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Opinion: Embracing passion at customer-loyalty leader Aimia

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Interview with Michael Zea, President and Chief Executive Officer for the U.S. Region, and Executive Vice President of Aimia

By Peter Bailey, Senior Vice President, Organization Development, Prouty Project

Aimia creates deep and lasting relationships that are relevant, rewarding, and fun. As a result, Aimia is a global leader in loyalty management. The company's unique capabilities include proven expertise in building customized proprietary loyalty strategies, launching and managing coalition loyalty programs, creating value through loyalty analytics, and driving innovation in the emerging digital and mobile spaces. They build and run loyalty programs for themselves and for some of the world's best brands.

And, not surprising, for a relation-based company CEO, Michael Zea is a really nice guy. Don’t let his colorful array of golf sweaters mislead you into thinking that he is not all business, however. He is. But it is the loyalty and relationship-building business that requires the right combination of keen business acumen, disarming casualness, and authentic affability.

In his new role at Aimia, Michael Zea has full commercial and operating responsibility for Aimia in the U.S., with a critical focus on new business development and driving key strategic growth initiatives for the market. He brings more than 20 years of strategic consulting experience, most recently as a partner at McKinsey & Company, where he was a recognized client and knowledge entrepreneur within the firm and led McKinsey's Loyalty Marketing Service line globally.

Over the past few months, I have had the honor and pleasure of working with Michael Zea and his Executive Leadership Team. I have found both Michael and Aimia to be compelling, innovative, and inspiring. I wanted to ask him a few questions to give you a glimpse of the person behind the CEO title.

[Bailey] Michael, you have just recently been hired as President and CEO of Aimia this past January, what has been the most interesting and fun part of the last six months?

[Zea] I would have to say getting to know the people in our business at every level and hearing what they have to say. We are in the loyalty and relationship business and that means engaging our customers, engaging our employees and engaging our channels. It is important that I get to know them and that they know I care about what they are telling me. So I have spent a lot of time travelling the country talking with people about the way we can help our customers develop better relationships to drive valuable impact in their business.

What interesting ways do you get people to communicate and collaborate more effectively within the different divisions of Aimia - can you say a bit about that?

We’ve got a couple of unique approaches that have helped bring our different divisions closer together, communicating better and communicating more often.

Take our space for example. Our offices have recently been remodeled with an open-air concept; low cubicle walls, bright colors, and different types of informal seating areas so that people can see each other, get up, walk around and interact more easily. We created our space with a view to inspiring broader collaboration and better conversations. We extended this thinking right through to our coffee kiosk, which has been designed to encourage people to grab a coffee and take time in their day to connect with each other. Sounds simple, but it’s been very effective.

Building on this theme of personal connections and collaboration, we have “Greet the Week” get-togethers. Every other Monday, at the start of the day for just 10 minutes, we bring associates together (in person in Minneapolis, via video and teleconference for associates in our other US offices) to share happenings about the company. Finally, we’ve established “hub” teams to connect folks around the world who focus on similar initiatives (i.e. technology, communications, digital, etc.) and cross-functional teams designed to bring the global organization together no matter where they might be physically located. And, since you introduced Simon Sinek’s book to us, "Start with Why", we are focusing less on the “what” and the “how” and discussing more about the “why” of our business. Now we are having even more interesting conversations!

Connecting with people seems to be genuinely important to you. I remember when I first met you I was really impressed with the way you chose to introduce yourself to the Executive Leadership Team and Senior Leadership Team by sharing what you are passionate about. It’s a great way to build relationships.

I think it is fun to foster relationships through personal interests; in my case old cars, to keep past relationships alive. I have a 1950 Plymouth P19 and a 1968 Oldsmobile 88 convertible, for example, which were the cars my grandmothers drove us around in. They help me to maintain the memory of those relationships and extend them along to my children. I also still drive a 1994 Jeep, the first car I bought new, which to my wife Liz’s chagrin is a relationship I just can’t seem to give up!” Coincidentally, Aimia as a company embraces the idea of “passion” to a whole new level and our values statement is focused on “PASSION” in all its different forms:

Strong Opinions – Loosely held
Simplicity – Brilliant Simplicity

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