Adams, Eula L. 1950–
Eula L. Adams 1950–
Eula L. Adams rose from humble beginnings to become one of the top players at First Data Corporation, a Fortune 500 company with revenue in the billions. Overseeing tens of thousands of employees and banking a salary in excess of $1 million with bonuses and stock options, Adams once told the Denver Post, “My success at this point in life would be beyond [my parents’] wildest expectations.” He reached a senior vice presidentship the old-fashioned way—he worked for it. “I’ve never had a fear of failure. There’s no assignment I’m reluctant to take on,” he told Black Enterprise. However, he is quick to offer acknowledgment to individuals and companies that have helped him along the way, from his high school football coach who encouraged him to go to college to business mentors who helped build his confidence. “I have been fortunate to have been hired by companies that were in need of hard-working people,” he told the Denver Post. “They have moved me along.” Along the way he developed a philosophy of leadership that has won him widespread respect among colleagues and employees. “Just because you’re the senior-most person doesn’t mean you have to always be right,” he told the Green Sheet. “Always look for and appreciate superior talent. Line up and always be recruiting.”
Eula Adams was born on February 12, 1950, in Tifton, Georgia, to a domestic servant and a long-haul truck driver. Along with three brothers, Adams was raised in a modest home in Jacksonville, Florida. Though he had just a C-average in high school, a football scholarship allowed Adams to become the first person in his family to attend college. According to the Green Sheet, at Atlanta’s historically black Morris Brown College, Adams “knew he didn’t have a future in pro ball—in his own estimation, he was too small, too slow and not gifted enough to advance beyond the collegiate level.” However, he soon found that what he lacked on the gridiron, he made up for in the classroom.
Discovering he had a natural aptitude for numbers, Adams chose accounting as his major and in 1972 graduated with honors. The following year he married his college sweetheart Janet, and following her suggestion, he applied for an MBA at Harvard University. “She had a vision in the middle of the night that I was in Harvard Business School,” he told the Green Sheet. Though he lacked formal work experience, Harvard offered Adams a deferred admission, allowing him time to gain real-life experience. He joined the Atlanta office of prestigious accounting firm Touche Ross (later Deloitte & Touche) where he worked for two years before heading to Harvard. He earned his MBA in 1976 and his CPA certification shortly thereafter.
Adams returned to Atlanta and Touche Ross in 1976 and began working his way up the corporate ladder. “I was interested in becoming a partner in a large accounting firm,” he told the Green Sheet. “My expectation was getting a partnership within 12 years. I was fortunate to get there in nine.” Adams became the first African-American partner in the firm. It was not always easy. “The loneliness, especially in the early days, was the hardest,” Adams told Fortune. “I lived in two
At a Glance…
Born on February 12, 1950, in Tifton, GA; married Janet C. Adams, May 19, 1973; children: Kevin, Education: Morris Brown College, Atlanta, GA, BA, accounting, 1972; Harvard University, MBA, 1976, CPA certification, 1976. Military Service: Georgia Air National Guard, sergeant, 1972-78.
Career: Deloitte & Touche, Atlanta, GA, accountant, 1972-73, partner, 1983-91; American Express Information Services, Denver, CO, executive vice president of finance and administration, 1991; First Data Corporation, First Data Teleservices subsidiary, executive vice president, finance and administration, 1991-94, executive vice president and general manager, 1994-97, Western Union subsidiary, executive vice president and COO, 1997-98, First Data Merchant Services, president, 1998-00, First Data Resources, senior executive vice president and president, 2000-03; Net-bank, board of directors, 2003–.
Memberships: American Institute of CPAs; USO of Georgia; Colorado Society of CPAs; American Heart Association; Denver Zoological Society; United Way of Colorado; Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce; Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; Southern Education Foundation.
Addresses: Home —Denver, CO. Board Office —Net-Bank Royal Centre Three, 11475 Great Oaks Way, Suite 100, Alpharetta, GA 30022.
worlds. I’d leave work and go home to one world, and then wake up and go back to work in that other world.” Though Adams excelled as a partner he realized he wanted more. “I’ve always been a person to set reasonable goals, so I get to that goal and say, ‘Now what?’ I quickly learned there was much more to being a partner and contributor than I had known. I recalibrated my goals and set my sights on being a manager or leader in the accounting profession.” In 1988 Adams made a step towards that goal when he was put in charge of the firm’s audit function with a staff of over 100. A year later the firm merged with Deloitte, and Adams assumed even greater responsibility as an executive committee member for the Atlanta office. He held that post until 1991, when he left the firm.
During his tenure with Deloitte & Touche, Adams not only broke glass ceilings at work but also in Atlanta society. He was the first African-American member at three golf clubs including the toney Atlanta Country Club. “It has always been a privilege to represent my race by being the first person to undertake certain challenges or take down certain barriers,” Adams told ColoradoBiz. “Entry into the country clubs in Atlanta seemed like such a significant barrier, but the members and staff welcomed me in such a way that much of the pressure and/or difficulty was diminished.”
Adams moved to Denver in 1991 to join American Express Information Services Corporation in a dual role as executive vice president of both finance and administration. It was a major change. His entire career had been spent in the accounting industry and now he was thrust into the financial services industry. He relished the challenge. “The best thing I could have done was to leave accounting and accept a challenge to learn a new culture, a whole host of new things,” Adams told the Green Sheet. “In accounting, I just didn’t have to work as hard at it. When I came into American Express ISC, I was called upon to learn more deeply than I was ever called upon to learn clients’ businesses. The complexity of activities and transactions in real-time, it was as if I had to learn how to operate at a totally different pace.” Ninety days after accepting this new position, the company went public on the stock market. At the time it was the fifth largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in business history, and Adams was in the midst of it.
The company soon became First Data and in 1994 Adams was promoted to executive vice president and general manager of First Data Teleservices. In that role he oversaw the acquisition of First Financial Management, owners of Western Union. In 1997 he served briefly as chief operating officer for the Western Union division of the company. Then in 1998 he was appointed president of First Data Merchant Services, the division responsible for processing electronic payments for merchants. At the time the division was undergoing a huge staff reduction and restructuring. According to Black Enterprise, “[Adams] provided the short-term focus needed to get the business’ profitability back on track. It became one of the stellar performers of the company.” Adams considered it one of his best achievements. “Hearing analysts comment on the performance [after the turnaround], I’ve never been more proud,” he told Black Enterprise.
In 2000 Adams was appointed one of six senior executive vice presidents of First Data and made president of its Omaha, Nebraska-based First Data Resources (FDR) division. In this role Adams oversaw 11,000 employees in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and revenues of $1.5 billion. FDR was responsible for providing services to over 1,400 credit card issuers. Nearly one-third of First Data’s revenue came from FDR. However, when Adams inherited the division, it was in trouble. It had shrunk from the largest of First Data’s divisions to the smallest, and, as Adams told Black Enterprise, “The level of employee morale is nowhere near where I would like. Expectations are great and customers are counting on us to grow their business.” According to Fast Company, one of his first tasks was “rebuilding the business—changing the culture, revitalizing employees, and becoming customer-centric.” Adams undertook the task of revitalizing the division with customary zeal. A strong proponent of team work, Adams created a transition team staffed by young, aggressive up-and-comers from throughout the company. “Success can’t be about one person,” he told Fast Company. “Everyone must work together to make an organization thrive.”
Adams didn’t have much trouble finding support from employees for his initiatives. He was well-liked by staff members. The senior vice president of human resources summed up the general feeling about Adams when he told Discover Black Omaha, “He’s one of the few people in the work place who is as effective talking to the CEO of the company as he is talking to the person in the mailroom. He’s always concerned about how decisions impact people.” One of Adams’s senior staff members told Fast Company, “Eula is a dynamic and involved leader who wins through teamwork. He empowers his team to do what it takes to be successful.”
Adams’s corporate rise led him to be named one of the 50 most powerful black executives by Fortune in July of 2002. Though many African Americans in the corporate world, having spent entire careers working to cast off racial limitations, were dismissive of the list, Adams acknowledged that it had some merit. “You may think that these are personal accomplishments,” Adams told Fortune, “but deep down you know that your achievements represent large numbers of other people.” He elaborated in an interview with ColoradoBiz, “I do think that part of my role is to serve as a role model for others, and to the extent that [the Fortune] list provides motivation and encouragement, then I feel it is OK for such a list. I do think it is important to acknowledge that progress has been made.” Following the publication of Fortune’s list, Adams’s name began to be mentioned as a possible future CEO of First Data. Adams was reserved in his response, telling ColoradoBiz, “I’m interested in a job as a CEO at some point in my life. If it could be First Data, that would be great. If not, I would hope that I’d have an opportunity someplace else.”
Despite his proven track record, Adams was unable to turn around FDR. In the two years since he had taken over the division, sales had declined and FDR had lost several major clients. By 2002 First Data was considering selling off the division. Instead, in February of 2003, it was announced that Adams would be resign ing as of March 1st. In several press releases about Adams’s resignation, First Data’s CEO Charlie Fote emphasized that Adams had not been asked to leave, but did not elaborate. Adams’s public statements were just as vague on the reasons for his departure. The Denver Post quoted Adams as saying, “It has been a terrific 12 years at First Data Corporation. We have worked hard to strengthen the card-issuing segment over the past three years and revitalize the culture. I am proud of our accomplishments.” When pressed for his future plans, Adams repeatedly said he wanted to focus on other career aspirations without indicating what those might be. Fote also released statements indicating that he was going to personally take over FDR. Of this move, an industry analyst told American Banker, “The inference is there are disagreements [between Adams and Fote] on how to [turn FDR around].”
As of mid-2003, Adams had taken an appointment as a member of the board of directors for Netbank in Atlanta. While he will only hold this position for a year, many expect that Adamas will be voted in as a long standing member of the board by shareholders in 2004. This change in his career path, however, will not deter his success. As he once explained to Black Enterprise, “You never know where one path may lead you. Don’t be afraid to take on new assignments. A lot of doors have been opened to me because of my willingness, flexibility, curiosity, and ambition.”
American Banker, February 7, 2003, p. 18.
Black Enterprise, February, 2001, p. 84.
Business Wire, June 3, 2003, p. 5083.
ColoradoBiz, September, 2002, p. 14.
Denver Post, July 12, 2002, p. CI; February 7, 2003, p. C2.
Fortune, July 8, 2002.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), February 7, 2003, p. 4B.
“A Man Who Makes It All Add Up,” Green Sheet, www.greensheet.com/industryleaders/eulaadams.html (March 22, 2003).
“According to Eula Adams,” Fast Company, www.fastcompany.com/fast50/profile/?adams402 (March 22, 2003).
“Eula Adams Spotlight,” Discover Black Omaha, www.discoverblackomaha.com/Business_Spotlight/Eula_Adams_spot_August_2002.htm (March 22, 2003).
Netbank, http://www.netbank.com (June 9, 2003).
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