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Illustration of Mark O'Connell, chief executive officer of Interac. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Mark O'Connell, chief executive officer of Interac. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Mark O'Connell: Defender of Canada's debit card faith Add to ...


Mark O'Connell is adept at doing things differently, at overturning people's preconceived notions of how things should be done.

But even the chief executive officer of Interac Association couldn't hide his surprise when told by a waiter the soup of the day is roasted tomato with banana. "Whoa. That's weird," he says.

His astonishment is short-lived. After a brief plug from the server, a somewhat sheepish Mr. O'Connell orders the soup anyway. "You sold me," he concedes.

For Mr. O'Connell, 41, is also a connoisseur of the power of persuasion. Considered one of the country's top lobbyists, this Bay Street suit is quickly gaining recognition for forcing a radical shakeup of once-sleepy Interac, the backbone of the country's debit payments system.

In the face of a showdown with credit card giants Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc., and a full-scale evolution in the way that Canadians pay for goods and services, Mr. O'Connell is on a mission to wake up the non-profit association, and those who underappreciate it. In the process, he is making waves among the banks, the country's retailers, at the Competition Bureau, and in Ottawa.

And while the battle that's taking place in the payments industry is still in its early days, he appears to be succeeding. That's thanks in part, strangely, to his early love of computer games.

Mr. O'Connell was recruited in his twenties by a company that made software for bank branches. The firm took him on not so much for his three university degrees, he says, but for his self-taught skills making video games for the Texas Instruments TI-99 computer.

"You had to make your own games or copy them from magazines. You'd buy a magazine and copy it line by line, tens of thousands of lines. But when you're doing that, you're learning programming."

His position at that firm - which was soon bought by IBM - kicked off a rapid rise through the little-known and underappreciated payments industry, which develops and runs the technologies that allow consumers to pay with plastic. By 2005, Mr. O'Connell was executive vice-president, finance market, at Emergis Inc. (now Telus), and he had a seat on Interac's board. He didn't like what he saw at the organization. Interac was slow-moving and bureaucratic, and Mr. O'Connell worried that it didn't see the true threat posed by Visa and MasterCard.

Doug Collins, head of payments and banking services at Royal Bank of Canada says, at the time, the banks and Ottawa were taking Interac for granted. "[Mr. O'Connell]was able to bring to light how important and how entrenched it is in the pockets of all Canadians, and how we do our banking business, and how important it is that we continue to have a strong and viable Interac in Canada."

That message resonated so well in Ottawa that, out of a field of more than 5,000 lobbyists trying to influence the government, The Hill Times ranked Mr. O'Connell in the top 100 for 2011.

But while highlighting the need for a fresh appraisal of the association, Mr. O'Connell, who was appointed president and CEO of Interac Association in 2007, was also shaking up its internal status quo. He took an organization that was operating as if it were a utility and injected it with a business mindset and the desire to compete, Mr. Collins says.

Interac had been created in the mid-1980s when a number of banks and Desjardins Group got together to ensure that their customers would be able to withdraw cash at one another's bank machines. In 1994, it began offering a point-of-sale system so retailers could accept debit cards.

It wasn't long before it raised the ire of the Competition Bureau, which accused it and nine of the financial institutions behind it of abusing their power. In 1996, the Bureau put Interac in shackles: Now, it can only charge fees sufficient to cover its costs.

Mr. O'Connell laments the missed opportunity. "It's a beautiful business," he says. "I mean, we have four billion transactions, 120 people. Think of the economics." Only one problem: No profits allowed.

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