Visa is one of those companies that are both everywhere and nowhere at once.
The backbone of much of the world’s payments infrastructure, Visa’s logo adorns countless credit cards and shop windows around the world. Yet as ubiquitous as the company is, it has no direct consumer relationships.
Visa’s chief executive, Al Kelly, fits a similar mold, wielding significant influence without ever vying for attention.
A longtime executive at American Express, Mr. Kelly left when it became clear he wasn’t going to get the C.E.O. job anytime soon. He went on to run the host committee for Super Bowl XLVIII — overseeing preparations for the 2014 game in New Jersey — and took time to care for his daughter during an illness. (She’s better now.)
In 2016, Mr. Kelly became chief executive of Visa, where he had been serving as a board member. There, Mr. Kelly is navigating a payments ecosystem being roiled by online entrants and cryptocurrency, while trying to keep Visa disentangled from political disputes — including the debate over gun sales.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Visa’s office in New York City.
What was your childhood like?
I was the oldest of seven children. It’s always extremely hectic. A lot of who I am today was shaped by that, being the oldest. You learn a sense of responsibility fairly quickly. I have five kids myself, and once you move past two, you’ve got to move to a zone defense.
What was your first job?
As soon as I turned 12, I got a newspaper route that had 75 houses, which was huge. You had to front the money for the papers, so I would meet a guy on a street corner in his car on Saturday at 8 a.m. and pay him for 75 papers. Having the paper route forced me to be really focused when it came to schoolwork. And I think similarly as you go through life: Stay busy. It forces all kinds of discipline, which I think is always a good thing.
And then I went on to my first glamorous summer job: cleaning the bathrooms at Playland amusement park.
You’re very involved with the Catholic Church. Does that help you at work?
It gives me time and space away from work. I think I’m a better C.E.O., and a better person, if Visa doesn’t completely consume my life. And I believe that of everybody, which is why I preached internally that I want people to have balance in their lives. We all need a little bit of perspective and space and time to get away and think about things. I do a lot of my best thinking about the business when I’m on vacation.
Your first corporate job was at Pepsi. What did you do there?
I started there in 1981, the same year the first IBM PC came out. Back then I was probably considered a bit of a tech nerd, having gotten my degree in computer science. John Sculley was then president of Pepsi-Cola, and he took a real interest in Apple. He asked me to teach him how to use the first Macintosh, and I taught him VisiCalc, which was spreadsheet software, the Excel of today. I didn’t really understand why he was interested. Then he announced that he was going to run Apple.
How did you wind up working at the White House?
When President Reagan won re-election in 1984, Don Regan moved from being secretary of the Treasury to chief of staff. Regan, having come from Merrill Lynch and the business world, said, “Wow, the White House is much bigger than I thought, and I don’t know that it’s operating the way I would expect an organization of that size to operate.” So supposedly, for the first time in the White House history, they hired a search firm.
The search firm’s task was to go find a number of young people who could help run the administrative and operational side of the White House. The search firm called me numerous times about a job in Washington, but wouldn’t tell me what it was, and I kept saying no. Finally, they said, “Look, it’s a job at the White House.” I went down, was interviewed twice at the White House, and was then offered the job to run technology. I was 27 years old.
What did “technology” mean back then?
It meant moving from word-processing machines to PCs. There were several mainframe systems that kept track of things like the president’s correspondence, and anybody who would be sending résumés in for presidential appointments. We put in the email system that became famous because of the Iran-contra affair, where Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and Oliver North and others unfortunately documented in emails things they were doing. I think it will go down in history as the first case of people saying, “Oh my God, these emails are kept.”
Were you running a larger team at the White House?
I had a staff of probably 60 to 70 people. At Pepsi, I might have reached a point where I was managing a group of about four or five people. It was a big step. When you manage a team of four or five, you’ve got to be a player-coach. As you then take a step to managing, say, a team of less than 100 but more than 10, you have to start really figuring out how to provide a vision of what you’re trying to do — delegate work properly, make sure that the proper review mechanisms are in place, and motivate and communicate with people.
Why did you leave the White House?
I had taken a pay cut to work in the White House, and every year the differential between what I could make in the private sector was getting greater. Our oldest son was born in May of ’87, and people said, “By the time he’s 18, college is going to cost between $180,000 and $200,000.” I said, “I gotta get a job where I can save.”
You ultimately wound up at American Express and had a bunch of different roles. Which ones stand out?
I was Ken Chenault’s chief of staff at the time he was the president of the U.S. card business, and then I became the head of marketing for the gold and platinum cards, as well as the first loyalty program. When I had that job, the rap on me was: Do I delegate enough?
Are you a micromanager?
I didn’t think I was, but I expected work to be done in a high-quality way, and I was into the details. There’s no question about that. I managed 150 people, and could never have done all their jobs. But the rap was the rap. I said, “Well, I want to fix that.” And I ended up taking a job running one of the biggest marketing jobs in terms of people. I had about 300 or 350 people. That got rid of this stigma that I might not delegate enough.
Why did you leave Amex? Had you hoped to succeed Ken as C.E.O.?
At some point I would have hoped to succeed him, but he did stay for a long time. It was a very tough call. I had been there 23 years. It was incredibly pivotal in my professional development. But what ended up happening was that I left Amex on Friday, April 10, 2010. And that Monday, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. That became my job. And that was my 100 percent focus. She’s doing great today.
What’s Visa’s role at a moment when there are so many payment options, from PayPal to cryptocurrency?
We work closely with PayPal and we compete with PayPal. It’s an industry that is full of frenemies. My view on this is simple: We should talk to everybody. We should assume everybody can be additive to the payments ecosystem, and talk about how we can work together, as opposed to just assuming people are disruptive or assuming they’re an enemy.
Some companies, such as Apple, have decided to be more assertive in determining what people can and can’t do on their platforms. How do you think about that issue?
We are in the business of facilitating legal commerce. That’s what we do. Our job is not to set or interpret, but to follow the law. The minute we don’t, it will become an extraordinarily slippery slope. If you take the issue of guns, for instance, which is not only the law of the land but it’s one of the amendments of the Constitution, there probably is no more divisive issue in the country.
Our job is not to be dividing the country. Our job is not to lecture people about what to do or what to buy. And the minute you give on guns, then what about soda? What about fur coats? What about birth control pills? What about? What about? What about?
We have 500-plus legislators at the federal level. They come to work and get paid every day to set the laws of the land. There’s probably many things that can be done to improve the gun situation in the United States. They should get on the case.