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How do Great Companies Stay on Track? Les Muma Reveals the Formula of Success at Accounting Circle's CPE Conference

By Keith Morelli

Les Muma

TAMPA (May 21, 2019) -- If you’re looking for someone who holds the real keys to business success, look no further than Les Muma, whose 30-some-year career began on a risk, but ended with a retirement from a company that now posts billions in profits.

Muma, for whom the Muma College of Business was named after he and his wife, Pam, donated $25 million to the school in 2014, was the keynote speaker at the Accounting Circle CPE Conference this week. Amid presentations about blockchain, cryptocurrency, intelligent automation and cyber-risk economics, Muma’s folksy, down-to-earth talk engaged the audience of about 400. He talked about how he came from middle-class beginnings in Polk County and ended up among the top philanthropists in the region, having given USF a total of $56 million over the past several years including an additional $5 million going to the business school.

Making a lot of money over a career “isn’t done in a vacuum,” he said. “I feel we have a moral obligation to share it. Even those who don’t make millions should give back to the community in the way of time and talent.”

This philanthropic phase of his life, he said, is more rewarding than anything he has ever done.

And he’s done a lot. His speech, titled “How Great Companies Stay on Track,” began with recollections of his rather nondescript upbringing as the only boy amid six sisters in Winter Haven. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was a university professor who dabbled in science-fiction writing and poetry.

“I grew up in a family of education,” he said, though he admitted he never read any of his dad’s books.

He attended USF earning a liberal arts degree, though he concentrated his studies on mathematics and business. Eventually, he entered the banking data processing business and, through a series of acquisitions and mergers, he co-founded Fiserv.

“We put every bit of money we had into it,” he said. “I sold boats and cars, everything.” It was a risk. At one point, his father-in-law suggested Pam divorce him, maybe jokingly, maybe not, to keep her assets out of bankruptcy court.

But the business took off, he said, performing all of the “back-room, automated” tasks of banks, insurance companies and savings and loans. The company went public in 1986 and in 1999 he was named chairman and CEO. In 2006, Muma retired from Fiserv, after it had grown from $75 million in revenue to $4 billion, earning $1.2 billion in profits; from 60 clients to 12,000 clients currently served by some 23,000 employees.

“All this growth, while keeping up with technology,” he said, “we were running with our hair on fire and we were having a ball. We never had a down year.” All employees were offered stock options and everyone was happy, which fed the culture of success.

The company flourished because of three factors, he said. First, management had to figure out what they were doing right and pass it on to rising executives. Second, there was some luck involved. The company was in the right place at the right time, as the banking industry had a voracious appetite for technology. And third, it was a tremendous time for big-bank mergers, which fed into the Fiserv business model.

Still, keeping the business on the track to success took hard work. Often executives worked seven days a week, preparing for and carrying through on acquisitions.

Muma took the opportunity to pass on some other career observations and advice to the accountants and auditors attending the conference, held in the Oval Theater in the Marshall Student Center:

  • Maintain a positive and winning attitude. This starts at the top and spreads. Negative attitudes also can spread, so beware of that.
  • Try harder than your competitor. The old adage “5 percent inspiration, 95 percent perspiration” applies.
  • Have a passion for service excellence. Giving bad service can sour a client’s relationship for years.
  • Employ an entrepreneurial spirit. Be a risk taker, within reason; have skin in the game, be driven and innovate.
  • Always strive to continue to learn. Learning how to learn is important and offering education and training to employees always leads to success.
  • Maintain an unwavering focus on taking the high road. Morals and ethics are not taught, they are caught by individuals from others and ethical behavior truly happens when nobody’s watching.
  • Have fun, work hard and enjoy the job. Love Mondays because it’s a chance to go back to work.

“I’ve always believed that the harder you work, the luckier you are,” Muma said. “And, back then, we were passionate about what we were building.”