Fifteen years ago, Chris Priebe, Senior Director – Treasury Payments and Risk, Southwest Airlines and Vice Chair, MAG Board of Directors, felt fortunate enough to be in the room at Southwest Airlines Headquarters with a few really ambitious merchants who were gearing up for an exciting endeavor. The goal of this endeavor was to make a merchant-led educational and advocacy group, now known as the Merchant Advisory Group (MAG), that would bring merchants together for two semi-annual meetings. The mission was to help large merchants with sophisticated management teams have input into simplifying the complexities of the four primary card companies. These merchants insisted that some level of synergy, homogenized operating rules, and consistency be considered in the name of efficiency and transparency. This effort was initially a function of JPMorgan’s annual conference, and many felt as though it needed to be independent and merchant-led to provide a consistent message across all verticals and acquiring banks.
As the MAG approaches its 15th anniversary, we sat down with Chris to discuss his experience as a payments professional and founding member of the organization.
Q: What is your most notable memory of starting the MAG?
Chris: The first meeting in New Orleans, everyone was so excited to gather the perspectives from various lenses and walks of life focused on common goals. It wasn’t easy to get everyone aligned, but through the perseverance of my good friend and MAG Founding CEO, Dodd Roberts, alongside 10 founding members and sponsors, the independent and merchant-lead Merchant Advisory Group was born.
Since then, the MAG has seen a steady rise to new heights with nearly 200 merchants now participating and hundreds of industry stakeholders who have helped put the MAG near the top of their business development roadmap. It goes to show that when a free-market payments stakeholder seeks more knowledge and transparency in a highly complex and virtually unregulated (at the time) environment, all parties generally see improved efficiencies. There is still room for improvement in U.S. payments systems, but the process by which merchants, brands, financial institutions, trade associations, government agencies, and networks engage in an important debate on how best to serve our collective customers has been invaluable. As the payments market has welcomed hundreds of new participants in the past decade, the timing of the MAG was impeccable.
Q: What have you learned from observing 15 years as a founding Board Member of the MAG?
Chris: Involvement is the key to starting your MAG experience. Start with a committee or a passion point and watch it take off into a 15-year adventure. Seriously, I have the MAG to thank for helping to foster so many opportunities and uncovering millions of dollars in savings/solutions for Southwest Airlines over the years. As a member, you gain access to the latest work of many of today’s payments industry leaders. It doesn’t fall into your lap, but it does avail itself issue by issue as you work with other leaders within the MAG organization. The MAG’s Leadership Team is open, inclusive, and insightful. Things you would not know to challenge that are right in front of you become evident as you engage in the MAG. Start with the two annual conferences and the webinars, but seek out leading and engaging in the MAG Committees, MAG Communities of Practices (COPs), or even the MAG Board of Directors. Some of my best cost savings and strategy ideas were picked up as a byproduct of the issues the MAG tackles and would not have come without me getting uncomfortable and asking others for insights and further explanations of topics being discussed.
Q: Has it been easy to get your company’s Senior Leadership buy-in for continuing your annual commitment to the MAG?
Chris: If you know how to calculate an ROI, it becomes extremely simple to justify the investment of the annual fee and my time. The $200,000-$300,000 that Southwest Airlines has invested in my travel, MAG annual dues, and my time in the past 15 years has turned into tens of millions of dollars in savings, efficiencies, and effective solutions. For example, the brands were pushing a new product in the late 2000s that was the precursor to the 3DSecure. Instead, through trusted and honest merchant feedback, we chose to rely on our own data source leveraging a fraud scoring tool startup. Rather than turning away untold millions of transactions and relying on a product that took a few decades to be optimized, we used a lower cost alternative, and the savings were staggering. This execution would not have happened without the open discussions with many merchants via the MAG. Although 3DSecure is much improved and we are actively considering the product, the insights we learned from MAG stakeholders saved us time, cost, and helped us not to miss other opportunities that decreased fraud. Prior to the MAG, corporate FOMO (fear of missing out) would have certainly kicked in, and we would have had to adopt a solution that was far less superior early on in its development cycle.
Q: How do you think the MAG Network has helped you personally?
Chris: My original path was as a CPA running accounting operations for an airline. Because of the size and scope of the payments industry, I “diverted” my career path to focus on payments. I have now worked for the Treasurer on Payments and Risk for ten years. My MAG relationships are over 50 percent of my payments network. The MAG and the continuity of the MAG stakeholders have always provided me with hundreds of sounding boards, idea generation, and even possible alternative employment had Southwest Airlines no longer needed my services. This was a huge insurance for me and my family and should be for you, too.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts for New MAG Members?
Join, engage, and come work your way onto the MAG Board. You will not regret the effort you put in, as the output has been so rewarding.