A story about Blackhawk Network President Talbott Roche incorrectly stated the month of the company's initial public offering. The IPO occurred in April 2013.
PLEASANTON -- Talbott Roche recalls meetings in the early days of her company to explain to high-profile stores such as Nordstrom the benefits of putting the retailers' gift cards on supermarket aisles.
"They weren't sure about the idea that we were going to put their brand next to the canned peas," said Roche, the 48-year-old co-founder and president of Blackhawk Network, now a billion-dollar company. "It was tough. We had to convince really great brands like Nordstrom, Macy's and Starbucks to put their brands in a grocery environment. They had these cards in their own stores but not in supermarkets."
Retail skeptics weren't the only challenge facing the fledgling Blackhawk, which Roche co-founded in 2001 with serial entrepreneur Donald Kingsborough as a tiny subsidiary of grocery giant Safeway. Consumers had a dim view of giving plastic cards as presents.
But Pleasanton-based Blackhawk convinced retailer after retailer to embrace the concept of gift cards in grocery stores such as Safeway, and in November, Blackhawk went public through a $230 million IPO.
A relentless focus, a strong work ethic and a drive to innovate have bolstered Roche as she helped transform Blackhawk into a worldwide network for prepaid cards with $1.24 billion in yearly revenue.
"Gift cards were just becoming popular when we started," she said in an interview with this newspaper at the Blackhawk's bustling head offices across the street from Stoneridge Mall. "There was a stigma associated with a gift card. Cards were seen as impersonal."
Now gift cards supported by the Blackhawk retail and technology network are ubiquitous in grocery stores and elsewhere, including digital platforms.
"We really revolutionized the way people use gift cards and prepaid products," Roche said. "Today it's more than gift cards, it's also prepaid telecom and financial services cards."
Blackhawk also became one of the fastest-growing units of Safeway, a welcome financial boost for the supermarket chain, which last week finalized its sale to Albertsons.
"When we started, we never thought prepaid cards would be the success that they have become," Roche said.
Several business partners of Blackhawk credit Talbott's leadership for pioneering the new role of gift cards.
"Talbott has a great vision for what the prepaid card industry could be," said Brian Triplett, a senior vice president for North American products with San Francisco-based Visa, one of Blackhawk's partners. "She is a real leader of the industry."
A parent of two children, ages 14 and 12, Roche, who lives in Lafayette, also is seen as successful in balancing family life with her executive role in today's go-go world of mobile communications and swift digital access.
"She is very driven and efficient; she really knows her clients and her customer base," said Kirsten Trusko, president of the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association, a trade group. "She is an entrepreneur and an innovator to spot the opportunities in gift cards that no one else saw."
Roche reminds Steve Kane, group vice president of New York City-based Spafinder Wellness, of a great athlete.
"Talbott makes it look so easy," he said. "And she handles the tough moments with a great deal of grace."
Veteran business leader William Tauscher took over the post of Blackhawk chief executive officer in 2010, and said he is grooming Roche to be his heir.
"I saw Talbott as a huge talent when I first got to know her," Tauscher said. "She is quick and smart. She is enormously productive. She knows the products, the marketing, and was very involved in the IPO and all the financial decisions."
Tauscher said Roche, who also heads the company's engineering and technology efforts, is fiercely competitive.
"She can't stand to lose," he said. "In any kind of a fight, she is very tenacious. She combines that with a great sense of humor. The only thing I worry about with Talbott is she is such an intense competitor that we have to get her to pace herself now and then."
Roche recalls that the company started with a handful of employees. Now Blackhawk has 1,300 employees and provides its services in 22 countries. In its first year, it offered seven brands of gift cards and had one retailer as a partner. Now it has 600-plus brands and numerous online sites as it pushes into the digital world.
"We know we are having an impact," Roche said. "We are inventing solutions for consumers to make their life easier. And we're not just doing it in a vacuum. We're doing it with a team. That is very satisfying."
Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167. Follow him at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.
Claim to Fame: President, Blackhawk Network
Quote: "I am honored to be an advocate for this industry because I've seen how prepaid products can improve people's lives. I'm passionate about what Blackhawk Network products mean to consumers and retailers right now, and I look forward to innovations in the years to come."