instead, Afonso is always looking for the next innovation, the next train to catch. “If somebody’s done it, we’ve got to follow quickly,” he says. “We’ve got to adapt, we’ve got to change, we’ve got to keep moving.”

A Math Major in India

The excitement quotient in his life has increased exponentially since Afonso’s early days. He grew up in India, earning a degree in mathematics from Bombay University where in his final year the math was so abstract that he didn’t even use numbers.

In his first job, Afonso trained at Taj Hotels in international travel trade in the sales and marketing division. “It was a discovery phase, like you guys call it in the U.S.,” he says.

From there, Afonso ventured to Saudi Arabia to work in the oil and gas industry as an accounting manager for about five years. Then it was back to school to pursue a Computer Science degree at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“I had never been to the U.S. a day in my life before that,” says Afonso.

He had no idea what to expect -- and it turned out better than he could have imagined:  Afonso wound up meeting his future wife, Christina, at Loyola.

After college, he took a position with Integrated Computer Solutions in San Rafael, Calif., where he wrote interfaces in AutoCAD software. These automatically calculated labor and materials for construction projects while helping data flow seamlessly through accounting, estimating, scheduling, etc.

When Afonso and his wife decided to move closer to Louisiana, her home state, he joined TeleCheck in Houston as a software engineer.

One of Afonso’s first projects was writing a huge package for second-day verification, “to catch bad check writers,” he says.

Afonso is still most proud of that application. “I remember my boss calling me in and saying ‘Listen, you’ve got ‘x’ amount of time to finish this project, you’re going against the main server, and whatever you do, make sure you don’t crash it.’”

In its first year alone, the application generated savings of $3-4 million.  After a few years, the savings had grown to $20-25 million.

“What gives me joy is creation,” Afonso says, “when you build something and it runs. You sit there and you watch people use it and say, ‘I wrote that,’” It’s like a kick, like an inner joy, that you built something on your own.”

Looking for a Change

In 1998, Afonso was recruited to become a senior developer at Drypers, then the third-largest maker of disposable diapers in the U.S.

Not only did he get some free cases after the first of his three children was born, but Afonso also had the satisfaction of implementing the entire suite of ERP systems across the country.

After leading the financial implementation, he rose in the ranks to become the manager of the IT team for financials, and eventually the head of IT.

The company faltered and Drypers applied for bankruptcy and was bought out by Associated Hygienic Products, based in Atlanta.

“I had no intention of coming down to Atlanta, I was as happy as happy can be in Houston,” Afonso says.

He also had to stay put while the company went through bankruptcy court as he was one appointed by the court to help with the transition of systems. After accepting a job offer from a drilling company with the stipulation that he couldn’t start for five months, Afonso was again approached by the CEO of Associated Hygienic Products, who asked, “What would it take for you to come down?’” He convinced Afonso and his family to at least look around, and Afonso came on board in 2001.

When he moved from Houston to Atlanta, he also had to figure out how to move the systems. Vendors quoted prices of $2-3 million to move the server farm. Afonso had other ideas. He rented trucks, insured everything, and did the job for $200,000.

That planning and implementation gave him the same joy that he got from developing software.

However, after four years he lost interest in the manufacturing industry and decided to come back to the financial services world.

Afonso joined Elavon as VP of Management Information System, where he worked for the pricing and profitability group. He was promoted to Senior Vice President – Global Data Management and has about 60-70 people on his team worldwide, although most of the people who report directly to him are in the U.S.

Giving People Their Space

As a leader, Afonso says, “I am a middle-of-the-road kind of a guy. I give people their space to do their job, but I also like to be in the know of where they are progressing.”

He believes that if a leader is hands-off and comes in at the last minute, then it’s too late to change course.

“I will ask them to explain to me at the start of the project what their vision is or I will define the vision if it is something that came out of my head,” Afonso says. “I will roll up my sleeves, draw on a piece of paper what I want to see, then I give it to the guys and they take it and run with it.”

He always makes sure there is a road map, even if something is prototyped. “For me the key always has been: You don’t have to build a whole, you can build the parts,” he says.  “A lot of guys in the IT space don’t look at it as a whole and then you implement piecemeal. What they do is pick one area, they implement it, and then it becomes a struggle overall as the needs grow or change.”

Afonso says mobile technology, ease of data usage and data quality are key initiatives currently for Elavon.

“We want to equip our executives with tools in their hands that they can use to be informed and hopefully give them the tools to make better decisions, too,” he says. “And so we are focusing on the quality of data, so as they formulate a query in their head, we want to make sure that they can create their own result sets and not have to wait for someone to get the data for them.”

Afonso says there four components to being successful: Data, presentation,  and, in the human practice side, the business and S&T, which should work hand in hand.

“If you don’t have one of these four components, you’re in deep trouble,” he says. “Of course data and presentation tools are inanimate objects, so your challenges come in always getting business and IT in the same place at the same time.”

And when they are, everything falls into place. “At the end of the day, I like to consider myself as a creator,” Afonso says, “a creator who looks for efficiency opportunities, revenue opportunities, who looks for cost reduction opportunities and any way he can partner with the rest of the organization and not just a cost center. That’s what I drive for.”

Secrets to Success

  1. It’s really important that my staff is happy. I want a delicate balance between family and work life to keep morale high and to motivate folks. There will be times when your work life is strenuous, and there are times when you’re going to struggle with time. If you have kids and they’re performing in a play or a recital, never miss that opportunity. You can always make up for work -- staying late -- but you won’t have that option to see a replay of your kid’s performance. Once your team respects you and where you’re coming from, they will do anything for you. And I strongly believe that your success is directly tied to the people who work for you. You may think you’re the best thing since sliced bread, but if you don’t have the support and cooperation of your team, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going anywhere.
  2. Growth of employees. IT is a fast-changing, fast-evolving world, and so people look for education. Obviously, with the number of people that we have, it’s not easy to get everybody trained at all times. But we provide tools internally for people to learn and I also encourage people to build prototypes, etc.  1) I am adding value by being able to show the company what we can do in terms of value add and 2) they’re learning while they’re building something for the company. Involvement is very important for me as far as these guys go, because in today’s world I believe all of us are equally educated and smart and if you feel you are part of the process your hunger for contribution grows.
  3. Communication. It’s always important for me to share the vision, the direction and the strategy of the department. In my world there is no such thing as over communication. People want to know, they want to contribute and they want to be part of the successful journey. On the other hand, I always tell people for whatever reason, “If you’re frustrated, if you’re angry, if something’s not going right, you have to learn to express yourself. Because if you hold it inside you, you are going to get more and more angry. You’re going to take your problems home.” I don’t want any of my employees taking their problems home.  Anything that happens in the workplace, we should be able to address. People need to understand how and why certain decisions are made. To me, that’s the key. Because if you’re happy and you’re involved, you’re going to be a great contributor.


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