Alliance Data kicks into high gear under Melisa Miller’s leadership

 

Melisa Miller’s career has taken her from emptying ashtrays to serving as president of Alliance Data’s card services business, one of the fastest-growing companies that few people have heard of.

“We support the brands whose names are on the front of the credit cards. So, if you were to walk down any mainstream mall, roughly one in every three brands that you would see are our iconic brand partners,” she says.

As the brand behind the brand, Alliance Data manages credit cards for Lane Bryant, Meijer, Pier1 Imports and others, engendering customer loyalty in 47 million cardholders. It also acts like Switzerland — each brand only sees the data for its brand.

Since she assumed her role in 2011, Miller has helped triple the subsidiary of Alliance Data Systems, a $7.8 billion public company out of Texas, where she’s also an executive vice president. When she applied for the job, the chairman asked her why ADS shouldn’t sell the division off.

Miller replied: “Because we’ve never really given ourselves a chance to be successful.”

Today, Alliance Data employs 9,000 people, which includes approximately 4,500 Ohioans, with 1,700 of those at its new headquarters near Easton. The division accounts for 70 percent of the overall company’s profits, with more than $4.5 billion in annual revenue.

It’s a far cry from pouring coffee and emptying ashtrays at a credit bureau. As a senior secretary in 1984, Miller had the cleanest ashtrays in the office. She rose through the ranks of TRW, which became Experian, in sales and marketing for the next 20 years.

Then, Miller found her second employer, which was once the financial arm of Limited credit services.

“Alliance Data was actually one of my clients, so when a recruiter called in 2006, I thought it would be really impolite if I don’t go on the job interview,” she says. “I didn’t have a resume, and it was just really serendipitous.”

Organized, focused and relentless

After six years as senior vice president and chief client officer, Miller took charge at Alliance Data. She wanted to shake up the company, which was comfortable with the status quo.

“We believe high-growth companies have to double in size every five years, and so our plan always keeps us on that path,” Miller says.

The first plan was simple and clear. Everyone knew what had to be done. Once the company doubled in size in three years, it set off on the next plan.

Miller believes any task can be accomplished with organization and a clear destination.

“We want to be the only partner on whom our brands need to rely for their marketing needs. We’re clear about that. We want to be the obvious employer of choice for our associates,” she says. “So, if you are clear about where you are going and you are organized about how you get there, you don’t become overwhelmed.”

This point hit home years ago when Miller was organized at work, but not personally.

She cleaned out her purse and found a paycheck for $384. It could no longer be cashed, even though she was eating popcorn for dinner and worried about putting gas in her car.

“I was too embarrassed to go to my employer and say I was so unorganized that this check was stuffed in the bottom of my purse with makeup all over it,” Miller says.

Today, her purse is organized with military precision.

Clarity was also essential when developing Alliance Data’s go-to-market promise. When you have to rally 9,000 employees around more than 150 brands, it needs to be simple. Miller says the test was to find something that could go on the back of an M&M. “Know more, sell more” is tight, but it fits.

The company also followed a NASA-like approach. In the 1960s, if you asked any NASA employee why the agency existed, he or she would say, “I exist to put a man on the moon.”

“We would like to believe that if you walked into any of our 14 sites across the U.S., whether it’s a customer care associate on the phone or a safety services professional, they would say we exist to help our partners know more about their customers so that they can sell more,” she says.