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story.lead_photo.caption “Having some boy from Arkansas start out as a programmer, then get to travel to many different places and understand international culture and international business, I would have never thought that could happen. I would have thought I’d be in the corner writing code and that’s it.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

It's midday on a brilliant Arkansas springtime weekday, and most of the workspaces at Euronet's west Little Rock offices sit shadowy and dark. For a month, the coronavirus drama has kept the firm's 140 resident employees in home offices and online meeting rooms. Walk through the maze of cubicles, and only the photos on desks or tacked to walls look back.

In one corner office, Tony Warren's lights are on.

Warren, who goes back to the company's days as Arkansas Systems Inc., was promoted to president and managing director last summer, the culmination of a quarter-century with the financial software company. Along the way, he has seen the firm -- and the industry in which it competes -- change so dramatically it bears little outward resemblance to the early days.

But for all that, Warren says, the essence of the company is still about the fundamentals. And so is he, even if it means minding the company store in the middle of a pandemic.

"Euronet will never break away from that face-to-face," he says. "We have a lot of face time with our customers through on-site meetings and consortiums. And in sales, our guys are out there regularly visiting those banks, processors and central banks all over the world. They'll sometimes bring me into meetings where they believe the customer requires some extra attention."

"Our customers respect our company for that. Nearly all of our clients that have licensed software from us continue to use our products because of that service."

It's a surprisingly analog approach for a software company bent on revolutionizing how money works -- and globally at that. But it's effective -- ever since Arkansas Systems was bought by its then-customer Euronet in 1998, business has mushroomed around the world, thanks to a suite of products that power payment options once almost inconceivable but now in high demand.

Warren's leadership style -- an unpretentious guy-on-the-team approach that welcomes individual contribution and stresses accountability -- has been a steady rudder in this digital sea of growth and change, be it in directing a project, a department or now, the company.

"My managerial skills really come from my father. I was lucky enough to go with him to work a lot and see that there was genuine respect for him, not his title," he says. "They would work together, and if they had to figure something out, he would roll his sleeves up and work with them to do it. That's sort of the way I do it."

"I would emphasize both how well-liked he is by his peers and his subordinates, and at the same time respected," says Kevin Caponecchi, Euronet executive vice president, CEO of epay, EFT APAC/MEAP and software. "That's always a difficult balance. You want to be liked, but you also have to be the leader, and being a leader sometimes means you have to make decisions that contradict being liked."

"I think you would have a hard time interviewing somebody that did not both respect and like Tony. That is a rare combination these days in corporate America."

AN IDYLLIC CHILDHOOD

Anthony Lyle Warren was born Oct. 4, 1965, at then-St. Vincent's Infirmary in Little Rock, the youngest of four children born in two-year intervals to Clarence and Ruby Warren. His parents were the products of farmers around Clarksville who moved to the Little Rock area for Clarence to attend Draughon School of Business. After that he worked in industrial management for Ward Supply, later owned by Elixir Industries.

Warren's idyllic childhood unfolded in and around the shadow of his older siblings. His sister Lisa, second in line, lent a mothering influence to the three Warren boys. Whenever possible, Tony tagged along with his older brothers, David and Tim, as a sort of gopher for their activities.

"Our family had, I would say, very conservative values," he says. "We were very outdoorsy; I would call us adventurous. I was lucky enough that my parents loved to go camping, and I remember the first time they brought a pop-up camper home. There's six of us, right, and we've got to fit in a pop-up camper. But it was awesome."

"[My brothers] got into controllable airplanes, and in the summertime, we were always flying, you know, little Cox engines and all that kind of stuff. I was the gasser; I'd fill it up and start it, but I was always afraid to fly. I didn't want to crash the airplane."

Warren played a little baseball as a kid, but the activity he claimed as his own was golf, which he started playing in junior high.

"A friend of mine got me into it the first time," he says. "I was horrible the first three holes, but the first time I hit the ball cleanly I was hooked from there on. I wound up playing golf competitively through high school."

Warren attended Little Rock Parkview High School, where he was a good student, excelling most when challenged. During his junior year, he came face to face with the ideal foil, an enigmatic machine that would define his life's work.

"My algebra teacher, Sarah Wyrick, was one of the first teachers to have a computer in her classroom," he says. "I want to say it was a Commodore 64, and we were able to make the screen say 'Hello world,' or 'My name's Tony,' and actually save it to cassette tapes. Now that I think of (Wyrick), she was probably one of the teachers that challenged me the most and that was my earliest experience enjoying computing."

WORKING FOR A LIVING

Unfortunately, Warren didn't find that key ingredient in college, and after two uninspiring years at the University of Arkansas, he returned home to figure out his next step. He hired on as a bellman with the Capital Hotel in 1986, unwittingly entering one of the more fertile training grounds for his future life in business.

"The biggest thing I got out of the Capital Hotel were the different cultures that I was introduced to, just all the different types of people," he says. "I learned about service and how to treat people."

As one of the few downtown hotels back then, the Capital hosted anyone who was anyone, whether they stayed there, met there or staged their event there. Warren, like the rest of the staff, routinely serviced rock stars, presidents, captains of industry and their assembled entourages. He gained a million stories from this period of his life -- most of which are fit for print -- and he learned even more.

"I think everybody should, at least once in their life, work in a hotel or restaurant," he says. "If all you do is grow up, go to college and become a programmer, you never really understand how to deal with other people and their emotions. There are outside challenges, all this baggage that people have, and if you're a complete logic-minded person, you're going to step on that."

Retired Little Rock lawyer Mike Aud befriended Warren during this period. He says even back then, Warren was a person others would follow.

"There may have been eight or 10 in that group of friends, and he was the one that stood out," Aud says. "He exuded confidence and a lot of leadership tendencies. They looked up to him as the leader of the group and would ask his advice, and he would give it. And, most of the time, it turned out that he was right.

"I remember back in the day, he came to me asking advice on what I thought his future might look like. I told him, 'My advice to you is to get focused on school, get your degree and go from there.' I kept encouraging him to do that because I saw a lot of potential in him to do great things."

Warren heeded his friend's advice in 1992, enrolling at UALR. There, he found the direction and challenge his brain needed, graduating in three years with a degree in computer information systems and management. At the same time, he gained valuable experience working overnights with UPS, a gig which taught him the finer points of logistics management, of the freight and human varieties.

"It wasn't a normal entry to UPS because when you went to work for UPS you started out in the unload and then you became a picker and then you might go over to the load side," he says. "I went into what was called hub simulation, controlling the flow of all the packages through the entire warehouse."

"That was also where I learned that even though you don't have direct authority over employees from another department, good management is being able to work well with those departments. There's a certain skill involved where you're not directly telling them what they need to do, but they're still willing to do it, because of your management skills."

Dave Morgan has known Warren for 20 years. As Euronet's vice president of global business development, now retired, Morgan worked closely with the operations whiz kid.

"Tony was an open-minded, team-oriented leader," he says. "In the business we were in, there could be some strained relationships from time to time between the sales side and the implementation side. Tony always rose above the minutia to make sure we did what was in the best interest of the company and also the best interest of the client.

"He also was extremely fair and loyal to his people," Morgan adds. "He is very solution-oriented and he understands when you have a leadership role, problems are going to occur. That's just the nature of virtually any business, so let's find a way to work through it and get on with it."

THE FUTURE'S SO BRIGHT

Arkansas Systems cut its teeth helping banks modernize their payment offerings, from ATMs and debit cards to electronic funds transfer (EFT) and credit cards. Its software connected consumers' use of such payment options with the bank's own back-office systems that reconciled their accounts. The software products also enabled clients to move some of the payment options in-house, away from third-party processors.

The company thought big even in the beginning, although knocking down doors in the banking realm took time. This was especially true among the industry's big boys, more prone to look for solutions from Silicon Valley than Central Arkansas. Yet by the time Warren joined the team in 1995, the company sat on the cusp of what would be a defining international project.

"We probably didn't know it at the time, but the turning point was a company called Bank 24 out of Budapest, Hungary," he says. "They wanted to set up an ATM driving system in that country because there were no cards, no ATMs; money was hidden under a mattress or believe it or not, you paid your bills at the post office."

“My managerial skills really come from my father. I was lucky enough to go with him to work a lot and see that there was genuine respect for him, not his title. They would work together and if they had to figure something out, he would roll his sleeves up and work with them to do it. That’s sort of the way I do it.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

When Bank 24 successfully introduced modern payment conveniences, powered by Arkansas Systems software, phones started ringing into Arkansas from around the globe. They haven't stopped since; per the company's 2019 annual report, Euronet now powers 50,000 ATMs and 330,000 EFT point-of-sale terminals worldwide, part of a global payment network serving clients in about 170 countries. The Kansas-based firm boasts 66 offices worldwide and generates more than $2.7 billion in annual revenue.

"It was exciting, it was hard, it was very active, and one of the things that I think it instilled in many of us was the ability to be dynamic," Warren says of the growth period. "We were writing code one day and out the door to a bank the next day, installing it anywhere. It could be Yazoo, Miss., or it could be Warsaw, Poland."

Euronet's latest, the REN Ecosystem, is the culmination of the company's creative and technical energies. The program greatly enhances clients' ability to quickly add current payment technology or implement whatever comes next. And it does so without the client having to rip and replace existing software, a costly and highly disruptive process for even small to midsize institutions.

REN (short for Renaissance) syncs with popular payment options as seamlessly as it dovetails into Euronet's existing suite of products. It's so robust, the company bills it as "future proof," a claim good enough for the nation of Mozambique, which signed up REN to run the country's entire payments system. Just talking about the product's possibilities, Warren's eyes light up.

"You can let your mind go crazy with this stuff," he says. "Let's say I want to withdraw $100. The bank will give me a code on my phone and I go touch the screen on the ATM and withdraw. Maybe I need to pay my grandmother in Poland; I go plop down $100, I give her a code and she can walk to any Euronet ATM and pull out her money without having a card.

"We knew years ago, even in the late '90s, that you might forget your wallet, but you're not going to forget your mobile phone. Well, now you don't really need your card, your phone can be your card thanks to digital wallets and virtual accounts. That's where REN is taking us."

Even by Euronet standards, REN is a bold step forward, especially given American banks' tendency to move slowly when it comes to adopting proven technology, let alone reach for what's coming next. But it's just the kind of play Warren has shown a taste for.

"Tony is more of a risk-taker," says Cindy Ashcraft, whom Warren replaced in his current role after Ashcraft's retirement. "I think that's important because what is needed over the [company's] next 20 years is not what I brought to it in the last 30. It needs somebody who understands where we had been, but also looks ahead to what might happen in the future and does things differently.

"Having someone there who has that history but also is comfortable with change and risk and the unknown of the future is critical, I think."

As for Warren himself, he's characteristically quick to deflect attention and credit for what he's been a part of all these years. He's ill at ease with titles, even more so with the spotlight, so he does his best to mute those elements while still living up to his mantle of responsibility, one project, one team, one person, at a time.

"Having some boy from Arkansas start out as a programmer, then get to travel to many different places and understand international culture and international business, I would have never thought that could happen," he says, looking around the darkened office as if to conjure up the cadre of talent that usually surrounds him. "I would have thought I'd be in the corner writing code and that's it.

"That's why I take the time to meet with every single new employee. I want them to know my door is always open. And, I want them to realize, from day one, that they're an important part of something great here, something where their opportunities are almost limitless."

SELF PORTRAIT

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 4, 1965, Little Rock

FAMILY: I’m divorced and the father of two great kids: Payne, 21, a rising senior at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, and Piper, 16, a rising junior at Baptist Prep in Little Rock. Kudos to their mom, by the way.

FAVORITE MOVIE: Top Gun

I WANTED TO GROW UP TO BE: As a young kid I wanted to be an action film star — think Steve McQueen. Later, I wanted to be a professional golfer.

FAVORITE ARKANSAS GOLF COURSE: Pleasant Valley Country Club (Little Rock) because of all the memories. I was lucky enough to have a job there bringing up golf carts to the pro shop early in the morning before school, and in the summer, this gave us access to play golf. I got my first and only hole-in-one there.

BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: “Be on time and do what you say — and be careful what you say.” — Clarence Warren, my dad

TOTAL NUMBER OF COUNTRIES VISITED DURING MY CAREER: Roughly 30, and I may have missed some.

THE ONE THING I KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT ALL PEOPLE: We are all wired differently.

GUILTY PLEASURE: Fixing things or working on challenging projects in the shop, even if I have to make my own tools to do it.

ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Passionate

NAN Profiles on 05/24/2020

Print Headline: Tony Warren

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