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Tips From The Top: One On One With Hikmet Ersek, President and CEO of Western Union

I spoke to Hikmet Ersek, President and CEO of Western Union, about his journey and his best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and advice. First things first, though, what is something about you that would surprise people?

Hikmet: During my university studies at Vienna University of Economics and Business, I was recruited to play semiprofessional basketball in Austria. I enjoyed my short career as an athlete and the experience travelling around Europe.

Adam: How did you become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company? What were the key steps along your journey?

Hikmet: After completing my degree, I began my career in financial services when I joined Europay/MasterCard in Austria in 1986. A decade later, I joined General Electric (GE) Capital, where I also represented the GE Corporation as the National Executive in both Austria and Slovenia.

Before joining Western Union, I was a customer, sending money to my father in Turkey so that he could purchase medicine. It was not easy for me to send money from Europe to Turkey. I knew that if I had an issue, that millions of customers likely had the same experience.

I joined Western Union in 1999 and held many executive positions that allowed me to travel throughout Asia and Europe, launching Western Union’s money transfer services in new countries, building that network of more than 200 countries and territories that we have today.

In January of 2010, I moved to Colorado to become the company’s chief operating officer. A few months later I was promoted to president and CEO. The biggest task that I had was transforming our vast global money transfer retail network for a digital future.  

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Hikmet: I am native in German and Turkish, and speak English fluently. I was born in Turkey; my mother is Austrian, and my father is Turkish. I am a migrant and draw on my international background in many ways.

My experiences have provided me with a personal understanding and cultural empathy for our diverse customers. Our senders and receivers are often on different continents and living in completely different economic, financial and technology ecosystems. Our global, cross-border platform is able to transcend these complexities in ways that no other single company can match, making it possible to send money easily across borders and currencies with a few clicks. At Western Union, cultural empathy is actually a trait that we screen for when making hiring decisions.

I also speak out publicly for the rights of migrants and refugees. As a group globally, migrants don’t have a constitution, a flag or a government, they have no voice – but they are important members of our communities. They do so much for their host countries and for the countries they came from.  

Adam: How does a company as old as Western Union cultivate a culture of innovation? Can you share insights on how Western Union has been able to adapt to major technological changes that have wiped out other companies?

Hikmet: We have an iconic brand and rich history – our story may have begun with telegrams – but now we have more than 168 years of innovation behind us. I like to say that we are 168 years young because we have a long track record for listening to our customers, transforming based on their needs and even disrupting ourselves.

Some of our innovations have profoundly affected U.S. and business culture. In 1861 we built the first telegraph line across the U.S., in 1914 we issued one of the first consumer charge cards, and in 1974 we launched the first domestic commercial satellite into orbit.

It’s in our DNA to be disruptive. We know that within disruption lie the seeds of a new opportunity.

We’re also a very different company than we were ten years ago. Seven years ago, we embarked on a digital transformation. Today, more than 70% of our digital transactions originate on mobile and our digital business has shown double-digit growth.

While we’re known for our iconic retail locations – more than all of Starbucks and McDonalds combined – we’re profoundly digital and the combination is what makes Western Union truly unique.

Today, we’re transforming again by opening our global, cross-border platform to companies like Amazon and Safaricom. With Amazon we’re powering a new way to pay, so people can shop globally online and complete their transaction locally. Beyond enabling cash payments, we’re also solving for complex foreign exchange and settlement challenges.

Our employees don’t think of Western Union as a remittance company anymore. We think of ourselves as a global, cross-border platform, and that’s exciting. This gives us new and incremental growth opportunities.

The world will continue to change rapidly, it is my job to see that Western Union evolves with it.

Adam: What is your philosophy on attracting or developing the right talent in your organization?

Hikmet: We are a globally minded, purpose driven company. Our employee base is just as global as our customers. We have approximately 12,000 employees who live and work in over 50 countries, speaking more than 37 different languages and dialects.

We look for global citizens who have a global mindset and diverse backgrounds to better manage the aspects of our business that cross borders and cultures. Our leaders bring both a global view AND deep international market experience. At Western Union we don’t just talk about diversity. It is a core value, and I believe diversity attracts diversity.

Adam: What are your thoughts on blockchain and bitcoin and where does Western Union fit in?

Hikmet: Western Union is one of the largest digital and physical money movers and we’re uniquely positioned to connect the cash and digital worlds across our global, cross-border platform, devices, borders and currencies. With access to billions of bank accounts and mobile wallets, and over half a million retail locations, we’re an ubiquitous on-ramp and off-ramp for global money movement.

Ultimately, currency is currency. If the regulatory controls, convenience and broad customer demand for digital currency were there, we could move quickly to incorporate it just like the 130 other currencies we support around the globe.

We’re evaluating crypto currency uses in our ecosystem and testing blockchain-related technologies on several fronts, including transaction processing, settlement, working capital optimization, reg-tech and digital identity. The scale and efficiency of our global, cross-border platform set a high bar, but we continue to explore whether these technologies could potentially reduce costs and improve the customer experience.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Hikmet: During the last 30 years of my career, I’ve traveled to more than 100 countries. I’ve learned to be open to new cultures, ideas, and traditions. You should put your feet in other people’s shoes and listen. If you listen to people, whether they are from Bangladesh or Brazil or Mexico or Russia, you learn from them.

You have to be open-minded to people’s needs and willing to step away from the perspective with which you see the world. Everyone has their opinions, their beliefs, their traditions, their ways of communicating. That’s what makes us different – and what keeps things interesting. It’s my role as a leader to always keep this in mind and remain open-minded.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Hikmet: To build effective teams, we must provide leaders with the framework and the tools to make change as easy as possible. If you empower your people to make decisions, you’ll be amazed by what they deliver. By empowering your team to also advise you, it builds trust.

Adam: What is your best advice for entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Hikmet: As a leader in a complex environment, it is important to keep things simple. If you have products and services that are too difficult to market and do not match customer needs, you will lose. My advice would be to create products and services that are simple for the customers. The communication and the marketing of products and services, whatever they are—spaceships, medicine, burgers or financial funds—have to be simple. The company’s vision and goals must be stated simply.

As a leader, you have a responsibility to speak up on issues, stand up for the people you serve and be accountable for your impact on society.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Hikmet: I have been supported throughout my career by leaders who have always encouraged me to try new things. If we’re not trying new things, we are standing still and that is not progress. It’s good to try new things and it’s ok to fail – but fail fast and grow from it.

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