The muscle for digital payment

The muscle for digital payment
© Greg Nash

Kim Ford has always been competitive. When you grow up with a twin sister, she says, it’s just part of the territory.

Before coming to work in her downtown office each morning, Ford wakes up at 4:30 and lifts weights for an hour at Thrive, the Odenton, Md., gym she co-owns with her husband. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Before coming to work in her downtown office each morning, Ford wakes up at 4:30 and lifts weights for an hour at Thrive, the Odenton, Md., gym she co-owns with her husband. 

“Especially as a woman, I really love weightlifting, I love the strength there,” said Ford, the 40-year-old government affairs chief at First Data, showing off toned bare arms.

Once she’s finished pumping iron, Ford takes the train into Washington and gets to the business of keeping the country’s digital economy running, lobbying for a company that most people have never heard of but whose products they have very likely relied on.

“Nobody really knows we exist, and yet we have massive computer systems. Anybody who doesn’t use cash to pay is interacting with us,” she says.

First Data is a payments processor that helps run the financial plumbing people use every time they swipe their credit cards. Banks and retailers rely on their systems to check the purchases people make, approve or deny them and securely relay that information.

Their system processes some 3,000 transactions every second.

You’ve likely used your finger to sign your name at one their Clover terminals, the tablet-as-register system that competes with Square. And you’ve certainly heard of Western Union, which First Data has owned since 1995.

Ford sees her job as ensuring that Congress doesn’t accidentally shut down the system as it grapples with difficult technological concerns, key among them being privacy, First Data’s “marquee issue.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’m not afraid of consumers having more control over their data, that’s absolutely a reasonable expectation,” Ford told The Hill in a recent interview. “It’s just that there needs to be consideration for those of us that need to access certain types of data to make commerce happen.”

An attempt to regulate privacy for a big tech company like Facebook or Google, she fears, could result in regulations that make back-end financial operations much more difficult, even for a company that doesn’t concern itself with building user profiles, selling user data or creating targeted ads.

One example of a tough financial privacy question is whether every company along the chain needs to establish its own consent and terms of agreement if they deal with your data.

“Because we’re not known to most consumers, if someone has to consent to any use of their personal information, how do we get that consent? We interact with you, but you don’t know you’re interacting with us,” Ford said.

“These could be very unworkable very quickly.”

But Ford said she likes a challenge.

Growing up in Tampa, Fla., Ford had no interest in politics or policy, even when her ninth grade history teacher, Mr. Bradshaw, told her she could grow up to be mayor and sent her to a mock Congress in Washington.

Despite her best efforts at orienting her career toward communications, politics pulled her in, first as a PR manager for a local chamber of commerce and then a local builders association.

“At that time, I was very local politics, I was county commission meetings, city council, boards — zoning boards, water boards,” she said.

That led to a brief stint in then-Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemocrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE’s (D-Fla.) office as a liaison to the business community, which ended when Ford and her first husband moved to Colorado. It was there that she started working for First Data as a lobbyist, initially at the state level and then later in D.C.

Ford says the experience of getting promoted to the top of the government affairs totem pole from within the company felt like a big accomplishment, given that such positions usually went to veterans of political campaigns who had experience in Washington and political science backgrounds.

“I’m kind of an outsider in a way, I didn’t do the traditional path,” she said.

“Because I didn’t work on the Hill, I couldn’t deliver all these relationships,” she added. “That’s the currency of a lobbyist, is who they can deliver in terms of a vote, and I didn’t have that.”

But what Ford did have was a strategic view on how to run a multitiered campaign.

“I know the strategies at very different levels, because even though a lot of the strategies may be the same for government relations, the local political scene is very different than the state, which is very different from the federal, and you need to have an awareness of those from working in them to understand what can work for you,” she said.

Another key, she says, is building trust by providing reliable information.

“First Data is a pretty complicated company, and we’re not a consumer-facing company, so we’ve operated behind this shadow of complexity for a long time. I made a concerted effort from day one to really understand the business so that I could be an effective lobbyist,” Ford said.

With the 2020 race in full swing and a slew of presidential candidates swearing off corporate money or even refusing to meet with lobbyists, her work may soon get harder.

“I totally understand that. I think that lobbying still has a very negative connotation around the world, frankly, and it’s something I encounter,” she said.

“You’ll talk to a stranger next to you and they’ll hear I’m a lobbyist and you can see this hesitation that you get, or even their face twists a little, you know. They get a look on their face!”

It’s at moments like that in which Ford finds inspiration in her strength training, or her upbringing as a competitive twin sister, or the work she does with her husband on their gym, where she teaches weights and conditioning classes on weekends.

“That’s perseverance of a sort, and that does translate to wanting to add value, to prove myself,” she said.