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June 9, 2021Executive Interview Series

Executive Interview Series: Fortis CEO, Greg Cohen

The Executive Interview Series provides readers with exclusive insights from movers and shakers in the payments industry. The Payments Industry is under continuous transformation, as such this series provides diverse perspectives on everything from strategy to payments technology and to the future of the industry.

In this interview, TSG’s Market Intelligence team-member Alex Ferguson sat down with the CEO of Fortis, Greg Cohen, to learn more about Fortis and Greg’s 20+ year journey through the payments industry.

Background: Gregory (“Greg”) Cohen is a recognized financial technology industry leader who has built national and global organizations with high level exits.  Mr. Cohen is the CEO of Fortis, a leader in integrated commerce, past president of the Electronic Transactions Association and former member of MasterCard, Discover and NACHA advisory boards.  He has a passion for the evolution of commerce and was an early pioneer in the integrated payments and software platform arena.  As such, he is an advisor to some of the fastest growing technology companies and investment firms and speaker thru his advisory practice.

Q: TSG’s Alex Ferguson
How’d you get your start in the payments industry?

A: Greg Cohen
Right out of business school I started a small payments business in Atlanta with a friend. It seemed like a great way to get my feet wet in what appeared to be a fast-growing industry. After four or five years I moved into the corporate world joining the Global Payments ecosystem. The company had just spun out of National Data Corporation and the business was growing quickly. It was a fun time as businesses were, believe it or not, replacing old knuckle busters with payment terminals and just starting to adopt newer technologies.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Looking into your background, you’ve had an extensive career in the payments industry over the past 20 years, with executive roles at entities such as Global Payments, Moneris, iPayment, Cayan and Paya; and even served as President of the ETA. How has this expansive experience helped you develop your career and how has it helped you in your current positions in the private equity space?

A: Greg Cohen
As I mentioned, I started as an ISO but my corporate career in payments really began at Global Payments. In some ways, I was lucky. Some of my first customers were early implementers of what we now call integrated payments. Mercury Payments, now FIS’ integrated business, was one of the fastest growing integrated payments business in history. PayPros and CAM Commerce were clients that became the foundation of the Open Edge integrated business at Global Payments.  I saw how my clients were growing their businesses by partnering with software providers – the low cost of acquisition, super low attrition, higher than average yields – and the business model just looked so much more attractive. The portfolios they were building performed much better than the other more traditional payment companies.

That early exposure watching integrated commerce business’ operate scale was amazing. I’ve taken the foundational knowledge and the secret sauce and not only applied it, but verticalized it throughout my career. Fortis is an expansion of this theme in my career. The technology and experience needed to succeed has certainly morphed, but fundamentally the construct has stayed with me since my early days.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Looking back at all your experiences, what do you feel is your biggest contribution to the payments industry thus far?

A: Greg Cohen
Just being an early advocate for software and technology organizations within the payments industry was important to me. The advocacy evolved into a passion where I have been able to connect different companies and individuals, sometimes marrying the old with the new, to create value and help businesses scale. I believe that I’ve been a real advocate across the ecosystem for greater connectivity. Whether bringing new technology providers into what is today known as the ETA, finding ways to bring new players into our ecosystem and introduce them to the institutional organization, or just being a catalyst for great solution partnerships, I’ve always enjoyed watching business’ scale. That kind of connectivity has been a piece of what has been my biggest contribution to the payments industry.

Q: Alex Ferguson
As a rapidly growing payments entity, many may not know too much about Fortis. Tell me about Fortis and what makes it different from other payment providers.

A: Greg Cohen
Fortis has a great story like many early payments leaders. The company began its journey as a reseller to a few key verticals and as the business evolved, a gateway was added to allow developer integrations and connectivity. The team was able to leverage the gateway into a more expansive platform and expand deeper into verticals where they could create value by adding specialty features and functionality to enhance the service experience they created. The business has also added payment facilitation and a full suite of reporting capabilities using the same front end integration technology. Fortis has been able to evolve naturally as technology partners have demanded new experiences and solutions from their payment partners. Fortis’ integrations and capabilities allow a full array of payment experiences — on a single integration, on a single platform — anything from a simple referral relationship, all the way to a PayFac. Not only is that unique in this industry, but it also really goes to show how they have evolved along with the market.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Fortis appears to target a few key verticals such as healthcare, hospitality, sporting goods, and B2B. What is it about these verticals that’s attracted Fortis’ interest? How is Fortis uniquely positioned to serve these verticals better than competitors?

A: Greg Cohen
Each vertical that Fortis targets comes from having long-term “DNA,” or a as we call it a champion approach, in that individual vertical. The original founders of Fortis were hoteliers. They saw a need and started the business in the hospitality segment. Because of their background, as they built the company, they already knew the needs of the market from the ground up. That philosophy (whether it be organically or inorganically) has been core to our expansion. 

Being a champion where we not only provide payments capabilities, but where we also add feature and functionality unique to a specific segment is how we win. The knowledge comes in not just to be able to sell a new account, by adding offering the vertical functionality, engaging with end user merchants or end user consumers is also part of the secret. We are able to walk the walk and talk the talk in all of the verticals we target to drive incremental opportunities. We follow our wins and continue to get deeply ingrained into our core segments.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Fortis has recently been in the news with its acquisitions of EpicPay and Change Merchant Solutions. How do these acquisitions further Fortis’ growth strategy?

A: Greg Cohen
Change Merchant Solutions (CMS) was an acquisition that allowed us to dive deeper into hospitality sub-segments. Distribution has also been key to our growth and with CMS we’re able to expand into some new segments and add a specialized team of reps that understand integrated commerce.

With the EpicPay acquisition we’ve added nonprofits to the mix as well as some exciting tech capabilities to further our reach in all of our vertical markets. EpicPay’s award winning platform brings payment facilitation capabilities and an API stack (EpicPay was honored in TSG’s 2020 and 2021 “Best of Breed” API Awards), powered by the firm’s Gateway Enterprise Metrics (GEM) platform. Adding the payment facilitation capabilities on top of what was already a robust, acquiring infrastructure is just the natural evolution of Fortis’ integrated commerce story. We can now provide our technology partners with numerous engagement solutions based on what fits into their individual business model. This approach has really allowed the business to grow and is core to our strategy – enabling our software partners to scale.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Fortis has been heavily involved in M&A over the past two years with the acquisitions of Zeamster, Swype at Work, and the merger with BlueDog Business Services. With all of this acquisition growth in mind, where do you see Fortis in five years?

A: Greg Cohen
All of Fortis’ acquisitions have been very strategic to the growth of the business. These companies have either allowed us to expand into new segments or they have brought additional capabilities to help strengthen our technology stack to increase support for our partners’ growth. We talked about EpicPay with the PayFac capabilities, and BlueDog which brings an institutional sales organization, but there will be more to do as the market changes. As I look out five years, I see us as the global leader in very strategic markets. We know we will not be all things to all people so it’s about being really good at what we do and having champions in the verticals we choose to play in. And, in the areas we focus on, our goal is to be the premier provider to software and developer organizations as they make commerce easy for their customers and scale their businesses.

Q: Alex Ferguson
Shifting gears a bit, The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced several new trends to the payments industry from a rise in interest of contactless payments to a larger focus on ecommerce offerings. What are some of the trends you’ve observed over the past year, and do you feel any of these trends will continue long term after the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Greg Cohen
What we saw during the pandemic was a faster shift in the way people were conducting transactions and of the different mediums where businesses were running transactions. Because of those shifts I’ve taken the concept of card present and card-not-present put it on the shelf and embraced the specific needs of the verticals. Each industry we work with is unique and we are defining the solutions necessary to serve the technology partners in each of those segments. Many use the buzzword “omnichannel”, but in reality, every vertical now has people buying and selling in many different mediums. I think you’re going to see significant growth in those providers who bifurcate by vertical and can provide the “omnichannel” solutions to the customers in those markets. You can’t just be a point-of-sale provider. You can’t just be an eCommerce provider. You can’t just be a mobile provider. It’s all about how you can facilitate and enable commerce for the verticals your customers and technology providers operate in. I think we’re just at the early stages here and COVID acted as a catalyst. Everyone saw a jump in restaurants and retail transactions moving online as physical locations were not accessible. However, you’ve now got to be able to serve every medium where customers and their clients operate regardless of business type.  

Q: Alex Ferguson
With the possible long-term trends resulting from the pandemic in mind, where do you feel the payments industry is going and how do you feel Fortis is positioned to capitalize on it?

A: Greg Cohen
I believe the future involves the digitization and connectivity of all things that engage around a business – buying decisions on software or business management solutions, choice of payments provider, and all of the ways businesses engage with their customers. Connecting these across different entry points, where you deal with a business or a business deals with its end user customers, is part of what Fortis does best. We offer a software partner or client the ability to connect in all commerce mediums within their vertical and expand the way they engage with their own clients.

Ten years ago, a terminal would solve the needs of every merchant out there, but that’s just not the case today. It’s being able to specialize in the verticals, being a champion in those areas of a business, and having segment specific solutions to offer to customers. Embedded payments is important but the ability to make the technology better by adding capabilities that wrap around the software that make your partners better in what they deliver is the real value.

I think everything I’ve mentioned is at the heart of what Fortis has been doing from the beginning, including those value-add services around the verticals we chose to be in. As we organically move deeper into the verticals we currently serve or as we buy our way into new verticals, we will embed ourselves into the segment with our champions and further enhance our solutions to make our technology providers better. It’s where we fit and why we’re positioned so well to capitalize in these markets.

Want more from this series? Catch up on more executive interviews here.

Featured companies include NMI, UNION POS, Celero Commerce, Paysafe, Talus Payments, Authvia, WePay, NetCents, Zuza, and more.

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