Michael Wasserfuhr | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

"An International Point of View"

By Robert Green

Since Atlanta has quietly become the world center for payment processing, it’s no surprise that some of the industry leaders come with international backgrounds. This is especially true of Michael Wasserfuhr, the CFO of Ingenico, North America, whose company is the largest manufacturer of payment card terminals in the world. “The complexity of global business is fascinating,” he says. With clients like WalMart, Home Depot and AT&T, the Paris based company is number 2 in North America and number 1 worldwide.

Michael Wasserfuhr was born in Neheim-Hüsten, Germany in 1965. He attended local schools, and after spending the mandatory 15 months with the German Army worked for two and a half years as a trainee at Deutsche Bank. After completing this program, Michael entered college at the University of Giessen, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Germany. Michael’s studies were focused on finance and international business but it was his desire to speak English fluently that brought him to the US. As a participant in an exchange program for foreign language students, Michael spent a year at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Not only studying and ’going with the flow’, Michael also met the American woman that he would marry. “I asked her to marry me and move to Germany. She was open minded enough – or perhaps naïve enough – to undertake the adventure,” he says. “She spoke no German and also had to learn to drive a stick shift – when she agreed to marry me, she didn’t know what was coming.”

Newly married, Michael and Julie returned to Giessen to complete his MBA, which he obtained in 1993. He then joined Commerzbank, the second largest bank in Germany, where he worked in various roles, including Assistant Controller for IT. He later joined the international Controlling Department where he was the main liaison for the bank’s subsidiaries from around the world. After two years, Michael became the personal assistant to the CEO of Commerzbank. This was an honor, rather than an administrative role, where Michael learned a lot.
“I was supporting the CEO in many of his daily activities by making sure he was optimally prepared for his meetings and decisions,” he says.  What made the experience most valuable? “It was edifying to see how everything came together at the top – and I learned the true value of organization and cooperation in such a large entity.”

During these years at Commerzbank, Michael was also completing his PhD in Finance at the University of Giessen, which he was permitted to pursue because he had obtained his MBA with honors. His dissertation subject was on the chargeback system employed by German universal banks. Around the time he received his doctorate in Finance, he was asked by the bank to join the newly founded Commerzbank M&A Advisory Group. “This was a great role,” said Michael, “analyzing industry sectors and businesses, doing company valuations and supporting the strategic negotiation and closing process.” During his tenure in the Advisory Group, the most interesting deal that he worked on was the sale of Bosch’s telecom division to GE Plc., later renamed Marconi.

In 2000, Michael made two major changes; moving to the US and accepting his first CFO position at TUV-Rheinland in Connecticut. TUV, which tests and certifies the safety and quality of products and companies, is the “UL {Underwriters Laboratories} of Europe”. Company employees for North America worked out of 12 offices in the US, Canada and Mexico and serviced the automotive industry, medical industry, telecom, IT and industrial machinery.
Soon after arriving, Michael found that he needed to make changes. “Finance enjoyed very little respect in the rest of the organization because they were not perceived as business partner but rather bean counters. Worst of all, the finance team was not a team.” It took him a year to turn the group into a valuable part of the company.  “We started to consult our colleagues and made important contributions all along the line of work instead of just being a back end recorder of what had already happened.” In 2003, Michael became a licensed CPA.

Although it was his first CFO position, Michael felt that he had to do all that he could to help the company succeed. This included analyzing  the production and service workflow processes of the organization . “I was always interested in an executive financial role because it gave me the opportunity - and authority - to get involved in all aspects of the business,” says Michael.
“Eventually, all business activities are recorded in the books of the company, and a poor performance or a flawed process will become evident. For example, if a customer does not pay an invoice, the reason typically is that customer expectations have not been met. Somewhere in the communication or production process, something went wrong. This shows up in the collection process, and the finance department has to get to the bottom of it and take the opportunity to question and improve the internal workflow. This typically results in a faster and more reliable throughput, risk elimination, and ultimately in higher customer satisfaction.”

While at TUV-Rheinland, in 2006, Michael proudly became an American citizen. “I’m committed to the country,” he says, “and I wanted to be as invested in the US as it was in me.”  This was a great milestone for Michael. After seven years with TUV, he began thinking about changing companies. “TUV was a good company, but I began to feel that it didn’t have enough ambition.”

There were no such worries with his next job, as CFO of Putzmeister, the German based company that was the largest manufacturer of concrete pumps in the world. Michael and his family moved to Milwaukee. “I was excited to join Putzmeister,” says Michael, “the mindset was very different. Everyone was focused on being number one, being the best.” The pump maker, which had enjoyed many consecutive years of 30% annual growth, wanted someone with European roots and international experience. Michael was intrigued by the added complexity a manufacturing company would bring. “We had over 100,000 different parts in our inventory,” says Michael, “so working capital and cash flow management became much more important.” When Michael joined in May of 2007, the company had its highest revenue month in company history. It had just obtained a 55% market share in the US. Things changed when the construction industry hit the wall.

By the middle of 2008, Putzmeister began the painful process of cutbacks, restructuring and downsizing. “As bad as it was, it was a valuable experience in learning how quickly markets can change. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but learning how to deal with adversity is a very valuable lesson,” he says.
Eventually, two thirds of company employees were let go, including the people who reported to Michael in Finance & Accounting, HR and IT. “It was hard on my group because we had more work to do, not less – financial difficulties require a lot more reporting for various reasons – but we made it work and no one complained.”

Michael was recruited to join Ingenico North America in early 2011 as CFO.  With a global install base of 17 million payment devices, the company was number one in the payment terminal business; but it was also moving to higher ground. “Ingenico is moving from  selling payment terminals to becoming an integrated solutions provider, incorporating software, mobile payment, value-added services… so we can provide customized solutions which span the entire payment chain.” Indeed, the card payment terminals are already quite complex because of the software and security that they must provide.  “In addition, 100% of our current terminal generation is EMV ‘chip’ enabled,” he continued, referring to the “chip cards” standardized by EuroPay, MasterCard and Visa (EMV) to provide better security than attainable with magnetic stripe card terminals.

Michael started with Ingenico at the same time as it’s new President for North America, Thierry Denis, and was delighted to see that they were both on the same page in regard to making the company more customer centric and responsive. The ‘high tech’ flair of the company is accentuated by the recent move of theNorth America headquarters within  Alpharetta, which Michael was instrumental in establishing. “We did it on time and under budget which fits in with our new philosophy of ‘always doing what you say you are going to do,’ and the atmosphere also points in our new value added direction,” he said.

Located off Windward Parkway near other high tech companies like Equifax, Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions and ADP, the environment is indeed cutting edge. The new headquarter has space to showcase the company to customers, labs for innovation, marketing and constant software development as well as for the ongoing management of all North America for Ingenico.

“Ingenico has changed and is changing,” says Michael, who was the point person on recent negotiations with PayPal and ISIS for mobile wallet business. “It’s certainly a fast paced environment. I’m proud to be working for the world leader in the industry.”

Michael enjoys his job as CFO of Ingenico in part because he believes that it allows him to employ his skills in work that he can be passionate about and also because of where he gets to do it from. “First, the work is international, and nearly all my experience has been international,” he says. “Second, I get to work ‘hands on’ with people to turn goals and objectives – like becoming more customer centric – from nice phrases into actual, measurable, reality. That’s very satisfying. And third, living and working in the United States is a perk.”

To explain, Michael gave his view on what makes living and working in the US different from living and working in Europe. “It’s a mindset,” he says, “beginning with the fact that Germany has 82 million people and is smaller than Texas. In such an environment, you need a lot of rules and regulations. In Germany there is a presumption that everything that is not explicitly allowed is forbidden. Whereas, here in the US, the presumption is the opposite – everything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed. It changes they way you think about everything.” Understanding and appreciating cultural differences is part of what Michael likes about international business and also why he has been so successful at it.

Michael, his wife and two daughters age 14 and 9 reside in Buckhead.

Secret to Success: Don’t give up. There’s always a solution, so keep trying.

 

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