Mike Passilla | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Choosing The Road Less Traveled

By Karen Rosen

Mike Passilla is predictable in his unpredictability. He rarely chooses the obvious path.

Facing major life decisions, Passilla recognizes the choice others would make -- and then goes in a different direction.

“I’ve always chosen the option that presents the greatest challenge and provides the greatest return,” he says.

“I don’t go for the sure thing. I never have – comfort doesn’t excite me.”

And yet Passilla, a former college baseball player, hits a home run every time.

Now President and Chief Executive Officer at Elavon, a wholly owned subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp and a leading global payments provider, Passilla draws on his background of embracing change and pursuing the choice offering the greatest challenge.

Born in California, he grew up in Orlando, where his father, James, ran human resources globally for the Walt Disney Company.

“Many of my life lessons and my practices as far as my own leadership style,” Passilla says, “were born from those experiences and watching my father create one of the best U.S.-based business cultures still celebrated today.”

Passilla, who attended opening day at Walt Disney World, brought to Elavon the concept of “being on stage.”  

“Disney employees are called cast members for a reason,” he says, “because once they emerge from the tunnel and from behind the scenes to deliver services, products and experiences to the visiting tourists from all over the world, they are on stage. They need to rehearse; they need to know their lines; they need to have practiced.

“At Elavon, the same standards are true. Every time we think about or interact with our customers or partners, we have an opportunity to deliver the kind of valuable experience that makes them want to come back.”

Background in Sports

Passilla’s first team experiences were sports-based, and as a successful high school pitcher, he made his first dramatic life decision. With scholarship offers from 11 colleges across the country – many in warm climates –he decided to go to the University of Notre Dame in cold South Bend, Ind. “My goal was to put Notre Dame on the map,” Passilla says.  “They were not known as a baseball university.”

The Irish had a 15-29 record in 1987, and two years later, Passilla’s senior year, they finished 48-19-1, losing in the NCAA Regionals to the eventual champion, Witchita State University. 

He had aspirations of a pro baseball career like his father, who played for the Cincinnati Reds, but shoulder surgery following his senior season ended those dreams and forced Passilla to choose a new path.

He took a job in sales with IBM, where he gained a perspective on technology that serves him well today in appreciating Elavon’s mission.

“We rely upon people, process and technology assets in order to deliver the value that over 1.3 million customers around the world are willing to pay for,” he says. “I have a great affection and appreciation for the criticality of technology, particularly in our organization.”

After four years with IBM Passilla decided to earn an MBA and applied to the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. When officials there asked what other schools he was considering, Passilla said he’d only applied to one.

“I said, ‘Why go to the second-, third-, fourth-, or fifth-best school? Why set your goals that way? I didn’t feel I needed a backup option when I knew that Kellogg was the right program for me and that I was the right candidate for them.”

Risky? Sure, but Passilla got in. “If you set your sights on something and you know what you want to do, why invest an ounce of energy in something that detracts you from that goal?” he says.

Business Plan Pays Off

Upon completion of his MBA, Passilla launched a career in consulting with CSC Index, an industry-leading firm which brought him to Atlanta. Rather than stay on the fast track, he left for a start-up in Orlando based on a business plan he’d written for a class while at Kellogg.

A colleague had successfully pitched the plan to Prudential Security, which ended up investing $52 million. Passilla, who thought the business plan would go no further than the “A” he received in the class, moved back to Orlando to build out the Orange County National golf facility.

Bringing together pay-for-play, golf education and instruction in a one-stop shop facility, the highly-rated service was featured in some of Tiger Woods’ ads. After 18 months, it was sold to AIG.

“I had no experience in building or managing a golf facility,” Passilla says, “but I knew it needed to be run like any other business from a P&L perspective. I learned from my successes and mistakes with the endeavor and applied those learnings to become a better business leader.”

In 1999 he returned to Atlanta to join Inforte Corporation, a systems integration company.  Revenue grew from $7.5 million to $64 million in four years with Passilla part of the executive team.

Starting as a regional director in the Southeast, he rose to the role of president of North America. After the company’s CEO and COO took sabbaticals, Passilla was acting COO.

Solving a Health Issue

But in 2006, he stepped back from his career to take care of a health issue. His back was failing to the point that he couldn’t pick up his 3-year-old daughter. Passilla opted for a 9 ½ hour spinal fusion surgery, which kept him out of the marketplace for a year and put him at odds with the school of thought opposing back surgery of any kind.

“I had poured my heart and soul into my career,” he says, “it required a lot of travel and a lot of sacrifices. One of those sacrifices was my health.”

“Now, I’m absolutely fine,” Passilla says. “It was a critical juncture for me. I could have made a different decision, but it was actually the simplest decision I could make.”

When Passilla returned to the workforce in 2007, Inforte had been sold, and he began searching for a new job in Atlanta. Passilla joined Nova Information Systems, now Elavon, as Executive Vice President of Global Business Development, overseeing sales channels and alliance bank relationships throughout Europe and North America.

Passilla says Elavon is “an incredible story of success,” distinguished by the strategic decision to consolidate and convert multiple platforms to a single platform environment.

“That put us on the map and has been fuel for a lot of our growth,” he says.

Exactly three years after joining Elavon, he was named CEO, and for the last two years has been responsible for the overall strategy, vision and operations of the company’s worldwide business and mission to enable global commerce.

As the industry continues to evolve and change, Passilla says the combination of operational leadership, industry-leading service, and a world-class sales team working with customers in advisory roles  is instrumental to the success of the company.

Passilla takes great pride in the talent at Elavon, which was cited as the most highly-rated entity among its peer group in a 2010 industry survey by Aite Group.

Elavon has offices in 20-plus countries while operating in more than 40 countries. With close to 500 employees at its Atlanta headquarters, Passilla says the Atlanta office is “busting at the seams.” The offices are moving to a different building in the Concourse complex, taking over three contiguous floors to allow a more innovative, collaborative and open workspace.

“Due to our growth over the last 20-plus years, we’re continuing to bring more thought leadership and greater capability to our headquarters location,” Passilla says.

Focus on Innovation

As CEO, Passilla has brought a more intentional focus to innovation. Passilla is building on a strategic vision that prioritizes giving customers and partners a much bigger role and voice as co-creators in the innovation process.

“We have historically been known in the industry as fast followers in how we bring products and services to market, but those days are behind us now,” Passilla says. “We are trying to lead the market in several areas around mobile and security solutions, some of which we’ve already brought to market. Others are on our solution road map and we’ll be bringing them to market.”

Elavon was the first company to bring an EMV chip and PIN wireless solution to the UK market, with the launch of MobileMerchant in May. Transforming mobile devices into payment terminals, it allows micro businesses and companies with mobile staff to accept card payments quickly and securely anytime and anywhere.

The secure transaction protocol will be required at a future time in the U.S. market.

Also in Europe Elavon’s Global E-commerce Gateway solution recently launched, expanding payment options, reducing fraud, and ultimately improving sales for businesses accepting e-commerce payments.

With fraud as a continuing issue, Passilla says Elavon is working to bring enhanced security levels and solutions that are removing or mitigating vulnerabilities “in a differentiated and sustainable fashion. We are taking a step forward and providing solutions that are informed by the voice of our customers and partners.”

Work-Life Balance

Passilla is also a supporter of Elavon’s “Leadership through Service” core value, encouraging employees to pursue job development as well as community service activities.

Passilla was proud that in 2011 Elavon’s Atlanta office had a 110% percent increase in giving to United Way from its employee base. For the annual Kaiser Permanente Run/Walk, Elavon had the second-highest turnout per capita of any company in Atlanta.

And recently, working with Junior Achievement, 93 Elavon employees attended JA Day at Northwood Elementary School.

“We took over the school, taught all the Kindergarten through 5th grade classes on Junior Achievement’s wonderful curriculum,” Passilla says. He adds that Jack Harris, president of Junior Achievement of Georgia, told him that was one of the largest participations of any JA Day in the state of Georgia in the last 10 years.

While Passilla believes Elavon is doing a good job of extending into the community as a corporation, he is investing energy toward participating in a more meaningful way personally and is on a path to participating in non-profit organizations’ board of directors and supporting local charities.

“That’s a personal path that is important to me,” Passilla says.

And once he chooses a path, he sticks to it.

Secrets to Success

  1. Embrace change. Seek out the road less traveled.
  2. Always be yourself and always conduct yourself in a way that you’d be proud to talk to your grandkids about. It’s not worth the tradeoff -- not just the risk associated with something that you know to be wrong, but the tradeoff of the impact it has on who you are. Once you go to the dark side once, it’s a lot easier to go a second time and a third time and a fourth time. So stay true to who you are and what you know to be right. Sometimes it gets you exited from a room, because you say something that no one else wants to say, but I’m OK with that.
  3. Always continue to prioritize that balance in your life between career and family. It’s not one versus the other. It never should be.

Mike Passilla is President and CEO at Elavon. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Mike Passilla for sharing his thoughts with us.



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