Payments people: Mark Gerban
Payments people is our regular interview series, where we chart the careers of successful payments and product leaders. We discuss the experiences that have shaped them and hear their tips for navigating a career in payments.
This week, we’re chatting to Mark Gerban, payments and strategy lead, a true payments generalist and technologist, who has worked for the likes of Apple and Trust Payments. In addition to an 18-year payments career, Mark was previously an elite-level rower. He grew up in the US and went on to represent Palestine at the 2005 World Rowing Championships, achieving the country’s best ever result.
In his interview, we explore what it was like to work at Apple, how payments have changed throughout his career, as well as how his inability to accept the status quo has helped him better understand the complex world of payments.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your career in payments.
In my past life as a rower I spent a lot of time in Germany, so when I retired from competition I decided to settle down there. One day, not long after moving, I was in a supermarket. I tried to buy something and — of course — my card decided not to work. There were about 15 people behind me, it was super embarrassing, and I eventually had to leave my trolley full of groceries behind.
That was my first eye-opener to the fact that this thing we take for granted, paying for stuff, has a habit of breaking quite abruptly. I went into a career in consulting, and I slowly pivoted into the world of payments. Over the last 18 years or so I’ve worked for payment service providers, acquirers, issuers and the merchants themselves. I now spend a lot of my time thinking about how payments and commerce can be better embedded in the car-driving experience.
One of your roles was at Apple. It must have been fascinating to work for one of the most innovative brands on the planet.
One of the first things I recognised starting at Apple was that you're surrounded by the most competent and amazing individuals that you could ever hope to work with. I also noticed on day one that when you ask someone a question — instead of getting a two-second answer — they either go into great detail in their response or they really are interested in helping you figure the answer out.
I worked a lot on alternative payments, as part of the App Store experience. The thing that stays with me is just how much time, effort, analysis and expertise a brand like Apple will put in, so they can better understand their consumers.
How have you seen the payments industry change since you started out in 2005?
There has indeed been a massive shift in payments, especially in merchant adoption of new and innovative payment methods. The bigger behavioural shifts we’ve seen from consumers have come about because of external factors, like COVID-19 or major governmental interventions.
For example, pre-COVID-19, Germany was a very cash-centric society. But when the pandemic came along, people were scared to use physical notes, so we saw a major move toward digital payment methods.
A business that doesn’t strive to move forward will stagnate. If a business doesn’t have the fire or the passion to improve, it will eventually be overtaken.
I’ve also noticed just how attitudes on payments have become so starkly different depending on where you are in the world. The US is still behind on security standards, while Europe has much better security, but a lot of the banking institutions are still very old-fashioned. In China, they're already testing a truly digital currency.
Finish this sentence: payments are done right when…
When they successfully gain customer adoption. And to do that, they need to be seamless, secure and easy.
When payments are seamless, the customer doesn’t need an explanation for how they work. In Europe, popular payment methods are already pretty secure, but customers also need to believe the payment method is safe. And when payments are easy, my kids could successfully use the payment method without any input from me.
How far away are we from that vision?
In Europe, at least, it’s the ‘seamless’ element where we have the most work to do. For example, I think online bank transfers are a great — yet cumbersome — payment method. That’s not the fault of the merchants who offer it, because it’s simply the way the banks work. And I know TrueLayer is working hard to transform instant bank transfers with the help of open banking.
But in China, for example, anyone can take out their phone, present a dynamic and secure QR code, present it, pay for their goods and be done. Manual bank transfers involve four or five different steps.
We need to consider how we can make bank transfers truly seamless. We could use — for example — bank-linked decoupled cards to lower the cost of card payments. That’s just one idea, but we need a truly seamless payment option in Europe.
I know you’ve also got a lot to say on the convergence of payments and the automobile industry, too. What should we look out for?
Navigational commerce has been attempted several times already, but the industry is finally starting to see successful commerce, monetisation and payment journeys as part of the driving experience. Most modern vehicles have an app section buried somewhere in the console screen. How often are drivers actually going to use that? So far, vehicle makers have failed to address this fundamental problem.
The one area where I’ve seen commerce embedded successfully in the driving experience is as part of the satnav. That’s why I’m referring to the idea as ‘navcommerce’. Imagine someone driving. They might see something as simple as a car park or petrol station appearing on the satnav, and those listings can be ads. That’s intuitive and useful while driving.
And this is where payments come in. How can we make the existing payment experiences today more practical, especially when you consider that traditional multi-factor authentication isn’t going to work when you’re driving? This will be a big focus area for the automobile industry over the next few years.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read that’s helped you in your career?
For my core payments knowledge, I spend more time reading newsletters, industry publications and attending conferences. I use books to inspire creativity.
One that stands out is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Without spoiling it for anyone else, it taught me that while it’s safe to stay in your comfort zone, you need to break out of that zone to reach your true potential. In payments, I see people who stay on one path for their whole career. They know a lot about acquirers, for example, but don’t know much about merchants. Eventually, you will hit a ceiling, which you need to break out of to keep moving forward.
I’m not a guy who can be complacent. I respect that the world of payments is complex. I work within that world. But if it can be improved I want to be a catalyst to get there.
I’ve tried to keep this in mind in my career. I’ve worked in nearly every area of payments and filed 26 patents, which I was only able to do by gaining a deep understanding of how technologies and processes work. It’s helped me build better products and work more effectively with customers.
What motivates you in your career?
I’m not a guy who can stand being complacent. I respect the world of payments is complex, but I want to constantly challenge the status quo for the better. It gives me a special energy to figure out how technology works and how the customer experience can always be improved.
I would not thrive in a business-as-usual scenario. Without pushing myself to learn more and improve, I’d feel stagnant. I think the same exact logic applies to payment businesses. A business that doesn’t strive to move forward will stagnate. If a business doesn’t have the fire or the passion to improve, it will eventually be overtaken. I think the athlete in me has probably shaped that mindset.
What has been the best piece of advice you’ve received, which you would give to someone starting out in payments today?
First, I’d advise anyone to learn as much as you can about how payments actually work. If you’re trying to understand how to communicate, sell, explain or improve any aspect of payments, you need to appreciate the inner mechanisms.
Similarly, someone at Apple once told me to simply sit back and listen. These two pieces of advice go hand-in-hand. You need to understand what’s happened before and why certain problems were addressed in a particular way. Soaking all that information in, along with a hunger to understand the world of payments, will put you in the very best position to make a difference, regardless of your role at an organisation.
What’s your biggest prediction for payments in the next five years?
I mentioned navcommerce before, and I’ll make my prediction in that space. We have to remember that you can’t simply map a smartphone experience to the car-driving experience. It’s taken a while for car brands to realise that. But with that realisation, I do believe the average driver will start to see commerce and payment experiences when in their car. And those experiences will be much more intuitive to how we actually drive our cars.
Want more insights from payment leaders in ecommerce? Read our Payments people interview with Colleen Graneto of Airbnb.