Wex CEO Melissa Smith Shows Diversity Is Good Business

Wex (WEX) helps companies manage expenses and payments. So it’s fitting that on a personal level, Wex CEO Melissa Smith sees her job as paying it forward.


Smith reminds herself daily that decisions she makes affects many. “I feel a sense of responsibility on a daily basis to all my stakeholders,” Smith, 51, told Investor’s Business Daily. “How our business performs impacts thousands of lives at Wex and their families,” she said.

Smith takes stock of her performance every day. It’s a motivational tool that sharpens her focus and helps her assess whether she’s leading the company along the right path.

“Thinking about the impact my decisions have on the success of our business, and subsequently the legacy I will leave, keeps me motivated every day,” she said.

Deliver Results Like The Wex CEO

Judging from the company’s performance since Smith became Wex CEO in January 2014, her decisions have been right on the money.

Since Smith took the helm, revenue has more than doubled to $1.7 billion in 2019. After going through a rough patch in 2016, when earnings slipped in three of the four quarters, earnings have been growing at a rapid clip.

Adjusted net income per share hit $9.20 a share in 2019, doubling since 2014. And Wex’s stock is up 112% through 2019, topping the S&P 500’s 75% rise.

See The Bigger Opportunity

Smith’s acquisition strategy is powering growth. Her plan transformed Wex from just a fleet and fuel card provider to a top financial payments service provider across travel, corporate payments and health care. Wex payments cards and technology help companies monitor and track spending.

Smith joined Wex in 1997 as a senior financial analyst. She worked up through numerous roles, including chief financial officer during the company’s IPO in 2005. Smith served as president of the Americas from October 2011 to 2013, just prior to taking the helm. She added the title of chair to CEO in September 2019.

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And during her rise, Smith found success seeing how diverse perspectives lead to better solutions.

Wex CEO: Allow Teammates To Disagree

Smith supports a “balance of creative conflict” for people on her leadership team. Teammates should question one another where appropriate. Suggesting alternatives in serious discussions spurs better decisions, she says.

To help this happen, Smith hires people who bring diversity in thinking to her leadership team. Her team members have different backgrounds. Some are from small companies and some are from large ones. Over half were born outside of the U.S.

“They have incredibly different perspectives,” said Smith. “What I’m trying to do is bring out the best in the people on the team, and give them the ability to bring their own perspective and create clarity around decision making. I like that tension.”

Applaud Individual Effort Within A Group

Wex’s culture reflects Smith’s approach. The company’s culture focuses on individuality and participation. Her message: “It’s not just what you do, but how you do it.”

It’s a culture of giving back to the community, too. To serve that purpose, Wex formalized inclusive community groups within the company called Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

ERGs connect people across Wex with shared interests, cultures, identities and backgrounds. Examples include NexGen, a community of early-career professionals, and WexPride, committed to serving and empowering Wex’s LGBTQ+ community.

Lasting relationships with customers are also cherished. That enables the company to win new business and contract renewals, says Smith.

Bob Napoli, head of financial tech equity research at William Blair scores Smith highly for her leadership approach.

“She’s a good team builder and very focused on the long term and making sure the company is investing for the long term,” said Napoli, who has known Smith for more than 10 years. “They do not skimp on investing for long-term growth.”

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Bring Childhood Lessons To Work

Life lessons Smith learned growing up in the small town of Winn, Maine forged her leadership style and cultural values. Her family was poor. And her divorced mother raised three kids. Some families in the town lacked running water.

“That was my grounding,” said Smith. “In all of my life it was clear there’s a difference in what you need and what you want.”

Her mother, a strong independent woman, was her first role model. She shaped Smith’s leadership style, competitive attitude and drive.

Divorced at age 30 while raising three daughters, Smith’s mother’s “saving grace” was her independence, says Smith.

“She told us to be persistent and she herself was persistent about us being independent,” said Smith. She downplayed how we looked and she up-played the opportunities for us in life.”

“The biggest thing she taught me is that life is not easy,” Smith said. “She had high standards and that education was important for her three daughters.”

Smith’s mother had a career and was well educated. She graduated from college at age 19, and has a master’s degree in math. Smith kept to her mother’s standards and earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Maine.

“She pushed us to push ourselves,” said Smith.

Be Uncomfortable To Grow

Pushing yourself, though, takes courage to deal with the risk of failure. “It’s important to be in a position to be uncomfortable,” said Smith.

“When I was given opportunities, I’d say ‘yes,'” Smith said. “I didn’t always have a clear background in what was being asked, but I told myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that will happen? I should really try.'”

New opportunities, then, opened up.

Find A Bigger Platform For Your Strengths

Reducing volatility in the business is a key part of long-term success, says Smith.

Through acquisitions, Smith led Wex’s expansion into more complex and global businesses. The company’s own long-term organic revenue growth rate has been 8% to 12%. The rate has been 10% to 15% including acquisitions.

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“She’s been very steadfast around those metrics,” said analyst Napoli. “Her leadership skills show in the fact they’ve been able to retain the senior leadership in the acquired companies to a much greater extent than in the past because it’s viewed as an attractive long-term focused culture.”

Put People First Like Wex CEO

Focusing on people makes business sense to Smith. “For me, it’s all about the people. I take the most satisfaction in creating and maintaining a great corporate environment in the midst of all our growth,” she said.

“The employees have created a community with customers and one another, and a sense of connectedness,” she said.

And part of this connection yields good advice for women in leadership, too.

“There is inherently a negative voice that runs in your head,” she said of many female leaders. “One of the tricks to success is learning how to shut that down. If you have it running in the back of your head, it’s not helpful.”

Wex CEO Melissa Smith’s Keys

  • CEO of the fast growing corporate card payment and processing service company since January 2014. Oversaw strategy that transformed Wex from just a fleet and fuel card provider to a payments processor across many sectors.
  • Overcame: Challenges involved with diversifying into new markets through acquisitions, including safeguarding the culture.
  • Lesson: “When I was given opportunities, I’d say ‘yes.’ A lot of the opportunities were things people didn’t want to do.”


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