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August 6, 2012

Driving performance | Melissa Smith, Wright Express Corp.

photo/TIM GREENWAY
photo/TIM GREENWAY
Melissa Smith, president of The Americas at Wright Express in South Portland, presides over the company's biggest division

VIEW: Women to Watch 2012: Melissa Smith

Wright Express Corp. 225 Gorham Road, South Portland

Founded: 1983

Products: Fleet prepaid and corporate payment solutions

Employees: Total: 917; in Maine: 606

Annual revenue: $553 million

Contact: 773-8187 www.wrightexpress.com

IN HER OWN WORDS

What was the biggest challenge of your career? Taking the company public start to finish in five months.

When did you know you'd made it? I don't think I ever want to feel like I've made it. However, a stand-out moment was standing on the floor of the NYSE the first day our stock traded.

What advice do you wish you'd been given early in your career? Find people who emulate how you want to live, surround yourself with them and treat them well.

I'll relax when ….? I don't think business is about relaxing. I relax when I run, when I travel or when I'm with people I love.

What was your “Haven't we moved beyond this?” moment? I still get butterflies before big events. It is a very alive feeling that I don't mind, but it surprises me.

Professional services

Melissa Smith

President of The Americas, Wright Express

Melissa Smith doesn't hesitate when asked about her goals as Wright Express' president of The Americas, a position created in 2011 that puts her in charge of 85% of the company's business. "We want to double the business every five years," she says, matter-of-factly yet well aware of how challenging that is when her company earned $553 million last year.

That's because she's paid her dues, steadily working her way up the corporate ladder since joining Wright Express Corp. in 1998. Her experience includes leadership roles in finance, operations, information technology and business development. As senior vice president/finance and CFO from 2001-2007, she successfully oversaw Wright Express' bid to become a publicly traded company — a high-stakes initiative with a tight five-month time frame and the added pressure of knowing at least two companies were positioning themselves to snatch up Wright Express if its IPO effort failed.

From November 2007 to April 2011, moving up to CFO and executive vice president of finance and operations, her accomplishments included developing sophisticated financial models to better analyze the company's business operations. That continues to be important, especially given the fierce competition the company faces in its core business of providing payment-processing services designed for industries with fleets of vehicles. In recent years, it has made acquisitions to grow its business beyond fleet services, expanding into the pay-day card, corporate travel and consumer travel payment-processing markets.

"We're quietly ambitious here," Smith says, sitting in the well-lit fourth-floor conference room at Wright Express' elegantly landscaped headquarters in South Portland. "We have a strong desire to be market leaders, whatever the market or niche we happen to be in."

Founded in 1983, Wright Express Corp. employs more than 900 people, with 600 of them working in Maine. As president of The Americas division, Smith and her team are charged with making sure all of the products and services provided to Wright Express customers in the United States, Canada and Latin America are compatible with the company's new and growing international division. Keeping the core business growing while making sure it effectively and efficiently supports the international division, she says, is obviously a team effort.

"It takes a lot of communication, a lot of debate," she says, noting that part of her job involves picking people of different skills and backgrounds to work together on specific challenges and encouraging lively debate. Diversity of viewpoints is an essential component of Wright Express' success, she says, largely because the problems to be solved rarely have just one right answer.

Smith says her leadership style involves creating a high-level focus on solutions, encouraging the "right level of tension" among disparate points of view to generate creative ideas and then deftly guiding the group to formulate a plan to get the job done.

"It's kinetic," she says. "I'm trying to draw people out in the right way … it creates energy."

Smith says taking on ever-greater levels of responsibility "every couple of years" at Wright Express has taught her the wisdom of "leaning into your fear" — a process that involves immersing herself in the challenges of a new job and learning everything she can, while being respectful of the market, customers and fellow employees who already are engaged in what, for her, is a new environment.

"It's important to be confident, but it's also important to acknowledge that you don't know all the answers," she says, suggesting that a major component of corporate leadership is "making sure you are surrounded by the right kind of people."

Smith is reluctant to single out any one person as her mentor, saying there are "so many" she would hate to inadvertently leave someone out. But she credits her mom, who early on told her, "It's more important to be smart than to be pretty," and a professor at the University of Maine, who encouraged her to focus on accounting as she pursued her bachelor's degree in business administration and assured her it was possible to have "fun" even in the most challenging situations.

"There are so many people you meet in life who teach you," she says. "It's one of the blessings of life."

Growing up on a small farm in the Penobscot County town of Winn, population 420, gave her core values that set a strong foundation for all that she's accomplished since graduating from college, she says. There was no gender-based division of labor for Smith and her two sisters … or her parents, who worked outside the farm during the day and shared farming responsibilities when they got home

"We grew oats, we grew potatoes, we brought in hay," she says. "Growing up in a small town teaches you to be 'limitless' … you have to fill so many roles. I could play soccer, be a cheerleader and compete on the math team."

Having a strong work ethic and knowing the value of teamwork, Smith acknowledges, served her well during the intense five-month effort she led to make Wright Express a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange in February 2005. "It was a pretty small team," she says. "Everything we did was confidential. Everything was a 'fire drill.' We accomplished a tremendous amount of work in a short amount of time."

Becoming a publicly traded company, she says, enables Wright Express to control its own destiny — something that senior leadership valued highly during the months leading up to the NYSE listing. It gives employees greater ownership of the company's growth and financial performance; they can see, Smith says, "a direct line of what's being done in their daily work" to the company's bottom line.

At the same time, giving back to the community is important to Smith. She serves on the Center for Grieving Children's board of directors, is co-founder of the Executive Women's Forum, volunteers for the Maine Cancer Foundation's Tri for a Cure, and helped create sheJAMs, an organization bringing together women of all ages and abilities who enjoy being active. In that arena, Smith doesn't just "walk the walk" — she's a serious triathlete and marathon runner, with Boston, New York and the Disney marathon races among her credits.

It's a full life, and she takes seriously the responsibility that comes with being a leader in a growing Maine company. "What are we doing to create opportunities for our children, nieces and nephews?" she says of the overriding challenge facing Wright Express and other Maine businesses.

Early in her career as a public accountant, Smith says she learned that while the numbers are important, ultimately they point to the underlying story of people working together to achieve a common good. That's one tenet she brings to her new job. The other is a lesson in taking personal responsibility, whatever the situation, and not waiting for someone else to come up with the 'right answer.'

"Don't ever presume someone else has it all figured out," she says.

To register for a Sept. 20 reception honoring Melissa Smith and the other Women to Watch, click here.

Read more

WEX Inc. names Melissa Smith president

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Profitable patterns | Pam Allen, Quince & Co.

Fixing health care | Lisa Letourneau, Maine Quality Counts

Climbing success | Carolyn Brodsky, Sterling Rope

Research rainmaker | Blaine Grimes, Gulf of Maine Research Institute

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