The Green Sheet Online Edition
August 22, 2016 • Issue 16:08:02
Meet The Expert:
Green Sheet Advisory Board member Jeff Thorness is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Forte Payment Systems.
He engineered the technology company from the ground up to focus on providing payment solutions for both merchants and developers. Forte has been named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest growing companies in the United States for eight consecutive years. In this interview he discusses what led him to found Forte, the company's distinguishing characteristics its distribution strategy and more.
What led you to found Forte Payments in 1998, and what is the significance of the braces bookending the company name in your logo?
I started the company with the intent to build solutions around the ACH network. As a developer that had done work in the payments space, I really noticed that ACH had a lot of potential as a core payment processing capability – but the usability around it was extremely primitive. We were originally called ACH Direct before we became Forte. At that time, and still to this day, we focus on simplifying ACH and enabling companies to use ACH more effectively.
As the company grew, we continued to innovate around ACH, but we added solutions that focused on other payment methods, including credit/debit card, credit push, drafts, and even international support for Canadian EFT payments. The name change came about as a result of this expansion in capabilities. The naming process was arduous and lengthy, and it took a long time to settle on one that I really liked and felt reflected our identity. Finally, after exhaustive investigation, we found our new name and made the transition in early 2013.
The curly braces in our logo have several different meanings. In math and programming, these braces are commonly used to indicate a "set" of items. By placing Forte within the braces, I hoped to express that our company has a complete "set" of strengths specifically when it comes to payments. We offer these solutions and strengths to our valued customers. I also see it representing the entire team, all of the members of the Forte family, who work incredibly hard to provide absolutely top-notch service to our customers. Lastly, I just thought it looked good aesthetically.
You describe Forte is a technology company focused on providing innovative electronic payment solutions to merchants and developers. How does your approach to each of those distinct markets differ?
Interestingly, our approach to both merchants and developers is the same. It's really just the specific mechanisms that we employ that end up varying somewhat. Our primary goal is to provide value on top of core payment processing technologies to our valued partners and customers. This value comes in the form of making payments easier, faster, more reliable, more secure and generally just better. How we achieve this not only varies if the customer is a merchant or a developer, but it's also dependent on their individual needs.
What distinguishes Forte from other payment processors?
While other providers build out solutions with a one-size-fits-all mentality, we build ours with tremendous flexibility, customizability and extensibility in order to provide solutions that best fit the specific needs of our customers. Building them in this manner takes more time to implement and more support, but ultimately we feel that this extra effort pays off in gained value that we can provide to our customers.
What sets you apart as a leader?
As a leader, I provide value to my company in many different roles and levels. As the founder starting from the ground up, I've worn many different hats over the years. I've participated in nearly everything with my fellow teammates, from development to customer service to risk management and credit. These experiences have given me a unique perspective, as I understand the business and its challenges in ways that other leaders may not.
Do you work with ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLSs), or do you rely more on in-house staff for merchant outreach?
Generally speaking, we are a technology company rather than a sales organization. As such, we rely heavily on both ISOs and ISVs (or VARs) as part of our distribution strategy. Over the years, we have added more direct sales personnel, but most are focused on either attracting new ISO and ISV partners or on a particular vertical industry.
What advantages has your background in coding given you in an industry so dependent on developing technology to meet demands for new forms of payments, flexibility and security?
I think that the payments industry has evolved greatly since I started out, and the need to be able to innovate and differentiate has never been greater. Technology is fantastic, and we do some amazing things with it. But even more than technology, I believe that the key to success is having the ability to understand merchants' challenges and being able to employ technology as a single component in an overall solution to these challenges. This has been the primary focus of my entire career, and I think this problem solving approach will continue to drive success here at Forte.
Do you do any coding now? What sorts of projects do you work on?
Unfortunately, I don't get the opportunity to code like I used to. Occasionally, I do get to work on some proof of concept work. This type of work is a lot of fun for me, but my time is generally much better spent in other parts of the business – so these days I do my best to stay out of coding.
Your company has ranked repeatedly among the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America. To what do you attribute this success?
It's been really challenging to stay on the list as we've gotten bigger, especially considering we haven't taken on any debt or outside capital or made any acquisitions.
My formula for success is actually pretty simple: Provide the products and services that meet or exceed the needs of our target customer base, merchants and partners. Combine that with excellent customer service and a competitive price. The challenge is in the finer details that come with solving these needs, but the formula itself isn't rocket science.
#hWhy did you move your company from Southern California to Texas? As a native Californian, was it challenging to adapt to the Texas culture?
As the company grew, we knew we needed a new home that would better serve our needs. We had challenges with talent and transportation where we were located in California, and the high costs (housing, taxes, and almost everything else) in that state made it difficult for a bootstrapped organization to be successful.
We considered a few regions, but ultimately decided to relocate to the Dallas area. In Dallas, we found the talent, facilities, lower-cost housing, lower taxes and travel hub that we wanted.
There are definitely some major cultural differences between Southern California and Texas. However, there are many people coming from all over the world to work here. Because of this, the culture is constantly evolving and, in pockets, is very different than what most people think of when they think of Dallas or Texas.
If you were an MLS, how would you go about securing your future in this industry?
My recommendation would be to secure the ability to sell the best solutions within the marketplace, then adjust the approach from sales-based to more consultative. One provider may not be the best solution for every single element of a merchant's needs. Work with several providers to ensure that you can offer the strongest possible solution to your customer.
What's the next step for you professionally?
I still have a lot to learn to become a great leader, and there is a lot of hard work ahead of us to take this company over the $100 million in revenue mark. To achieve these goals, I plan to focus on my leadership by cutting back the time spent on the payments industry and learning more about how I can best perform my role.
Also, I'd like to consider how to best scale the business and how to find the right people to help us grow. This is a new direction from the previous roles I've played at the company, but I have no doubt it will be just as rewarding.
What did you imagine you would do for a living when you were young?
I've always loved technology and, when I was young, it showed in the form of interest in automotives and aeronautics. For automotive, the pinnacle of technology is found within motorsports – specifically Formula 1. For aeronautics, the pinnacle is in military aircraft. I used to dream of racing F1 cars or flying fighter jets, but as I got older, I found I enjoyed technology and science just as much as being in the driver's seat.
What pursuits do you enjoy outside of work?
I continue to be a fan of watching auto racing, but I also love to get out to a road circuit and scrap around on it with one of my vehicles. I'm also into football (I won our fantasy league last year) and nerd games (playing online with people from all over the world or inviting some of my friends over for a game night).
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