Kevin Jones, CEO of Celero Commerce | Episode 8

Greg: Hello, this is Greg Myers, your host of the Leaders in Payments Podcast. And this is episode eight, featuring special guest Kevin Jones, the CEO of Celero Commerce. In this episode, Kevin and I talk about his journey from a Christmas tree farm in North Carolina to becoming a banker to receiving the best phone call he’s ever had from a recruiter at Paymentech, which launched his career in payments. Kevin’s journey takes him through several payments companies and finally to his role as the CEO at Celero Commerce. Celero Commerce focuses on creating vertical bundles for small businesses that combines software payments and other tools that help businesses run more efficiently. Kevin talks a lot about culture and how important it is to surround yourself with great people and great mentors. So let’s get started. Hey Kevin. Thank you for being here and welcome to the Leaders in Payments Podcast.

Kevin: Yes, sir. Thank you so much for having me.

Greg: Why don’t we start by you telling the audience a little bit about yourself? Maybe where you were born, where you grew up, went to school a few things like that.

Kevin: Perfect. Like most in tech CEOs, I grew up on a Christmas tree farm, So, I grew up on a Christmas tree farm in North Carolina, where most my family still lives. And after high school, I went to school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I was a political science and economics major and became a banker after school, ended up managing a region of really the western side of North Carolina for a bank call Center Carolina Bank. Luckily, I had the best phone call ever got was from a recruiter from Paymentech and went there in early 2000 to start my payments career.

Greg: Great, let’s talk a little bit about the company you’re leading now Celero Commerce. Tell everyone what exactly Celero does.

Kevin: At the root of Celero is a desire really to emboldened small to midsize businesses and our strategic partners. So our passion is the true belief that the playing field has been uneven at the SMB level, we feel like the big brands, the big box stores have had vertical SaaS solutions, a simplicity of use, big data tools, rewards programs, social media monitoring and other tools that really have been missing at the SMB level. So, our passions to try to help our customers not try to keep up, but to actually lead. And we have a belief that as Todd Ablowitz said recently, that software is eating payments. So our thesis is driven heavily around creating vertical bundles that are easily consumable by the SMB space, which is a combination of SaaS and payments, plus some of those other tools that we talked about with big data rewards, social media monitoring, etcetera. So, we feel like that combination is really what we’re driving towards.

Greg: Okay, so you obviously were focused on small business. What can you tell us about the size of the company? Whether that’s employees, revenue, whatever you can disclose

Kevin: Yeah, no problem, we’re presently at about 115 team members across the U. S. We have our main office is our national headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. We have major offices in Glendale, California, Dallas, Texas, Minneapolis and Greenville, South Carolina. We have about 25,000 businesses that utilize us for payments presently and processing just over $8 billion annually.

Greg: Okay, and Nashville is the headquarters, so I wanted to touch on that. How did that come about? Not necessarily payments Mecca? 

Kevin: I mean, that’s kind of what we thought when we got here, but we realized there’s quite a bit more payments here than we anticipated, with some great people. But we like the city a lot because of its location. Really, the creativity and innovation that spills over from the music business really permeates through all businesses here, and we really like it the creativity. It’s just an innovative, young, energetic and super creative city. So, it’s been a great home for us. The city is really embraced this. We’ve had superb partnerships with people like Pinnacle Bank, and who’s turned out to be just a great partner for us and others in town. So, they’ve embraced us and we love the town, and it definitely feels like home to us.

Greg: Great. And you are the preferred partners of the Tennessee Titans. Talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah. I mean, it’s the hometown team and we got here and we’re able to create a partnership with Tennessee Titans that they we’re able to do their payments, and obviously we want to be a part of that organization and we were able to become their preferred payments provider, and it’s been a really great partnership. I think they were two and four when we struck that partnership, and they almost made it the Super Bowl. So I’m not going to say that’s because of us. I’m just not going to say it’s not because of us.

Greg: That’s great. That’s great. So, you mentioned a little bit about the vertical focus. Can you talk about what that means. What verticals makes sense for you guys, things like that?

Kevin: Absolutely. You know, one of the cornerstones of our company is that we have 150 financial institutions that partner with us, and 20,000 of our small business merchants are from those partnerships, and there’s obviously another 180,000 or so merchants that are customers with those financial institutions yet not processing with them today. So, if you look within that grouping in one of the major opportunities for our financial institutions was in field services so we acquired a company called RazorSync that has really sound in field service’s software. They span about 60 verticals, so we loved the company and the kind of segments of software they represent. And we’ve had a lot of fun working with them to embolden their product, and the user experience, and we believe it’s going to be a big year for that organization through our distribution channel. So those are just some of the key verticals there. HVC, plumbing, electric garage door repair etc. So our software really works great for organizations that have more than three trucks and helps them do everything from scheduling appointments, dispatch route optimization, invoicing, keeping up with the drivers where they are, they’re time et cetera, and then dropping everything into their accounting software. So creates a ton of efficiency for the user, and we found that the average business that utilizes that software grows by 32% the first year after using this software. So, it’s been a great help to the customers that have used it.

Greg: Great. You mentioned earlier Paymentech and obviously we both were there under Mike Duffy. And I did see on your site that you created a Mike Duffy Award and maybe talk about that a little bit and about Mike’s leadership and why you decided to name an award after him.

Kevin: Yeah, you know, it’s pretty natural, I mentioned earlier the phone call I got from Paymentech was the luckiest phone call I ever got. And genuinely I feel so lucky that I ended up with that organization coming off of a Christmas tree farm. And I was talking about this the other day with a few friends of mine, you kind of had this naive belief that everybody did business the right way. And obviously, as you learned, that isn’t case. And I was pretty naive, probably getting to Paymentech and just had such excellent leadership between Mike Duffy, Dan Charron and Eddie Myers and others that are still you think of as the best leaders that you know or I’ve ever seen or had. And he just had so much passion for what he did. He lived it, breathe it. But the thing that I love the most about Mike, that he had a relationship with every employee. When he passed away and we were at his funeral, it was just remarkable to see the number of people that were having conversations about the relationship they had directly with him, and he made everybody feel really valuable, and that obviously inspired everybody to work really hard. And we had great outcomes. But I just I love the leadership style that he had the passion and as we started Celero, you know Jeff Brown and Jim Harris and now even Paul and Jerry that were the founders of Elmhurst that we acquired. It’s so many people within the organization had direct relationships that Mike and we’re all very inspired by his leadership style so it was a natural fit for us to name the award after him.

Greg: Sure makes a lot of sense. As you know, you’ve been in this business a while that it’s incredibly competitive in the payment space. What would you say makes Celero Commerce different from your competitors?

Kevin: Yeah, I think the main thing is just the simplicity to which were bundling these products together. So as we mentioned from our financial institution, partners to our SMBs, it’s kind of core partner types, you know, I do think both have been just struggling to keep up over the past few years as the evolution of payments industry has taken such a speedy take here these last few years. And we really recognized the differentiations they’re making that so. I think that owning our own proprietary vertical software in 60 verticals and quite a few more to come and bundling that in an integrated way that makes it really consumable for both our partners and our customers. You know really differentiates us. And then when we add on products like our Big Data Analytics tool, a rewards program, our social media monitoring, it creates a bundle of products that makes our customers leaders.

Greg: Sure makes sense. You started to talk a little bit about the payments industry as a whole, so this is a two-part question. What do you think? Where do you think the industry’s headed, say in the next 2 to 3 years? And then if you can get the crystal ball out and look maybe 10 years out there?

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, making a bet past about three years is difficult these days as quickly as payments is changing, as someone asked me last year who we thought our biggest competitors were, and the answer is everybody because you know it’s crazy, the number of instruments to which you can take a payment with and make a payment with today versus 10 years ago. But I think the ones that I feel most confident that are taking shape presently are number one digital wallets. You know, there’s not been a huge player thus far, obviously seeing a lot of growth, but that’s coming from a very small adoption rate. But I really think they’re going to be embraced more. I think people are gaining a lot of confidence using their additional wallets, and frankly, we have people using tickets to concerts, airline tickets and Starbucks card, whatever, being house there, it just makes it easier to use it more often, so I think we’re going to see that embraced a lot more, I think rewards programs. They’re gonna take flight. And we’ve had a rewards programs for years. But we’ve had very few that really were adopted. And I think rewards programs that work are going be really taking flight. You know, as I mentioned earlier, the premise that software is eating payments could be argued a decent amount between, taking a bite out of payments or it’s eating payments. But just say somewhere in between those two. I think that merchants specifically are going to be looking to find software that helps them run their business more efficiently, and payments will be integrated into it. So, I think as a payments first organization, and so many of us are that we’ve got to be very keenly aware of that occurring and position ourselves such that we’re still winning. And as that continues to evolve, and then I think check outless payments is definitely going to be rising. You know, there’s more payments that are embedded into social media and really within the in-store experience as well. I think there’s just going to be a big drive towards the friction-less experience, and that includes things like embedded payments. But the overall drivers frictionless and quick and simple and anything that feeds into those three things I think is going to be taking a chunk of the next few years.

Greg: Any thoughts on 10 years out there?

You know, there’s a lot of conversations about contextual payments and things like that. I know that good friend of mine from the Container Store talks a lot about their plans for the Container Store and having contextual payments, and there’s a lot of interesting things going on, but I’d be hard pressed to lay a bet on 10 years from now.

Greg: Right? Totally, totally understand. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about you and your journey to your current role is the CEO of Celero Commerce. You talked a little bit about it, but maybe talk a little bit about your different roles you’ve had over the years and leadership roles that you’ve had, sort of what led you to where you are today.

Kevin: My journey is a little bit different in that I came out of high school just with a dream of being a CEO. I no idea what that meant because the way that I grew up on the Christmas tree, my mom was a single mom and really worked two jobs to help me be the first in my family to go to college. And so, I had a mission of getting out. I didn’t go backpack Europe. I wanted to make the ROI on her sacrifices meaningful and let her know have peace of mind that my family is going to be in a better position financially. And so, I didn’t know really what that meant. But it was a goal as I got into Paymentech and had success in leadership and had such good mentors, I really realized how much leadership was a servant role and the impact that as a leader we all have on others. And how much mentorship and helping others grow, both serve the interest of the company but also served a greater purpose of leadership. That really is what I think on my deathbed I’m going to be the most excited about is the impact we have on people. So I think Paymentech was a great experience. To see people like Mike and Dan and Eddie Myers may be the most in this context. Just being a servant leader, humble leader. And so, I had the opportunity to build a bank channel at Paymentech and just meet some wonderful people who frankly, are still working with me in some instances. And then after many years at Paymentech about the time the Chase acquisition was occurring, I went to First American Payment Systems and worked with some wonderful people there as well, like Jason Putnam and Rodda Steward and Shawn Dillon. And we had a really great run there. And we also could kind of continued to build that culture and experiment with that culture that I’m passionate about now. And then Andy Meadows and I started a Annovia Payments in 2013 and we really built a great culture that we’re super proud of and had completely organic growth and the acquisitions, and built that to over 10,000 merchants in just over three and 1/2 – 4 years. So, I’ve had a really great journey, and I think the most rewarding portion of that journey of people have been surrounded by. I’m really proud of the people that not only their super smart, but they’re just good human beings. And I think that’s probably made the biggest impact on me and really, what I wanted to build here at Celero. So as we started this organization we were definitely a culture first organization. We came in with the mantra of know that we can take really great care and actually care about our merchant customers, our bank customers and other strategic partners, our team members and still be very successful. So, I think a more sustainable way. So we’re trying to really build something special from a culture perspective that can be felt all the way down to the customer level.

Greg: Great. I love the culture aspect so much. Let’s talk about something that you’re passionate about, maybe pick something that’s work related. And I think you’ve talked about that already a little bit, and then maybe something that’s not work related.

Kevin: Yeah, work related. I mean the thing I’m most passionate about’s the team. And I think it’s because when you start a company, a startup, you choose every team member and so certainly a ton of care there. And we’ve got some stars like, you know, Jeff Brown and Charlie Berard, Scott Farace that have so much tenure in the industry, and Troy Wilkerson that you’re highly respected, they’ve done things the right way. But they’re very talented and passionate, hardworking. And then the cool thing is, we have some really young team members like my executive assistant, Chloe, my project manager, Abigail, our risking underwriting person, Kyle Brown. I mean, we’ve got some really young folks here that are going to do amazing things in this industry. Matt Moore is another one that manages most of our FI channel. That’s so much fun for us to watch them grow so quickly. And I was exposed to so much so quickly because we’re doing acquisitions were growing quickly, so their ability to grow is enhanced here. From the non-business side. I mean, your family takes up most of my mind share. I’m a soccer dad and am on the road a lot with kids playing pretty high-level soccer that love this sport and that really drives a lot of our life. We’re here in Nashville, so in my life and I love to see live music and we’ve been to a ton of wonderful concerts of this last 14 – 15 months. Carolina basketball is another passion, so I think that’s between watching Carolina basketball, music and soccer. That’s pretty much the outside of the work side.

Greg: Probably keeps you pretty busy, huh?

Kevin: Yes, sir.

Greg: So, are you coaching any of the soccer teams?

Kevin: Man. My eight-year-old can beat me in soccer legitimately. I mean, if you put $1000 on it, he can beat me. So, I’m way out of the coaching job, unfortunately. But they all play for club here in town, called Tennessee Soccer Club. And have coaches that actually played professionally and in college, and they’re much better shape than the dad is.

Greg: That’s right. You know how the industry has grown a lot of investment in it. A lot of new people coming in. You mentioned young people in your organization. What would be some advice that you would give those people who are just starting out in the payment space?

Kevin: Yeah, I think the most important thing. I mean, if they’re starting their own companies to start with the end in mind, because I think a lot of people fail to do that just kind of go with the flow. And I think it’s really important to decide right up front what’s the outcome that you’re hoping for your running a lifestyle business. You want to build an income that you could just ride out? Or are you looking for to build an organization that you can sell because it’s setting up your legal agreements and your agreements with your processor? You know, those are dictated heavily, you know, from a structure perspective by that outcome. And I think outside of that it’s being persistent, agile and tech forward because you have to anticipate that change is going to continue with the evolution of the technology, and it is going to continue to play a huge part. So being agile is really important. And then to me, the one piece of advice I give everybody that ever asked me is you know is about respect and humility. I think walking through life and leadership, specifically being respectful with all those around us and remaining humble about the opportunity that we’ve been given and trying to pay those forward is really important. There’s a line from the alchemists that I always misquote, but something like the book The Alchemist but it’s something like “If you live your life with passion in pursuit of your goal, you know the world will conspire to help you.” And I’m a believer in that. That if your humble and work really hard towards, you know your mission, that others will help you. And I think we all know organizations in our industry that even if their competitors, I’m always happy to help because they just do things the right way. And, you know, I think the pies big enough. So, I think that’s a great way to set yourself up versus being one of those organizations that people hope fall because of arrogance and lack of respect. So, I think that enables us to not have entitlement at all. You can’t really have humility and entitlement, so I think these two traits are probably the most important to leading a happy life over all

Greg: right. I think that’s great. Advice for work and outside of work for sure. Well, anything else that you wanted to mention today. We’re about to wrap-up, and I think we’ve covered some good ground here. But any final thoughts before we wrap-up?

Kevin: No, I appreciate your time and appreciate being a guest. And this is it. I’ll just wrap-up by saying It’s a wonderful industry, you know? It’s never been more fun. I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years, and I think last two or three years have been the most fun years for anybody in this industry. Because things are changing rapidly and forcing everyone to stand on tip toes and continue to grow. But I think we’re all happier, you know, a little bit outside of our comfort zone. So, it’s a great time to be a part of the industry. Just a good time to be sure everyone is remaining in growth mode.

Greg: right? Well, Kevin, thank you for your time today. I know your time is incredibly valuable, so I really appreciate you being here.

Kevin: Thank you so much again for having me. I appreciate it.

Greg: Sure, and all you listeners out there thank you for your time as well. And until the next story…