This interview was made possible by our friends at Guidant Financial:
The leader in alternative startup, franchise and small business financing.
Founded by Lazaros Kalemis in 2000, Alpha Card Services is a $15 million nationwide credit card processor and comprehensive business solution provider for small and mid-sized merchants, with 41 employees and 607 independent sales contractors. Based in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, Alpha Card Services currently handles over 15,000 merchant locations across the country and is processing in excess of $2 billion annually.
Lazaros founded Alpha Card Services in late 2000, with first year sales revenue of $100,000 in 2001. Since then, Alpha Card has grown steadily year-after-year to a $15 million company in 2011. Alpha Card Services is more than just processing, with merchant services, POS systems, Payroll Services, Cash Advances, Gift & Reward Card programs and ATM services as part of the comprehensive solutions package they offer their merchants.
MO: How did you come up with the idea for Alpha Card Services and then manage to get the company up and running in just a month?
Lazaros: The trigger for launching Alpha Card Services was developed from a confluence of factors that directly impacted me. During a layover at Rome’s airport in 2000, I read a Philadelphia Inquirer article about how the use of credit cards had grown by a yearly average of 15% since 1972, regardless of how the economy fared. However, the real basis for Alpha Card Services was cultivated much earlier. In a prior business venture I founded and ran Kaleo Publications, a global business directory publisher. Often I was dealing with multiple credit card companies that all provided a different story about how credit card transactions really worked. Quite frankly, it was hard to decipher all the various credit card rates and fees, let alone get a straight, simple story. Another question that arose was why was I always on hold for several minutes for any type of support?
As I was trying to figure out how this nebulous industry operated, several of my family members and friends who own and operate restaurants constantly complained of similar issues and concerns about their own credit card processing experiences. The complaints were always the same – absolutely no customer service support, no disclosure regarding all the fees and rates they were paying, and a general confusion about how the industry operated and why they had to buy or lease terminals just so the ISO could make money off them.
This is when the light bulb went off. I saw credit card processing as an opportunity that had huge profit potential, but also something that could be simplified and backed up by a solid service and technical support model. With a little more research, I formed Alpha Card Services with a partner (My original partner has since left Alpha Card to pursue other endeavors.) with the intention of offering small and medium size merchants a complete portfolio of credit card processing and related services.
In the very beginning, we were a bare bones operation, the two of us often working 18 to 20 hour days – making numerous sales visits during the day and fielding tech support calls well into the evening. Essentially we opened a local phone book, created a target list, and went from merchant to merchant selling them the Alpha Card Service value proposition. Eventually we employed the assistance of Independent Sales Organizations (ISOs) to enable us to scale our business model on a nationwide level.
MO: Can you tell our readers about your AlphaSphere concept and what that means to your customers?
Lazaros: The AlphaSphere is a concept that was developed in conjunction with Alpha Card’s marketing department. Originally the AlphaSphere was designed as a graphic element for one of our print ads. However, it has turned into much more than just an icon! The AlphaSphere is a representation of our collective thinking and thought leadership at Alpha Card Services. The AlphaSphere symbolizes that we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and solve large, complex, and thought intensive issues for our customers and partners. This icon has really become a core element of our brand identity, and our Marketing team is having a lot of fun extending this initiative into various campaigns. The AlphaSphere defines who we are as a company and as a team; a comprehensive business solutions provider.
MO: For the past five consecutive years, Alpha Card Services has grown by 40 percent a year. What’s been the secret of your success and how do you plan to keep the momentum going?
Lazaros: Our success the last few years has really been about several key principles which we follow religiously as a team. The first being is our development of a business model that provides a Comprehensive Business Solutions package to our merchants. We can walk into a merchant’s place of business and provide them with a one-stop source for all their core business requirements, whether it is Credit Card Processing, Payroll Services, POS systems, Gift and Reward cards, Cash Advance or ATM Services. Many of our new products have been launched to ease the pains that our merchants experienced with other vendors.
Additionally, we designed and implemented some creative customer service policies that were unheard of in the industry and differentiated us from a growing number of competitors. A zero hold time policy for customer and rep support calls, quality assurance procedures, a dedicated retention department and same day application approval were all implemented and received very positively by the industry.
As we continue to grow, we’re looking for additional opportunities within our space – both organically and possibly through acquisition. We also plan on expanding our Comprehensive Business Solutions model by offering more ancillary products and services that make sense to a merchant’s business approach. Our strategy is also to hire the right staff and managers in advance of a new product launch. We absolutely want to ensure that we have a solid process and procedures established before we generate demand in the marketplace.
MO: Startups typically need to pivot and evolve their business model over time, especially as customers start to use the product. Can you provide some advice or lessons learned to entrepreneurs on pivoting while keeping your business moving forward at the same time?
Lazaros: What I found works best is to develop a solid business plan; but be prepared to shift gears rapidly and incur some degree of risk when key opportunities arise. A personal and professional mantra that I always live by is to “Live every day and make every decision like you are dying tomorrow.” Alpha Card would not have grown the way it has without taking some important risks. At Alpha Card we are constantly pivoting our business to meet the needs of merchants and the evolving financial marketplace. We look for products and services that provide us with multiple, recurring revenue streams and allow us to offer a package to the merchant that is pretty much a one-stop destination.
MO: What influenced your decision to bring all of your products and services in-house? How has that decision impacted the company?
Lazaros: A key component of our decision was that we always thought we could do it better, more efficiently, and cheaper than anyone else. Often we were disappointed by non-existent service by our so-called “partners”, but more so, they didn’t understand our merchant’s mindset like we did and could not react quickly enough to changing market conditions. Interestingly many of the products we added to our portfolio were brought on by pains that our merchants experienced with other vendors. For example, prior to 2010, our customer service department was receiving a massive amount of phone calls from our merchants that processed with us, but had a POS system from a competitor. They wondered how we could help them with their POS issues. The complaints were always the same – poor service, no after hours technical support and the perception that the vendor didn’t care one bit about their situation. We saw their issues as an opportunity to rectify the ills of our competition and provide our merchants with what they deserved – a quality POS system backed up by world class service and support.
We hired managers that were specialists in their discipline, so that they could help guide us through our infancy and offer the support our clients have become accustom to. We want strong department managers that can help us grow revenue and develop solid internal processes. Alpha Card has grown by leaps and bounds by bringing our products and services in-house; but more importantly we can offer our merchants a cost-effective, one-stop source for all their critical business needs.
MO: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Lazaros: When I decided to bring all our products and services in-house and surround myself with the best people to manage and grow the business. By focusing on our comprehensive solutions model, we can offer our merchants a diverse product portfolio that helps them become more efficient, but with the security of service and support always covering their back.
Find the right Domain Name for your business at Fabulous.com!