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

Choose carefully, fail fast

By 2020, Alliance Data should have quadrupled in size, and under Miller’s leadership, it isn’t afraid of a contrarian approach.

For example, the company relies on the capabilities and data assets of its sister division, marketing firm Epsilon. Even though Wall Street initially hated the idea, Miller says Alliance Data pays the same price as every other customer, so it doesn’t have to wait in line.

“I’m glad we did it that way because we have the A team,” she says. “We get A team coaching and really extract a lot of value from that relationship.”

Alliance Data also adjusts under each growth plan.

“The actual partners we are engaging with are different,” Miller says. “Previously, if it was a moving, breathing, living brand, we were trying to become their partner.”

The company has learned to be deliberate, which has led to some strategic nonrenewals when, for example, Alliance Data and a client don’t place the same value on a loyalty program.

“We want Toyota to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to launch a new Camry. Get the folks from Alliance Data in here. It has nothing to do with the card program, but we want their point of view on consumer behavior,” Miller says.

The company also learned valuable lessons from one of its most progressive customers, Wayfair.

“They have helped us to hone our skills at fail fast, fail cheaply and get out. That really is their whole culture,” Miller says. “They have helped us improve our tolerance for making mistakes. In fact, I think they have an idea that is brilliant. They have the award for the best worst idea.”

The need to choose customers carefully and fail fast is especially meaningful when Miller remembers how Alliance Data targeted specialty markets like dental and elective medical. It discovered a company with 1,000 branches, which acted like 1,000 franchises, was too unwieldy.

“I waited too long before I said this thing’s not scalable,” she says. “We did it for three years and I should have called it after year two. I was clouded by the fact that it was printing money. But if you get back to, ‘Don’t stop trying until you’re proud,’ I would have run the company into the ground trying to be proud of that.”

Miller has gotten better at those calls — when 50 percent of the room wants to hold on.

“That’s one of the greatest gifts that leaders can put forth: Know what to do, know what not to do, and don’t try to do 50 things and advance four things,” Miller says. “Every year, we launch our four imperatives. Now, that doesn’t mean we only do four things, but the decisions that we make need to fit within one of the four categories, or we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

Leadership growth

Miller isn’t the only one who has grown into her role. Her team has done the same with training, focus and a disciplined, thorough annual SWOT analysis.

“We sit in that room and we are very honest when the emperor is not wearing any clothes,” Miller says.

It can be challenging, however, to always be changing — to continue to be the disruptor — when the employees don’t see something as broken. This only gets harder, the more successful and larger the company grows. But the answer comes down to leadership.

“For me, leadership is when companies fail,” she says. “It’s usually not the business plan because your strategy can be wrong. You can have a strategy that’s a bad one because you can fix it. But you cannot have lazy or ineffective leadership. You just can’t. That’s when companies get killed.”