January 2021 marked the exciting start of a new term for PSI’s Board of Directors. We are conducting interviews with the Board members, delving into their backgrounds, personal and professional journeys, as well as their call to PSI and its mission to deliver consumer-powered healthcare.
Below, we talk with Byron Pollitt the former Chief Financial Officer of Visa Inc.
PSI: Let’s learn about Byron! We would love to hear about your background, your areas of expertise, and your professional journey.
BP: What did I want to be when I grew up? I had absolutely no idea. But I felt it was important to postpone making that decision and instead, experience different things. I started my career as a research analyst and then a management consultant, all with McKinsey. Then I ended up selling used furniture for a year at Sotheby’s and after that, I entered venture capital where I started new companies for five years, which was the hardest experience of my life.
Despite these diverse career experiences, I still felt hesitant about what career path to take. At McKinsey and in venture capital, I noticed that operators can be really superb at executing operations and visioning the future, but they often faced difficulties when it came to thinking about risk and justifying investment. I love numbers and operations – so, I eventually chose the path of an operating CFO, which means I learn the business from the ground up, study the risks and then I help operators develop financial perspectives to better balance opportunities with risk. I found an immense amount of fulfillment as a team member and partner helping operators become better general managers.
My very first CFO position was at the happiest place on earth: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. I still remember walking into my office for the first time and seeing this wonderful, impressive mountain range – Space Mountain, Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain – all visible from my office. I spent 13 years at Disney, first as the CFO of Disneyland, then CFO of all the theme parks for Disney worldwide.
I learned two guiding principles: first, teamwork. Disney theme parks could operate with such precision and so seamlessly because we operated as one team, from the ground up. And second, using metrics as our North Star. We had one single metric that we held dearer than anything else: the guest experience, or the “intent to return.” Across all our theme parks, our sole job was to deliver an amazing, memorable guest experience, based on understanding and measuring every aspect of the guest visit.
PSI does the same. PSI’s emphasis on its work – and the measurement of its work – immediately resonated with me. PSI is an organization focused on really understanding their “guest,” namely their consumers, Sara and Sam.
From Disney, I moved on to become the CFO of The Gap, as in t-shirts, jeans and chinos, where I truly learned the power of communicating and mobilizing all employees as a foundation for producing healthier financial outcomes. In my first month at The Gap, I ran a series of diagnostics to identify what we needed to do to turn operations around; I gave my presentation—appropriately called Turnaround Economics 101— at my first town hall and articulated four metrics we would use to track our progress: 1) close 500 underperforming stores; 2) improve markdown margins; 3) increase inventory turnover and 4) increase free cash flow and use to pay down debt.
I also gave our current performance letter grades – at that town hall, and at every town hall for a year. When I stopped giving grades, I got incredible blowback because, funny enough, everyone wanted the grades. That is when it really hit me how important and how powerful it is when people understand the financial side of an organization.
I then went on to become the CFO of Visa; within my first six months, we had to merge six companies together to form the Visa Inc. that we have today and then complete the single largest initial public offering, as measured by money-raised, in the history of the New York Stock Exchange.
That experience was the highlight of my professional career; it reminded me of something Winston Churchill said when he became War Prime Minister at the tender age of 65: “All my life has been but a preparation for this moment.” That is what Visa was for me. I had to draw upon every career experience I’d had…there is no substitute for experience. Experience is an amazing teacher, which is something I think about when I reflect on PSI: at 50 years old, PSI has so many invaluable lessons to share and acquired expertise and seasoned talent to draw upon. This was another reason I was drawn to PSI.
PSI: Speaking of your attraction to PSI, what was it about our work and mission that motivated you to join the Board?
BP: I volunteered for many years with the Red Cross; I had a colleague there named Kate Forbes who had suggested I audition to fill her spot as the PSI Board’s Audit Committee Chair. I ultimately said yes in 2019 because of a journey that started in 1984.
In the summer of ‘84, my wife and I were attending the last of our Lamaze classes – which help parents prepare for an in-the-room-together childbirth. As I reflected on the birth of our first child, I felt so blessed about starting a family, I thought about how I could give back. And as I was reflecting in Lamaze class, I noticed we were in the blood donation center of Huntington Memorial Hospital. Up to this point, I had never given blood before and decided to do so as a way of giving thanks. Every time you give blood, you can potentially save up to three lives. What an incredible gift that is.
Disneyland encouraged its executives to volunteer, so with my budding passion for giving blood, I naturally reached out and joined the Board of the American Red Cross’s Orange County Chapter. I served on the Bay Area Red Cross Board when we moved to San Francisco and then I became the American Red Cross nominee for the Finance Commission of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, where I served for four years. That is where I learned that the Red Cross is involved globally in many humanitarian efforts beyond disaster response, things like sanitation, vaccination and malaria prevention, and I began to learn the importance and challenges of delivering these vital services.
When my Red Cross colleague Kate Forbes introduced me to PSI, I saw the meaningful overlap between PSI’s work and my 20 years as a Red Cross volunteer. Joining the PSI Board would allow me to stay involved and deepen my understanding as an engaged humanitarian.
PSI: It is great that you feel inspired by PSI’s work. As you know, our approach is consumer-powered healthcare. What does that mean to you?
BP: From my perspective, it means enabling consumers to make informed choices about their health, leveraging the lower cost and broad reach of today’s technology. That lens is based on an experience that I had at Visa.
Around 2008, we were just getting started with making payments using our cell phone. At that time, I was constantly getting asked about this because it represented a future opportunity for growth but traction in the US was minimal. People would ask me where payments by phone are most advanced in the world and the answer was Kenya. Using an app called M-PESA, Vodafone and Safaricom – Kenya’s largest mobile network operator – had developed the world’s most advanced payment system by cell phone; they had leapfrogged technology. Instead of fiberoptic cable, which was not practical in most of Africa, they leveraged satellites instead. So many people around the world have access to cell phones, including a significant portion of the consumers PSI serves. The notion of supporting consumers to make informed choices and having the infrastructure to do it with a cellphone in their hand, is a key part of that business model. That makes so much of what we are aspiring to do with consumer-powered healthcare feasible in the present moment.
PSI: Speaking of the present moment, what are you looking forward to this year?
BP: Early in 2021, we had a PSI Board meeting that focused on strategy. There were two takeaways that have stayed with me. PSI’s Chief Delivery Officer Michael Holscher said that as PSI launched its updated strategy, PSI will seek to align to and help lead the wider global health trends into the future, including looking to localization as an opportunity. Starting in 2021, and the years beyond, I look forward to seeing PSI evolve its focus and to continue validating that the approaches we selected are indeed serving healthcare consumers and satisfying government partners and the donors who fund our programs. We recognize that when we advance our strategies, not everything is certain, but with a relentless focus on the metrics that matter, we will learn from our experience and support Sara in securing a brighter future for herself.
PSI: Let’s end on a light note! What is a fun fact about yourself that you’d like to share?
BP: As a CFO, I have always felt it was important to have a backup to my day job. While at Disneyland, I became a certified ride operator for Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. As a reward for completing my training on Space Mountain, we were allowed to ride that attraction with the lights on. If you think riding Space Mountain with the lights off is scary, I am here to tell you that with the lights on, it is terrifying. The combination of travelling at hyper-speed and perceiving really small clearances between the structure overhead and where you’re sitting was absolutely terrifying.
Oh and I also played a Disney character in the park – Goofy! At 6’3”, I am not a candidate for much else; it was a total hoot!