Endurance is a trait one might expect from someone who competes in triathlons, and Wex CEO Melissa Smith doesn’t disappoint.

She has completed three half Ironmans, not to mention running the Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Disney marathons, among others.

She’s also shown fortitude in leading Wex for nearly a decade. Since she became CEO in 2014, annual revenue for the global provider of payments technology for the transportation, healthcare and travel services industries has nearly tripled to $2.35 billion last year. It hasn’t been a cakewalk. Smith, 54, has weathered a pandemic, macroeconomic upheaval and a local tragedy during her tenure.

Most recently, she pressed ahead with a Wex third-quarter earnings call the morning after an active shooter killed 18 people at a bowling alley 40 miles down the road from Wex’s Portland headquarters. Even as the Portland area remained shut down, with police searching for a killer, Smith addressed analysts.

“I am shocked, horrified and saddened by these events,” she said on that Oct. 26 webcast, noting Wex’s 1,200 workers in the state. “Our hearts are with those who have lost loved ones in the senseless tragedy. Our hearts are also with those fellow Wexers and our community members that are now sheltering in their own homes.”

Not only is Wex a major employer in Maine, its 7,000-person workforce stretches around the world to five continents, including Europe, Asia, South America and Australia.

The company sells payments processing, embedded finance software and Wex-branded cards across three segments of the business, divided by customer type. It offers white label, debit, credit and virtual cards, depending on the client. Its biggest segment, accounting for more than half of its revenue, caters to commercial fleet operators, from Enterprise’s truck rental unit to the federal government’s General Services Administration.

In its second-largest segment, Wex services corporate healthcare benefits clients, and its third segment, offering business-to-business payment services, historically focused on travel firms and has expanded to appeal to corporate customers generally. Wex also operates a bank.

The company’s profits have zig-zagged under Smith’s leadership, and moved into negative territory in 2020 during the pandemic. Last year, the company reported net income of $167.5 million, less than the $200 million it reported for 2014. Still, the company’s growth has also diversified the business.

“When I first joined the company, we had really one product — it was in the U.S.-only — and over time, those products have become much more tech-driven, much more data-driven, and so there’s been this evolution within the payments,” Smith said.

COVID-19’s jolt

That earnings call after the Lewiston shooting wasn’t the only time Smith was forced to plunge ahead with business in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime shock. In January 2020, before COVID-19 emerged as a pandemic, Wex agreed to pay $1.7 billion to acquire two business-to-business payments players, eNett and Optal, to add to its travel segment. Then, suddenly, the deadly coronavirus upended travel, undercutting the value of those businesses.

Smith, who took on the role of board chairperson in 2019, was suddenly trying to adapt Wex to the upheaval caused by COVID-19 as well as react to the devalued deal. The company decided to fight the terms of the agreement, and was sued.

“We were taking on something that was going to be super challenging,” said Susan Sobbott, a Wex director who joined the board in 2018. Smith and the company were “under extreme duress” over how to handle the acquisition, she said. Smith queried lawyers, exploring legal options, Sobbott said. Ultimately, Wex spent most of 2020 battling over the deal in U.K. court, eventually paying about a third of the initial asking price.


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