Al Kelly of Visa on the Reagan White House and the Politics of Guns

You’re very involved with the Catholic Church. Does that help you at work?

It gives me time and space away from work. I think I’m a better C.E.O., and a better person, if Visa doesn’t completely consume my life. And I believe that of everybody, which is why I preached internally that I want people to have balance in their lives. We all need a little bit of perspective and space and time to get away and think about things. I do a lot of my best thinking about the business when I’m on vacation.

Your first corporate job was at Pepsi. What did you do there?

I started there in 1981, the same year the first IBM PC came out. Back then I was probably considered a bit of a tech nerd, having gotten my degree in computer science. John Sculley was then president of Pepsi-Cola, and he took a real interest in Apple. He asked me to teach him how to use the first Macintosh, and I taught him VisiCalc, which was spreadsheet software, the Excel of today. I didn’t really understand why he was interested. Then he announced that he was going to run Apple.

How did you wind up working at the White House?

When President Reagan won re-election in 1984, Don Regan moved from being secretary of the Treasury to chief of staff. Regan, having come from Merrill Lynch and the business world, said, “Wow, the White House is much bigger than I thought, and I don’t know that it’s operating the way I would expect an organization of that size to operate.” So supposedly, for the first time in the White House history, they hired a search firm.

The search firm’s task was to go find a number of young people who could help run the administrative and operational side of the White House. The search firm called me numerous times about a job in Washington, but wouldn’t tell me what it was, and I kept saying no. Finally, they said, “Look, it’s a job at the White House.” I went down, was interviewed twice at the White House, and was then offered the job to run technology. I was 27 years old.

What did “technology” mean back then?

It meant moving from word-processing machines to PCs. There were several mainframe systems that kept track of things like the president’s correspondence, and anybody who would be sending résumés in for presidential appointments. We put in the email system that became famous because of the Iran-contra affair, where Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and Oliver North and others unfortunately documented in emails things they were doing. I think it will go down in history as the first case of people saying, “Oh my God, these emails are kept.”

Were you running a larger team at the White House?

I had a staff of probably 60 to 70 people. At Pepsi, I might have reached a point where I was managing a group of about four or five people. It was a big step. When you manage a team of four or five, you’ve got to be a player-coach. As you then take a step to managing, say, a team of less than 100 but more than 10, you have to start really figuring out how to provide a vision of what you’re trying to do — delegate work properly, make sure that the proper review mechanisms are in place, and motivate and communicate with people.

Why did you leave the White House?

I had taken a pay cut to work in the White House, and every year the differential between what I could make in the private sector was getting greater. Our oldest son was born in May of ’87, and people said, “By the time he’s 18, college is going to cost between $180,000 and $200,000.” I said, “I gotta get a job where I can save.”

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