DU Alumni

Alumnus Joe Saunders led Visa through ‘historic evolution’

Joe Saunders retired from his position at Visa in April and will focus on his other roles, including chair of Teach for All, an organization working to expand educational opportunities worldwide. Photo courtesy of Visa

Joe Saunders hasn’t had it easy for the past six years.

As CEO and executive chairman of Visa Inc., Saunders led the global electronic-payments network through what he calls “an historic evolution of payments” made even more difficult by the recent financial crisis and ongoing federal regulations.

He led Visa through the most transformative years in the company’s history, changing the way hundreds of millions of cardholders pay for everything from college tuition and vacations to a cup of coffee. Among his biggest successes: merging Visa’s six independent regional associations into one big company and in 2008 pulling off the then-largest IPO in U.S. history. (The company’s stock price grew by more than 250 percent under Saunders’ leadership.)

It’s no wonder the 67-year-old is ready for a break. Saunders (BSBA ’67, MBA ’68) retired from his position in April and will focus on his other roles, including chair of Teach for All, an organization working to expand educational opportunities worldwide by enlisting future leaders to the effort.

The Chicago native — who has spent most of his career in the credit card industry — leaves behind a tenure that’s earned high marks from analysts and colleagues.

“We think of ourselves not as successful or leading an industry, which we do, but we think of ourselves as a company that desperately is searching for a way to do it better and a way to change,” Saunders says.

For him, the real accomplishment of Visa is “maintaining the notion that we are who we are and succeeding every year thereafter. We are not a flash in the pan.”

That success came not only despite the recession and continuing sluggish economy, but also despite federal regulations that effectively cap how much Visa can make on millions of transactions.

At a time of slowing consumer spending and bank consolidation, Saunders worked hard to make sure Visa continued turning a profit. Revenues from the fast-growing debit-card market helped, as did growth outside the United States, Saunders says.

“We’re liable to be doing somewhat better even if the economy isn’t,” Saunders says. “I can’t tell you that I’ve enjoyed the economy, or legislation and oversight of financial institutions. It’s hard; it’s difficult. We’ve had to work hard to be as successful as we have, and that’s a tribute to all of the people who work at Visa.”

But perhaps closest to Saunders’ heart has been promoting financial literacy to people all over the world. Teaching people from high school and college students to employees about the basics of money — what is it, how do you use it responsibly, how do you invest it — has been a huge priority for the company that manages credit, debit and prepaid cards.

“It’s a quite fulfilling thing, and frankly it’s a smart thing economically,” Saunders says. “The more engaged they are, the more financially literate they are, and those things go together.”

Saunders is quick to give credit to DU, where he admits he didn’t start off as a “ball of fire.” Instead he found himself looking up to the motivated people who surrounded him. “I was fortunate to be around a lot of people with the notion of continuing education after you got a degree, which was a very important thing,” he says. “I was around people who took themselves seriously. It was an incredibly enlightening experience. I enjoyed the people who were there with me, the people who taught me, and they prepared me to be what I became.”

“People ask me how they should act when they start out in business, and I think it’s important when you go to work somewhere to listen, to learn, to pay attention and to take initiative whenever you can. Don’t just wait to be told what to do,” he says. “Take an idea and work hard on it. And I brought that with me from Denver.”

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