The Great Rated! Interview: Andy Khawaja On Creating A Workplace For Millennials
Andy Khawaja is young at heart. That may be the simplest way to explain how the card payment company he founded and leads, Allied Wallet, recently ranked as one of the 10 Great Workplaces for Millennials according to a Great Rated! study. Khawaja, 39, started his Los Angeles-based credit card processing company in 2002 after a decade in retail on glamorous Rodeo Drive. As formative to him was a childhood growing up in war-torn Lebanon, which gave him a carpe-diem yet compassionate mindset. He now leads a team of about 1,000 employees, the vast majority of whom are under 35. And while he agrees with Great Rated! research that fair pay, a say in decisions and competent leaders matter to Gen Y, Khawaja says his secret to success with the younger set boils down to giving them a thrill ride at work. “I like to take risks,” says Khawaja, who expects to take his company public someday. “If you don’t take risks, you never get anywhere in life.” Great Rated! Editor Ed Frauenheim recently spoke with Khawaja about Millennials, the Allied Wallet workplace, and his own youthful heart.
Ed: Most of your employees are under 35. Why is that?
Andy: Age isn’t a factor for me. You can be a grandpa here, if you can deliver. A lot of the people skilled in the business of e-commerce are at a young age.
Ed: One of your strengths at Allied Wallet is your bosses—96 percent of employees give leaders at your firm a positive rating. What are you like as a boss to Millennials?
Andy: They’re my teammates. They’re my partners. Without them, I’m nothing. I hate it when they call me ‘boss.’ I like it when they call me ‘buddy.’ Everyone in the company calls me buddy.
I grew up in Beirut until the age of seven. I got a taste of civil war, and realized you can’t count on living tomorrow because you never know when your time is up. So I live a life where you have to be really nice, very kind, and take care of your people—especially the people that work for you. We’re probably the highest paying company in our industry in the world. The same position in another company will get paid three times less.
Ed: That fits with part of our research on Millennials. We found that they really care about fair pay, a say in decisions and competent leaders. Do you see those other factors at play among Allied Wallet’s young employees?
Andy: You have to listen. You have to give them a chance to speak. I visit other companies, and it’s only the decision-makers deciding. You as an employee execute their decisions. It’s only about one-way communication.
Let them share ideas. We listen to them, and we understand what they want. Sometimes their idea is better. That creates more of a dream-come-true environment. And if someone comes up with a brilliant idea, they get rewarded. They can get $2,000-$3,000 checks. Some of them get nice vacation packages. Some of them get gift cards.
Ed: Work-life balance is another factor Millennials are said to prize. But at Allied Wallet, you seem to want an intense commitment from your folks, and to offer them a quest to conquer the global payments industry. True?
Andy: Absolutely. I give them dreams. And then we accomplish those dreams and they’re so proud of it. They feel like they’re part of something big.
Ed: As you expand globally you’re taking significant risks along the way. Does this way of doing business appeal to young people?
Andy: Are you kidding me? It’s like a motivational film. All young people love risk. It encourages them. They want to taste it. It makes them feel good. It’s like a business drug.
(About Andy Khawaja: Andy Khawaja is CEO and Founder of Allied Wallet, a global payment processing company that connects merchants and consumers in over 190 countries, processing 164 currencies and nearly every payment method. With the securest PCI Level 1 technology and a proprietary black list and fraud scrub method, Allied Wallet has established itself as a brand of excellence in the world of online payment services. Prior to Allied Wallet, Khawaja reached several milestones in the retail industry working with the Bernini brand. Khawaja was able to grow Bernini from two stores to sixty stores in nine years, taking it from a million dollar business to a 100 million dollar business.)
(About the Author: Ed Frauenheim is editor at workplace research site Great Rated!™, where he produces content and reviews companies.)