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Industry Leaders:
Mike Ponder
On Target with Integrity

Many people say they have integrity, and it makes good business sense for people to say the same about the way they run their companies. But when you think about it, few people really do incorporate that quality into their personal and professional lives. Fewer still would feel strongly enough about the importance of this quality to use it as their company's name.

Mike Ponder, President and CEO of Integrity Payment Systems, does things the way he knows they should be done. People who have dealt with him over the years continue their working relationships with him because of his high standards.

"He's one of the most honest, stand-up guys in the business," said Scott Rutledge of The Phoenix Group. Rutledge has known Ponder since 1990 and although they've never worked together at the same company, they've built a solid relationship through numerous business deals.

"When Mike gives his word, you can bet the farm that event will take place," Rutledge said. "He's the type of guy that does what he wants and does what he says he'll do. That's what's so refreshing about his business. I would use the words 'honesty' and 'integrity' to describe him without hesitation."

Mike Grossman, Senior Vice President of Lipman USA, has worked with Ponder since his company first introduced its products in the U.S. 10 years ago. Their excellent working relationship, Grossman said, has flourished over the years in large part because of Ponder's high standards. "He's one of the good guys," Grossman said.

Throughout his life Ponder has stuck to his beliefs and lived and worked by his values. "I am very fortunate to have been raised in a home that taught me core values in life. My father was, and still is, a tremendous example for me," Ponder said. "He lives his life by making his word his bond, and his handshake is his signature. His love for the West and his passion for the outdoors impacted my life tremendously and has instilled those same passions in me."

After growing up in Chicago, Mike didn't immediately start his career in the bankcard industry. Rather than choosing a formal education, Ponder packed his van and "headed out West."

The westward trail lured him to Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Washington, where he spent the next several years. His passion for outdoor activities led him to work on ranches. He shoed horses, guided wilderness trips using pack mules, and even rode saddle broncs in rodeos. "Out West is where I got a real education about life," he said.

Ponder said one of the best experiences of his life was working with an organization called Vision Quest, based in Tucson, Ariz. This organization takes troubled youths out of state institutions and gives them the opportunity to turn their lives around by learning to trust and rely on others in an unfamiliar, untamed environment. "Those kids needed you to be a brick wall yet love them at the same time," he said.

Although Ponder was hired to handle the livestock that supported the wagon train and wilderness programs, he became a youth counselor and ended up serving as the organization's youngest Senior Professional Administrator.

While on a visit home Ponder met his soon-to-be wife, Carolyn. She lived in the Chicago area at the time and, despite his best efforts, Mike couldn't quite convince her to give up city life for a home on the range. So, Ponder moved east, and he and Carolyn were married in 1988. They recently celebrated the birth of their first child, Greyson West, on July 10, 2003.

Ponder recalled that before going out West he dabbled in sales. "I even sold vacuums door to door. Sales came easily for me." So in 1988, living again in Chicago, Ponder went back to his roots in sales, returned to the streets and eventually sold bankcard.

Based on what he learned in those early years, Ponder believes that the sales organization is the lifeblood of any company.

"I know what it's like to walk the street and open that 1,000-pound door and pick up that 500-pound telephone. I've run a successful sales office, so I also know what it takes to hire and retain good sales people. Most of all, I learned that excellent back-room support is critical in order to have a successful sales program."

By 1991, Ponder had worked his way up to Vice President of Sales for Harbridge Merchant Services. In 1992, he joined the founders of Universal Savings Bank of Milwaukee (USB) to lead the sales effort for that start-up venture.

"Processing deals was my forte," he said. "Because of my sales experience, I knew how to design an organization around sales. Carolyn and I had a lot to do with developing the back room at USB - processing deals, setting up leasing programs, developing a sales and marketing strategy. By the time I left USB, they were a billion-dollar processor with over 25,000 merchants generated from my recruiting efforts."

Then, in November 1995, he was presented with the opportunity to be a founding partner of a processing company with Frank Farrar, former governor of South Dakota and owner of First Savings Bank (FSB). Ponder saw this as an opportunity to expand on ideas carried over from USB.

"We developed First Savings Bank's Merchant Division from the ground floor up," Ponder said. "Frank brought the bank to the table and we developed all systems internally, except for authorization and capture, which we relied on Paymentech to support."

The key to the venture was their approach to the bank/sales agent/merchant relationship.

"I have a saying: 'He who issues the merchant number the quickest and pays the quickest wins.' I've lived by that," Ponder said. "To me speed and accuracy are everything. Our 'same-day turnaround' program meant we would issue a live merchant number and ship equipment the same day we received a merchant application. We also had a true guaranteed lease program. We did it every single day. We never missed a beat and had no business interruptions. The sales organization had a real sense of consistency; it was a place they could call home."

FSB's merchant processing arm was a system that worked well for everyone involved. Ponder and his staff placed great emphasis on reliable customer service for both customer groups - the sales agents and the merchants they acquired. The result: From booking its first merchant in 1995 through February 2000, FSB became a billion-dollar-plus processor.

Another essential element in the success of their program at FSB was the fact that it was a one-stop shop. It handled every aspect of merchant accounts in-house, from applications to processing, equipment deployment and risk management.

"When you control the process, you can control the chaos. At FSB, the only things we outsourced were authorization and capture," Ponder said. "I'm a firm believer in doing everything in-house, and there's a reason for that. You need sound support systems operationally, otherwise sales efforts are futile.

"I'm not a control freak, but I do want to control the process. Inconsistency can't be tolerated when you're dealing with straight commission representatives. They have to have a high level of reliability from the organization they are representing. I know from my time on the street it's feast or famine out there."

After FSB's Merchant Processing Division was acquired, Ponder did a lot of soul-searching.

"While I sat on the sidelines I saw the industry changing," Ponder said. "I felt the need to create a company that exceeded even what we had at FSB. I felt it needed to provide traditional bankcard services, but it also needed to go beyond that to offer the newest products the marketplace is demanding.

"But most of all, regardless of how the industry changes, I knew there was still a need for a company that put sales at its heart and focused on providing consistent and reliable support for both sales agents and merchants." So he and Carolyn set out to form Integrity Payment Systems with Farrar. Things at IPS are not that much different than they were at FSB.

"We formed IPS by building upon the concepts we had at FSB," Ponder said. "And because we are fortunate to have virtually the same management team that we had at FSB, there was no learning curve, even from the very first transaction for the first boarded merchant."

They took back their former FSB office space in October 2002. Farrar still owns First Savings Bank, and, as at FSB, Carolyn serves as Chief Operating Officer for IPS.

The name for their new company, Ponder said, came from an idea that kept working itself into all their discussions about how to run the new venture, and it reflects Mike and Carolyn's shared goals for their operation.

"We recognized that when you say 'integrity' in a marketplace like ours, it's a tall order to fill," Ponder said. "We're grateful we chose it. Every single day when I walk through the door and see the company logo, it's a reminder to me that I, as the CEO, have an obligation to see to it that my actions and the actions of my staff live up to our name."

Setting the bar just a little higher than everyone else shows in every interaction IPS has with clients and vendors alike. Grossman said the support his company received from Ponder in his various business ventures has been a big factor in Lipman USA's success.

When Lipman was looking for ISOs to support its products, Ponder included Lipman's terminals as part of his solutions; Grossman said Lipman equipment was part of the training at monthly sales meetings Ponder conducted for his agents.

"He's known for providing all aspects of support, not just terminals, and for providing a high level of service," Grossman said. "He really helped Lipman get where we are today."

Mitch Jacobs is CEO of Tranvia, a company that has provided processing support services for IPS for almost a year. He said Ponder knows what he wants to achieve and that this approach has been beneficial to Tranvia's business as well.

"It's nice to work with a client who has a focus," Jacobs said. "It helps us stay on course. He has a specific set of objectives when he comes to us, and we know that he has requests for services that meet high standards."

Regarding IPS' "everything in-house" strategy, Ponder said, "We do the complete underwriting, issue the merchant number and build the terminal download file. We even have the encryption key for loading PIN pads in-house. We perform all risk management functions, and our people provide merchants a one-on-one personal explanation and resolution of retrievals and chargebacks.

"At IPS we deploy the live, tested equipment the same day we receive a merchant application. When a sales representative or a merchant calls customer service, they get a real person answering the phone, not a voicemail maze. It all goes back to our belief that our first customer genuinely is the sales representative. If they're not happy, they'll represent somebody else. And without them, we have nothing. I live and breathe this, and my staff understands this."

To make that statement a reality, IPS' staff is trained and cross-trained in the various tasks involved in running the company. Ponder believes that cross-training ensures high quality support will always be available to the sales organization and the merchants. More than that, it breaks down barriers between departments.

Cross training, he said, creates knowledge and respect for the contribution of everyone within the company. The staff ends up running more efficiently as a team, and they work together to create an atmosphere that enables growth. "Carolyn and I are fortunate to have great people working with us," he said. "They go above and beyond to carry out our vision."

For the companies and people who work with IPS, that positive attitude comes across in a big way. "They're a very friendly group of people," Tranvia's Jacobs said. More important, though, "Mike comes from a strong set of values, and the staff follows his lead. From our perspective as a vendor, it's very refreshing to deal with an organization where everyone is on the same page."

Ponder said IPS relies totally on an independent sales force.

"We'll bring on-board people who just got into the business or those who have been in the business a long time but are looking for a direct relationship. We have revenue-share programs designed for individual agents and programs for larger sales offices as well. Because we do the settlement in-house, we can offer the flexibility the agent needs to sign an account. Whether you write two contracts a month with us or a hundred, we truly service everyone as if they're the only customer we have.

"A high level of service comes with a cost. If an agent is coming to us looking only for the lowest price, I'm probably not the right shop for them. But if they're genuinely looking for a relationship with a high level of merchant retention to help them build long-term residuals, then we're right for them.

"What the salesperson does - acquiring merchants - is the hardest part of the whole cycle. We become a one-stop shop for those agents. We take away the administrative burden by handling everything in-house and simplifying their administrative burdens. That allows the salespeople to do what they do best - sell!"

Jacobs said Ponder's affinity for sales agents has contributed to IPS' reputation for being easy to work with. "Mike has that experience of having been in the field and selling himself," Jacobs said. "Those are his roots, and he's built an entire organization around the needs of salespeople."

These days, the demands of business and family have reduced the amount of time Ponder is able to spend in the wilderness, but every once in awhile he's able to fit something in. This fall, he has a whopper of an adventure scheduled: He'll be bow hunting grizzly bear in British Columbia. The bears may not appreciate Ponder's on-target approach as much as his agents and merchants, however.

Mike Ponder's commitment to sticking to his beliefs has been what his entire career has been about. By setting high standards for himself, whether riding the trails as an outfitter or running a payment processing company, he has made working with integrity his number one priority.

For more information about Integrity Payment Systems, visit To contact Mike Ponder, phone 888-477-4500 or e-mail

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