Lessons in Leadership

  • WEX president and CEO Melissa Smith.

  • Coffee comes with an inspirational message.

WEX CEO and president Melissa Smith is guided by her rural Maine upbringing.

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Growing up in a small town, you learn the importance of community,” says Melissa Smith, president and CEO of WEX, Inc. “Everybody has to participate.” Raised on a farm in the Penobscot County hamlet of Winn (population 407 at the last census in 2010), Smith also became well versed in the advantages of self-reliance. “As a family, we would bring in hay every year,” says Smith. “I drove a huge, old hay truck when I was just old enough to see over the wheel. If you dumped the hay truck, you had to reload it yourself, so you learned pretty quickly that you had to do it well.” Now responsible for a company that generated a
billion dollars in revenue in 2016, Smith has made good use of those early lessons.

Equally at home in the WEX boardroom, on the Maine Cancer Foundation’s Tri for a Cure triathlon course, and as chairperson of the 2017 American Heart Association Go Red for Women Luncheon, 48-year-old Smith looks at change as an opportunity for growth. Her mother, a divorced parent of three daughters, married Smith’s stepfather when Smith was five. Her stepfather, whom she says was “the rock in my life” until he died a year ago, had five children of his own. Three of them lived with Smith and her sisters, along with a menagerie of family animals. “I’m pretty good with chaos,” Smith says with a laugh.

Smith attended the University of Maine in Orono, like her mother and grandmother before her. “My first economics lesson was my mother sitting down and saying, “Honey, you can go to school anywhere you want in the world. Let’s do the math,” she says. Because her mother worked at the University of Maine, Smith was eligible to attend at a reduced cost. As an undergraduate, she would also make a connection that would impact the course of her life.

“I used to get these notes back from the accounting professor that would say, ‘You should consider this to be your major,’” says Smith. “He started talking to me about what public accounting was like: you get to go and travel and see how different companies work.” Smith followed her professor’s advice and completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

After a stint at the accounting firm Ernst and Young, in 1997 Smith joined what was then the Wright Express Corporation as a senior financial analyst. Wright Express, founded in 1983, was a descendant of A. R. Wright, a family-owned business founded in 1895 with a focus on coal and heating oil.

Smith calls WEX (which went public in 2005 and assumed its new name in 2012) a “derivative” of the original company. WEX now helps companies in the travel, health, and fuel industries manage payments. “What we’re trying to do is add value where payment technology and data intersect,” says Smith. “If you were to book a hotel room with an online travel agency, you would pay that hotel with your consumer credit card, but when the hotel gets paid, they’re paid behind the scenes with a virtual card that’s generated by WEX.”

Smith became the CEO of WEX in 2013; in 2014, she also assumed the role of president. The South Portland–based company now employs 2,700 people in 11 countries, including Brazil and the Republic of Singapore. “When we became global, that made it very different,” says Smith. “You get to work with people all over the world and you experience things in a different way.” WEX currently has 800 employees located in its Maine office and is poised to add 100 positions in the upcoming year.

Smith has also seen significant growth in her personal life. Four years ago, she married Brian Corcoran, founder of the sports entertainment company Shamrock Sports. “Brian is a great partner,” she says. “He enables me to do what I need to, and vice versa.” She gave birth to their son Baxter in 2014. Last January, twins Grace and Foster joined the clan. “We rely pretty heavily on our extended family,” admits Smith, who says that Corcoran’s parents and her mother have helped keep things running smoothly.

Noting the importance of this type of support, Smith has championed workplace initiatives for WEX families. Last year, WEX began offering six weeks paid leave for men and women after the birth or adoption of a child. “It’s in the category of doing the right thing,” says Smith. “When I started looking at the ways that leave is considered around the world, it’s a place that the United States is largely lagging. It felt like a trend that was coming to us and I’d rather be on the front part of that trend.”

In her business and her personal life, Smith seems to be replicating the patterns of shared responsibility and interdependence that were so integral to her childhood, and she is grateful for the opportunities that she has had. “I grew up very grounded in what you need and what you want—and that those are two different things in life.”

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