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.
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.
“Melissa is graceful under fire,” Sobbott said. “She’s incredibly hard-working, so you can see her exhaustion sometimes, but you never see her stress.” Smith doesn’t have to have all the answers because she’s very comfortable seeking input, whether from customers, employees or board directors, Sobbott said. In contrast to some male CEOs, Smith never has to prove she’s “the smartest person in the room,” she added.
Smith has aggressively pursued acquisitions to expand Wex, moving into a new payments realm shortly after she became CEO in 2014 by buying the healthcare benefits payments company Evolution1 for $532.5 million. It was Wex’s biggest acquisition to date at that time. The company doubled down on the strategy in July, purchasing the health and benefits unit of financial services company Ascensus for $180 million.
“I think it’s important to be willing to take risks in life,” Smith said in an interview that same month. She calls herself “an informed risk-taker.” Her acquisition agenda this year also included Wex agreeing last month to purchase the field service software provider Payzer for $250 million.
Not your typical accountant
Wex angled in a new direction last month when Smith announced the company would seek to invest $100 million in early-stage companies focused on the electric vehicle market. It will help Wex better understand the electric vehicle front and use that knowledge to the benefit of clients, and may even reveal new acquisition targets, she told analysts.
David Roux, co-founder of one of the largest technology investment firms in the world, Silver Lake Partners, praises Smith’s ability to anticipate where the industry is going.
Roux remembers meeting Smith at a cocktail party on the rooftop of Wex’s headquarters in a mix of business people, politicians and non-profit leaders. He found her relaxed and self-confident, not what he would have expected of someone with an accounting background, he said.
“She realizes that now any device you have — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a phone or a toy or a car — every device is now a computer, and every computer can be a payment terminal,” Roux said in an interview.
Growing up on a farm in Maine
While Smith had been an auditor at the accounting firm Ernst & Young before joining Wex, her first job was as a hay truck driver on her grandparents’ potato farm in Winn, Maine, a town of 400 people. Her mother and stepfather, along with their eight children, helped run the farm, she said.
Smith was never interested in farming as a career, but that childhood experience sparked her love of the outdoors, which led to her running habit as well as family skiing on the slopes at Sugarloaf, she said. Her family lives in Falmouth, just outside Portland, and is well-traveled, with a favorite spot for Smith being Australia.
Smith credits her mother for early inspiration, citing her master’s degree in mathematics and support of education. “She wanted her three daughters to be independent,” Smith said in the interview.
Smith followed her mother and grandmother’s footsteps to the University of Maine, where one of her professors told her she should consider a career in accounting, so she did, joining the firm now known as EY in 1991 after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Smith appreciated working for clients across a spectrum of industries so when an executive she met at a dinner one night suggested she interview at his company, Wright Express — Wex’s prior name — she wasn’t interested. But he persuaded her to meet with the company’s then-CEO, Paul Walsh, and he won her over, by telling her she could make a difference at Wex and be rewarded for her work, she said.
“I could see what I was going to do the rest of my career if I stayed in public accounting, or I could take a risk and go and work in an environment which was less known,” Smith said. The unknown drew her in, she said.
Building a career at Wex
She joined Wex as a manager of planning and analysis in 1997, and climbed, eventually becoming Wex’s chief financial officer in September 2001 and its president of the Americas a decade later in 2011.
After she became CEO in January 2014, another change was suddenly upon her. She became pregnant with her first child nine months later at the age of 45. It was so unusual for a publicly traded company to have a CEO become pregnant that her management team wondered whether it merited a regulatory disclosure. Today, she and her husband Brian Corcoran, who is CEO of the Portland, Maine-based marketing firm Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, have three children, including 6-year-old fraternal twins.
Her balancing act with family and C-suite duties has led her to bond with other female CEOs, she said. That includes car rental company Enterprise’s CEO Chrissy Taylor. In an interview, Taylor said Smith can rally employees to her vision, even when Wex is moving in a new direction, such as its embrace of electric vehicle technology. “Changing some of the business — some of the things that you’re doing — can feel scary for people,” Taylor said.
Indeed, Wex has had a strong track record of retaining talent in an industry that is notoriously inconsistent in doing so, said Darrin Peller, an analyst at Wolfe Research. He attributes that in large part to Smith’s leadership.
Faster growth remains a challenge
Peller also notes Wex’s attention to electrical vehicle investments is “a smart strategic CEO move” in light of the expected role that technology will play in the future. “It’s also a no-choice move to make,” he added.
That’s partly because competition is headed that direction, too. Wex’s Atlanta-based rival Fleetcor is preparing for an electric vehicle ecosystem as well.
Aside from keeping pace with rivals, tapping faster growth is key for Wex, given its core fuel card business is maturing, Peller said. It accounts for about 60% of revenue, he noted. “As much as it’s a good cash-generative business, it’s not going to continue to grow at the rate it did,” he said.
Wex’s healthcare benefits business generates about 25% of revenue, Smith said, while the corporate and travel services segment generates the remaining approximately 15%.
Wex’s healthcare business has provided for faster growth, Peller noted. “They’ve done a good job of investing in that category,” he said.
But the corporate and travel services arena is tougher, with some large corporate clients, like Expedia, imposing their pricing power, Peller said. Also, upstart rivals, such as Marqeta, are driving more competition, he added. Nonetheless, Wex should be able to capitalize on its extensive network of customers, he said.
As far as the future of payments, Smith sees artificial intelligence; the specialization of payments in verticals; and the digitization of payments as waves of the future. “We have a lot of customers who are not yet digitally enabled,” she said. “We feel like we can help create that capability.”