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A Thing

Industry Leader:
Donna L. Embry

Witness to Innovation

Donna L. Embry is the real deal. There is no marketing spin, no sales pitch. Just solid experience, clear communication and an honest desire to share what she's learned in her 40 years in the financial services industry.

Embry is Chief Operating Officer of TenderCard, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tender Corp. LLC.

TenderCard is a stored value/gift and loyalty card solutions provider based in East Falmouth, Mass. The company couples its gift program with other features specifically designed for small- to medium-sized enterprises.

As COO, Embry oversees the operations and information technology areas of Tender Corp.'s two divisions, TenderCard and eGiftworks.

She is responsible for all areas of operations and IT, including card production, sales support, technical support, data entry, systems, marketing and product development. However, her current role is only the most recent undertaking of this industry veteran.

Embry has management experience in all aspects of the payments industry including banking, e-commerce, financial services, marketing, systems development, risk management, operations and the Internet.

She has worked in sales, corporate relations, international and domestic product development and management, operations, technology, and vendor relations.

Embry has served as Senior Vice President of Product and Marketing for PaySys International; Executive Vice President of Product and Marketing for Vital Processing; Senior Vice President of Business Development for Financial Alliance; and Senior Vice President of Electronic Banking for PNC Bank. Embry was also COO for PNC's former division, CFC Financial Services.

She has also served as an industry educator and consultant. In other words, Embry has seen and done it all. The changes she has witnessed and participated in are, in her words, "too numerous to outline."

A Start in Programming

Embry's initial work experience included systems programming. "I started as a programmer at a bank," she said. "I was lucky enough to be part of the development of bankcards, credit card, debit card, smart card, ATM and POS in its earliest stages before moving into operations and product and marketing."

As a programmer, she is clear and to the point. "My technical background in systems allowed me to be able to reduce things to their common denominator and to keep things simple," she said.

For Embry it's about input and output. That's it. No bells. No whistles. No double speak. Although her years of experience have provided her with a front row seat to numerous advancements and industry firsts, Embry maintains her perspective. "Everything old is new again," she said.

But, don't be fooled. Embry's ability to be clear and concise doesn't mean that she lacks skills or business savvy. She has her finger on the pulse of the industry, and with her years of experience she is able to spot trends and predict behaviors.

Patience and Perspective

Embry's experience has enabled her to gain awareness and knowledge. Her strengths are both a product of, and a benefit to, the financial services industry. "My greatest strength is my ability to see the big picture and to utilize my background to predict trends," she said. " ... My whole professional upbringing exposed me to the new products that are now mainstays of the payments industry."

Embry recognizes how fortunate she was to be part of an industry that was growing and evolving so rapidly. "I was part of the beginning of ATMs, bankcard credit, PIN debit and signature debit, EBT, smart cards, POS technology, etc., all in their infancy," she said. "I got to be a big part of their development."

This front row seat and first hand experience permitted Embry to develop her business philosophy, which is to be patient with products and technology and to give trends time to develop.

When someone works in an industry for 40 years, it is almost certain that there were times when he or she had opportunities to pursue other interests; it's simply the law of averages. For Embry, that was never an option. The fast pace of change and evolution of payment products have kept her interested and intrigued by the financial services industry.

"There is no other industry like it," she said. "It allows participants to be exposed to economic trends, with retailing; banking trends, with settlement flow; technology advances, from networking to products, to hardware to telecommunications."

In fact, when asked what she would be doing career-wise if not in this industry her response was, "Trying to find a way to get into this industry."

Giving Back

Embry is eager to share her enthusiasm and experience with others. "I want to give back to the industry that gave me so much," she said. "That is why I have been so involved in the [Electronic Transactions Association] ETA."

She served as Director of Education for ETA, where she developed and organized ETA University. This included completing the course curriculum for four introductory courses and serving as the instructor for all the classes. Additionally, Embry authored ETA's first publication, the 295-page "Encyclopedia of Terminology for the Acquiring Industry."

Embry also has served on many other committees and task forces including the Visa Electronic Banking Advisory Board, Visa Acquiring Advisory Board, Visa Check Advisory Committee and MasterCard's Automated POS Program (MAPP) Advisory Board.

She also serves on the Board of a local United Way organization. Additionally, she was on the Board of Directors and Chair for the former Quest ATM network.

Dejá-vu All Over Again

Embry's view is down to earth and practical. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," she said. She pointed out that in the early 1980s when debit cards where entering the industry, the challenge was not the technology; the technology already existed. The challenge was giving consumers the time needed to alter their behavior and adapt to using their cards.

Likewise, Embry explained that the only difference to a consumer between a gift card and a paper gift certificate is the medium that it is on. "You have better payment flow for the merchant but, for the most part, the rules are the same," she said. "Its success is still dependant on consumer awareness and usage. It is not about technology as much as the length of time it takes the consumer to use it and turn it into a mass product."

Embry's programming background enables her to see through extraneous information and view issues and processes clearly. "It's all input, process and output," she said. "There is only so much that can be input; it's how a transaction works. What I have been able to do, whether it is [automated clearing house], debit, basic banking or loans, is understand that they all work the same way.

"In fact, there could be one program for all of it. There are differences in the terminology and arithmetic functions, but it's the same process. The challenges are adapting technology to the merchant infrastructure.

"Merchants will not change unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Consumer behavior plays the biggest part in changing the merchant infrastructure. This was quite evident in the evolution of PIN debit."

A Veteran's Perspective

Embry's experience, coupled with her perspective, allows her to learn from the past, apply her knowledge to the future and share what she's learned with others. In fact, this experience and perspective enables her to comment on recent changes to the industry and share her views on future trends.

Embry identified the consolidation of banking and the exit of many of the banks from the industry as the two major changes she has witnessed.

She also named the evolution of debit cards, the advent of the Internet and the entry of ISOs as major factors affecting the financial services industry.

Embry believes that bank consolidation is good for the industry because it helps banks maintain relationships and facilitates merchants securing better deals.

"Long term, I see a change in the interchange structure as new brands will emerge, perhaps retailer-specific and some megabank-specific," she said. "I foresee the continuance of consolidation of services, as large ISOs, [such as] NOVA, Paymentech, etc., form increased alliances with large banking institutions."

When it comes to challenges facing the industry, Embry listed security breaches and "the ever increasing interchange rates" as top priorities.

She named hackers and identity theft as the industry's biggest worries. But, she also said that legislation to limit these risks can ultimately stifle the creativity of programs.

Acknowledging these factors is necessary to create rich, valuable programs. "I hope the industry doesn't overreact," Embry said. She noted that today's processing and payment systems are much more secure than those of yesterday.

"Let's face reality," she said. "Why wasn't this the issue with mail order? Every day people were writing down credit card numbers and sending them in the mail or giving the number to someone on the phone.

"They didn't know whom they were calling. Today we are dealing with much more technologically sound systems."

Embry also uses her experience to predict trends. "Short term, I see the re-admission of banks in the business, especially in the community banks," she said. "Banks are again leveraging the retail relationships.

"Community banks are focusing on retailers as they build their brand and community awareness. They are more customer-service oriented than larger banks."

She also believes that retailers and new players, such as Microsoft Corp., will become more involved in the payment processing business.

"Everyone is watching Wal-Mart and Microsoft to see what they are going to do," she said. "Large companies that have mastered the basics of payment processing are figuring out the value chain and how they can garner more processing control, which translates to lower costs across the board."

Even with 40 years in the financial services industry, Embry remains eager to learn and take on new challenges. And, she believes many educational opportunities and challenges are still ahead.

"I get challenged by new products and markets," she said. "I constantly am learning new products and new technological innovations and view myself as a student in the payments industry. The possibilities are endless, and I like exploring new areas.

"My personal philosophy is to keep learning and challenging myself while sticking to basics. My goals remain looking for the new adventures in payment processing and predicting the newest trends. I want to be in the middle of the action while leaving a legacy in the industry."

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