Keith Brand is the SVP of Business Development and Co- Founder of TOTUS.
Let’s start with a brief intro about you:
I am a Midwesterner, born in Kalamazoo Michigan, with a poly sci degree from U of M (go blue!), Cubs fan and proud dad who was lucky to find my niche and calling 20+ years ago with these little things called gift cards- taking me on an unplanned ride. Now I live in the panhandle of Florida near the beach since leaving Chicago during the pandemic. My lovely wife, Katya, and I have two children- a girl and a boy, both of whom keep us very busy. Our kids know daddy sells gift cards for a living, they think I surely must have met the Queen or Peppa Pig when I was in England, and they always get excited to walk by the gift card mall rack at the grocery store, or to get gift cards for their birthdays and holidays. They would probably be more excited if I worked for Kinder or Disney, but gift cards are just fine by them!
How did you begin your career in the payments industry?
I guess you can say I simply stumbled into it! My background is in retail category management, where I oversaw various departments ranging from soft drinks to dresses to cosmetics to financial services. I was managing “alternative financial services” for Circle K Stores, which included check cashing, billpay, prepaid long distance and mobile, money transfer, ATMs, etc. But we realized a need for a “stored value” device in the very early days of gift cards (late 90’s) similar to what Blockbuster Video had created within their stores. We thought this “cash card” (as we called it) would be beneficial to reduce queue times, since customers who visited daily often fumbled with cash and coins. But a “cash card” would allow them to check out quickly. So, we built out the infrastructure to issue, activate and redeem a stored value card, ultimately presenting a Circle K gift card to the market. It was a difficult task to devise that gift card program and a company like TOTUS would have been invaluable to us at the time.
That experience was the stimulus in 2003 for leaving Circle K and starting a consulting firm, Tefisto Partners, which focused on the prepaid and gift card space. My early client, Coinstar, realized their US retail partner locations and coin counting machines would be ideal places to offer 3rd party gift cards, and thus, we set about creating their first gift card mall offering, as well as securing partners for their coin machines. In 2005, we decided (with full support from Coinstar) to parachute over to the UK and build what became the first 3rd party retail gift card program outside of the states. Our first retail account was WHSmith book and convenience retailer. After building out Coinstar’s UK program, which was later sold to Incomm, I created the UK’s first online pure-play 3rd party retail store in 2008, TheGiftCardCentre.co.uk, which is now in its 14th year and still growing strong.
In 2010, Sears Holdings reached out while I was traveling Europe and looking for my next challenge- which turned out to be heading up their US Alternative Financial Services and gift card programs. In 2018, I partnered with the SVM team to expand their gift card Issuance and Program Management business beyond their core brands. Our objective at SVM was to use their 20+ years of expertise in issuing and managing gift card programs for major petrol retailers and apply that model to newer brands- digital natives, bricks & clicks, streamers, online apparel, etc.
In 2020, Blackhawk Network acquired SVM. I then worked with Blackhawk to build out their new issuance business. However, after realizing a significant market opportunity to start a pure play and neutral positioned company dedicated to gift card issuance and program management, the stars aligned and I joined the TOTUS founding team earlier this year. Hopefully as they say, the rest is history.
When did TOTUS launch and how much has it grown as of date?
TOTUS was launched in early 2022. We then got the band back together – the core group of people in the industry who have led outsourced gift card issuance and program management. Brands are now approaching us, reassured that we are the gift card industry’s neutral and deeply experienced player who can issue, manage and promote a multi-channel gift card program, without constraints to a specific processor, network or partner. We are also reaching out to ascendant brands that will likely evolve into the next big gift card programs and brands as some of the older brands fade away.
What role does TOTUS play in the gift card industry?
We created TOTUS based on an essential need to issue and manage gift card programs on behalf of company brands. Legal, regulatory and escheatment issues are complicated now, more than ever. Brands are also burdened with all the tactical responsibilities that come with gift cards – processing, card production, inventory management, customer service, fraud prevention, distribution, account management, business development, etc.
TOTUS essentially becomes the brand – representing our partners out in the market, while taking on the burden of gift card programs in order to maximize sales potential.
Many emerging brands, especially digitally native brands, have a gift card online but are not in B2B or 3rd party retail programs yet. How does TOTUS come into play?
Many of our digital native or bricks & clicks partners and prospective partners do offer a gift card on their website but nobody is managing the program. Typically, their e-commerce solution is rudimentary, without physical cards or scheduling or personalization options. Also, many brands are experiencing a high rate of attempts to purchase gift cards that result in rejection, as well as a significant chargeback and/or fraud rate.
For B2B and 3rd party retail, some emerging brands simply don’t know where to turn or how to procure placement on the Gift Card Mall racks at Kroger, Target, Walmart, Lowe’s and more. And when it comes to the B2B gift card opportunity, it is just confusing. Most brands are aware of the points-for-gift-cards loyalty programs at AMEX, Chase and Capital One, or exposed to employee rewards programs involving gift cards, but lack knowledge of the process to establish a gift card program.
TOTUS works with our brand partners to create a best-in-class, multi-channel gift card solution. We collaborate with our partners in order to create a compelling and simple online gift card landing page, with digital, physical and bulk/corporate links. We then advise on a competitive rate to break into B2B and 3rd party retail programs, work with their team to prioritize B2B programs and retail brands of their choice, and push them to market, serving as their outside salesforce. Our goal is to guide brands in the direction of their preference focusing on the customer experience ordering digital, physical or bulk gift cards online.
Have other companies pursued the same concept as TOTUS?
SVM was the industry pioneer in the Issuance and Program Management space, conceived by the founder and former CEO Marshall Reavis, who was the visionary behind the model. Reavis ran the ExxonMobil gift card program in the mid-90’s, and convinced Exxon it would be advantageous to outsource the issuance and management of their program to SVM- the company he ultimately founded. The accomplishments of SVM resulted in attracting other major petrol players– ConocoPhillips, ChevronTexaco, etc. and SVM became known as the place to go for fuel gift cards. Reavis and the SVM team then expanded their issuance and program management model to additional verticals – namely bricks & clicks and digital native brands. SVM was acquired by Blackhawk Network in 2020.
Issuance and Program Management is an incredibly unique and specialized space. Interestingly, TOTUS is the only pure play company in the US who currently offers this service, bringing 100 collective years in the gift card industry, including many former SVM and Blackhawk Network colleagues.
What is the future of gift cards?
Well, we are just getting started. Global Industry Analysts published a report in 2021 that sized the global gift card market at $767 billion in 2020, growing to $1.4 trillion, yes, trillion, by 2026.
We expect many US brands, given the complexities of navigating 50 state and national gift card legal, regulatory and escheatment issues, will want to outsource the issuance of their closed loop gift card programs in the future. Why deal with those landmines when you can hire an expert company to tackle them for you? Also, more brands will want to maximize their potential with 1st party, b2b and 3rd party retail gift card sales channels, eventually hiring a program and sales manager specifically for those channels. TOTUS brings it all together – issuance plus program and sales management. We are truly the one-stop shop that brands need to make sure they are maximizing the full potential and benefits of their gift card program.
What defines the culture of TOTUS?
TOTUS is all about gift cards. Our people come from the gift card industry and simply love the space – we’re essentially gift card geeks. Our goal is helping brands succeed in the space. We are a collaborative company, a team of peers who have come together to build something we think will be a game changer. We are virtual, in that we have no central office, so we get together regularly on Zoom plus meet for quarterly meetings. We are a jovial and friendly bunch, who genuinely like working with each other and enjoy meeting new people whom we believe will easily become a part of this incredible team that we are fortunate to have built.
What is your personal objective for TOTUS?
At this stage of my career, I realize that what is most important and most rewarding is creating something substantial and meaningful. I like being on the team with the white hats – the good guys. At TOTUS we are just getting started, but I believe the need for the TOTUS solution in the gift card industry will go on for decades. I believe that brands will realize the advantage of completely outsourcing their gift card programs so they can focus on their core business and what they do best. And beyond building a great company with a great solution with great partners, I sincerely value and appreciate the team of experts we have assembled at TOTUS – we’re a fun group, and it’s a joy to “go to work” every day. As it should be.