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The Peak Interview: James Lim – Priority Relationships

Well-known in the credit-card industry for marketing to affluent customers, James Lim reveals just what makes him tick – and why he’s recently had to change his way of life.

Twenty minutes into the interview, James Lim whips out his fancy credit card made from liquid metal and, with a flourish, flings it onto the conference table.

The card lands with a glorious thunk, amid gasps and giggles from two public-relations minders and two management trainees observing the interview.

It’s an audacious gesture, meant to show that card, not cash, is king in this office.

Indeed, Lim is almost like a walking advertisement for Visa, the company at which he has worked for 13 years.

At the global payment-technology company’s office in Robinson Road, he exclaims that he hates the most ubiquitous form of money – cash – and proceeds to extol the virtues of using plastic.

Carrying wads of notes doesn’t give him security, he says, taking out his wallet to show that he keeps less than $100 for day-to-day expenses.

He says: “If I lose my wallet, the first thing gone is my cash, and there’s no way I can track it. If I lose a card, I will probably recover it with one phone call to the bank, which will replace it for me.”

Cards are safe, convenient to use and reliable, says Lim, Visa’s head of consumer products for the Asia-Pacific, Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, who has been marketing to high-net-worth individuals for a decade.

The 45-year-old adds vehemently that he never uses the electronic payment system Nets, another competitor of the company. Instead, he prefers to withdraw money with a debit card and uses a contactless credit card at lunch breaks.

James Lim with golf great Rory McIlroy.
James Lim with golf great Rory McIlroy.

CASH AS A COMPETITOR
For Lim, the most exciting development in his industry is the advent of a truly cashless society. “More and more people are using electronic payment, be it cards or wireless modes of payment, because of the system’s security and reliability.”

Which is why “the biggest competitor is cash, for us”, he adds. “How do I convert more cash payments into electronic payments?”

The goal, he says later, “is to replace inefficient ways to pay by offering consumers choice – credit, debit and prepaid”. Visa Inc handles about US$6.7 trillion (S$8.6 trillion) in total volume and 85 billion total transactions globally.

Like any savvy businessman, Lim says that the keen competition from other payment companies such as Mastercard and American Express only results in innovation – for instance, in the wide array of benefits offered to cardholders.

In the US, for instance, the company’s new digital- wallet solution called V.me lets online shoppers store their personal and card information safely. Making purchases online is more convenient, as users simply key in their V.me user name and password, instead of lengthy bits of information. The service is not yet available in Singapore.

Similarly, at the luxury level, Lim points to understanding consumers’ lifestyles and providing solutions as the key to innovation. For instance, Speedpass, which started three years ago and operates in over 380 airports, is a VIP service that fast-tracks the cream of the cardholder crop in the event of long immigration queues. Lim says the service was offered when consumers pointed out that when they pay for a first-class ticket, they get luxurious service in the air but, on the ground, they have to line up like everyone else.

“That’s when we worked with our business partner to expedite that. And people are willing to pay to get to the front of the queue. That, to me, is innovation.”

Then, there’s the drive to make people happy within the bounds of morality and legality which, according to the company’s research, appeals especially to high-net-worth individuals looking for unique, extraordinary experiences.

Indeed, according to Lim, the company’s round-the-clock concierge service is a key differentiator for the card, with a repeat usage rate of 30 per cent in the Asia-Pacific. He declines to reveal the cost of its operations, although more than 70 agents work for the Asia-Pacific branch of the service. They pride themselves on pull-hat tricks like procuring tickets to the Grammy Awards and the Wimbledon finals at the last minute, and seating cardholders at the UK’s famous Michelin-star The Fat Duck Restaurant in a week, instead of the usual three-month waiting list.

Figuring out what people want – and making them pay for that privilege – comes with the territory. For instance, last year, Lim helped to launch a solid-gold card studded with 26 diamonds in Kazakhstan, to 100 invitation-only customers of a Russian bank. The price tag of each card? A reported US$100,000, not including the US$2,000 annual fee.

He says that the demand was there for a card that’s a “collectible item”, from “cardholders that want to be distinctly different… who want to talk about status”. In Singapore, there is no demand for such a blinged-out card just yet, although he says that there is much more interest in the metallic card on the table.

For Lim, matching customers’ expectations and keeping up with the competitors go a long way in helping to create that cashless utopia.

James Lim, Visa's head of consumer products for the Asia-Pacific, Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, practices what he promotes, shunning the use of cash for various electronic payment options.
James Lim, Visa’s head of consumer products for the Asia-Pacific, Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, practices what he promotes, shunning the use of cash for various electronic payment options.

FIGHTING SPIRIT
As it turns out, being competitive runs deep in Lim’s veins, even when playing word games with his wife, who is in her 40s and works in marketing for an Asia-Pacific bank, and three children aged between 10 and 18.

He says, only half in jest: “I’m very competitive. I hate to lose. I play Scramble With Friends with my family and I love to win. I rarely lose and, if I do, it’s because I was distracted!”

That keen sense of competition was probably honed as a Singapore Junior badminton player at Montfort Secondary, where he trained almost every day for Under-16 competitions. “My passion then was winning many trophies. But I was slack in my studies. I was an okay student, but I wasn’t scoring As in everything.”

When a close friend about six years older gave Lim, then 14, some advice, he listened. “He said winning trophies is not everything and that it was not going to build a career for me. ‘Tell me how many sportspersons can really make a lot of money in Singapore. Focus on your studies, get your degree, and that will really go a long way.’

“That stuck with me even till today. I had to make a choice – to focus on sports or studies. I think I chose the right path.”

So, Lim, the middle child in a family of five children, gave up chasing medals, buckled down and hit the books.

When he finished his national service, he went on to study economics and business administration at the University of Wisconsin.

There, the value of hard work stayed with him, as he took on a variety of part-time jobs – research assistant, bartender and gardener – to occupy his time outside of class. After he graduated, he stayed on in the US as a management trainee at an American bank, then returned to Singapore where his almost 20-year career in the credit-card industry started.

He joined American Express to work in strategic planning and marketing, becoming a director by the age of 30. He was also at Mastercard for a spell, before he was headhunted by Visa to look after core brands. (So concerned is Visa HQ with competitors that its public-relations manager requested that we not mention the company names.)

Looking back on his career, Lim muses that he is “probably at the highest point in my career right now”. “I have a wonderful team, loyal and committed. We collaborate a lot. They challenge me all the time. And the reason why we’re here is because of the work that we’ve done. So that’s very important, because you can’t get the result if you have not worked for it.”

Three generations of Lims on a wine tour at Niagara Falls.
Three generations of Lims on a wine tour at Niagara Falls.

FAMILY COMES FIRST
Life, however, has thrown some curveballs at Lim. Five years ago, his younger son was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was only four-and-a-half years old.

He recalls: “Good thing we were kiasu parents and had it diagnosed very early. We thought it would be easy to ‘cure’ but it was a stubborn strain of leukaemia, and chemotherapy did not have an impact. We ended up having to do a bone-marrow transplant, taken from my daughter.

“Those two years were a very challenging time. I did think about quitting my job, but Visa let me work flexible hours from home to spend time with my family.”

“The most difficult part for me was how to explain to the kid that he had this illness, that it was no fault of his and that he had to go for several major operations, on top of chemotherapy to the spine.”

That period remains Lim’s saddest but he says he has been able to see it in a good light, as it has led to much family bonding. Today, his son has been given the all-clear and is on his school’s badminton team, just like his dad.

“He’s happy and I’m very happy,” he says with a laugh, adding that the two spend a lot of time together, on activities his son plans and budgets for, like prawning and watching movies. His daughter, 12, and older son, 18, are busy preparing for their PSLE and the final year of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, respectively.

He admits that, these days, family comes first. For instance, although a lifelong Liverpool fan – his dream is to catch a match at Anfield one day – he doesn’t have time to watch every game on TV. And, although his passion includes golf, he doesn’t play the sport as regularly.

“I’m home every weekend. I need to do my fatherly duty to spend time with my kids as they are growing up, especially after what we’ve gone through. That’s become a wake-up call for me, not to take things for granted.

“If you asked my kid before the event, what was my No. 1 priority in life, he would say it was work. He actually told me that, and I went, ‘oh, I thought it was you.’ And he said, ‘no, your No. 1 hobby is work.’” Lim adds that he used to work every Saturday even though the company did not require him to do so, and would travel for work for weeks at a stretch.

While it’s clear that he enjoys what he does and is committed at work, he’s no longer the workaholic he once was. He says: “The important thing is to know when to shut off and when to stay engaged. I used to have my laptop plugged in at home all the time. These days, I don’t do that anymore. As a matter of fact, I don’t bring my laptop home anymore.

“Now, I see my family very often, and I have no regrets.”