CXO Series – Alan Gallo, Divisional CFO at American Express, shares his insight…
Alan Gallo is Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Global Corporate Services and Enterprise Growth at American Express. He provides financial advice and support to the presidents of Global Corporate Services and Enterprise Growth, groups that include the Corporate Payments, Business Travel, Mobile Payments, and Prepaid Businesses as well as Customer Service, Technology, Real Estate, and Procurement. Alan also serves as a key advisor to the CEO, CFO, and the company’s operating committee on strategic and financial matters for American Express. In this leadership role, Alan oversees more than 500 finance professionals globally.
A veteran of American Express, Alan has over 25 years of experience in finance. Prior to his current role, Alan was the CFO of the Global Consumer and Small Business Services Group, which consisted of the Consumer and Small Business Card Franchises, the Customer Service Network, the Consumer Travel Business, and Travelers Cheques Worldwide. He also served as the senior vice president of Corporate Planning and Decision Support, where he led key business planning processes and strategic projects across American Express, and as chief financial officer of American Express Bank LTD.
Sajid Khan: Alan, Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this Interview. Can you begin by sharing your perspective on the role of CFO of commercial services in global services companies such as American Express?
Alan Gallo: My job at Amex is basically to make sure we allocate resources to our most promising opportunities. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job day-to-day, but that’s the most important part. A lot of my time is spent making judgments about how much to invest in which opportunities to give the company its best chance for continued long-term success. Business people are usually very passionate about the projects they’re pursuing and it’s the job of the Finance organization to make sure there’s an objective, and maybe dis-passionate, assessment of the opportunities in front of us.
SK: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges faced by global services companies during the last couple of years?
AG: Well, no surprise here, but many companies, including Amex, are doing their best to adapt to the digital environment we now live in. This takes different forms in different industries but for us in the payment industry it means making sure people can buy and sell goods as seamlessly as possible regardless of what medium they choose…in a physical store, online, on mobile devices, etc.
SK: How effectively global services companies innovating these days?
AG: Obviously, some are doing it much better than others but I think many large companies are struggling to deliver innovation to customers as quickly and as seamlessly as smaller companies and start-ups. The way technology works today, sometimes a smaller company can get right to a consumer pain point and solve it so quickly that larger companies struggle to catch up. The way we’re handling that at Amex is by staying focused on what customers want and need and not “falling in love” with the technology. Sometimes the technology can be very “sexy” but it’s searching for a problem to solve. By staying focused on customers I think we’ve been able to strike the right balance between innovation and sustained success.
SK: What is the biggest challenge for CFOs in the financial services space today?
AG: Striking the balance I just described is a big part of it for sure but there’s another factor to consider and that’s increased regulatory scrutiny. Sometimes, if a company lets itself be consumed by the scrutiny it will be slow to innovate and lose sight of what customers want. We’ve handled that by embracing the challenge posed by regulation to make sure that everything we do and communicate lives up to our own high standard of excellent service. I think we have a very productive relationship with our regulators and we work closely with them to make everything we do has the customer in mind.
SK: What’s been your proudest achievement in your career?
AG: I’m not sure if I’d call it an achievement, but the best part of my job now is leading a large and global team. After working in Amex for as long as I have, I feel like I have something to offer in the way of advice and guidance to so many of the outstanding Finance professionals in my organization. It’s my favorite thing to do! I like to be an ambassador for our great company and at the same time give people advice on how to succeed at Amex by helping Amex to succeed.
SK: What is your leadership Style? Does your leadership style vary with the role?
AG: I don’t think my style varies with the role but it definitely varies based on the person or people I’m trying to lead. I try to adjust my style based on what they need…what feedback they need to hear, where they are in their career and what the situation requires to ensure success for the company. I’m sure I don’t always succeed, but I try to make my own style subservient to the greater purpose of what a person or team is trying to achieve in any given situation. If people who work for me are successful as individuals and in their pursuit of the company’s objectives, I’ll be known as a great leader.
SK: What advice would you offer for other finance executives who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
AG: I always tell people that the big jobs go to people who have great judgment…and the best way to develop judgment is to do different things in your career. So I encourage people to get different experiences in any way they can…supporting different businesses, working in different disciplines or geographies, taking jobs in the business, etc. Once you have a foundational skill that employers need (accounting, financial analysis, etc.), the best thing to do is accumulate a diversity of experiences that will give you the context, perspective and judgment that will inspire confidence in others.
SK: Anything else you would like to share with our readers.
AG: The other advice I frequently give is to embark on a lifetime journey to improve your communication skills. Even if you’re already very good at it, there’s always room for improvement. And look at the people at the top of companies…they come from all walks of life and different backgrounds but what characteristic do almost all of them have in common? They are great communicators. It’s hard to over-invest in developing this skill.