Fintech executive Jeff Yabuki recently spoke about his career and formative life experiences to an audience of Lubar College of Business students in the Great Journeys Inspirational Series, sponsored by the M&I Center for Business Ethics.
Yabuki served as CEO of Fiserv Inc. from December 2005 to May 2020. During his tenure, the organization evolved from a traditional holding company into a unified, global leader in financial services and innovative payments technology.
He is currently the chairman of Motive Partners, a specialist private equity firm focused on control-oriented growth and buyout investments in global fintech. He also serves as the Sheldon B. Lubar Executive-in-Residence at the Lubar College, where he teaches courses in fintech and mentors students.
Jeff Yabuki grew up as the son of a first-generation American of Japanese descent who spent almost three years of his childhood in U.S. internment camps for the Japanese during World War II. After the war, his father’s family returned to Japan, but his father later returned to the United States at age 16 to pursue opportunity.
“He dealt with that adversity,” Yabuki says. “It shaped a lot of who he was, and it also taught me to build resilience.”
In fact, he said that much of his approach to life has focused on attitude and optimism.
Despite that, he told students that he never had an aspiration to go to college. He ultimately enrolled in community college at age 20, and then graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a degree in accounting at age 24.
“I felt like I was already behind my peers, but I realized that even if I wasn’t the smartest in the room, I knew no one could outwork me.”
He began his career as a CPA with Ernst & Young, then spent 12 years climbing the ranks at American Express before joining H&R Block, first as President of H&R Block International and then Chief Operating Officer of the corporation.
When he assumed the role of CEO of Fiserv in 2005, the company was already considered very successful, but he went on to transform it in a significant way.
“We had eighty $50 million dollar businesses. Which worked well. Until it didn’t,” he says.
Yabuki spent six months talking to customers and employees, and reviewing the company’s business model, ultimately selling off units so the company could “go long” in banking.
That, he shared, was just before the 2008-09 financial crisis, and the stock price took a hit.
Yabuki not only stayed the course but the company thrived, nearly tripling revenue and achieving a total shareholder return of 969% through the end of 2019.
On the leadership side of things, that required a lot of focus on culture.
“I used to believe that leadership skills were innate,” he says. “That was foolish.”
“Employee buy-in is based on the simple premise that people want to be part of something bigger than they do every day,” Yabuki notes. “You have to be able to create a compelling narrative and to catalyze people to get the most out of them. You have to articulate a vision and a mission for the brand and develop an incentive system that supports that.”
Yabuki’s advise to students?
“Find what you enjoy, because work is going to be what you do most. Try things out! Everything that you do will build your skills.”