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Brad Wiskirchen: Highflying achiever in Idaho technology

Kount CEO Brad Wiskirchen. Photo by Pete Grady.

Kount CEO Brad Wiskirchen. Photo by Pete Grady.

Kount is not what you’d call a household name. Though it holds a fistful of awards for innovation, chances are you’ve never heard of it. At the same time, if you buy things online, you’ve probably used it.

“Let’s say you’re buying something from Staples,” says CEO Brad Wiskirchen, adding that many people don’t realize Staples is second only to Amazon as an e-commerce retailer. “You buy it from Staples, Staples takes your information, sends it to us, and in 250 to 350 milliseconds – faster than a blink – we tell them, ‘This is likely to be a fraudulent transaction.’”

But how does it know?

Well, that’s where the innovation part comes in. “We see millions of transactions and we see hundreds of data points,” Wiskirchen says, such as where the person is, what device they’re using, and how they’ve behaved historically. “We evaluate those across all the transactions we see, and we’re able to see whether it’s Brad from Boise, or in Kazakhstan.”

Wiskirchen’s young son, though, has a different way of describing what he does for a living.

“’My dad catches the bad guys on the Internet,’” Wiskirchen says.

Overachiever

Wiskirchen (“Like ‘whisker-chin,’” he explains) is what you might call an overachiever. He’s not just a CEO; he was CEO for three companies at once. In addition, one of them was Keynetics, the largest privately held tech company in Idaho, according to the Idaho Private 75 analysis of the top 75 private companies in Idaho. Kount didn’t just get a venture capital infusion; it got $80 million, which is said to be the largest venture financing in Idaho history, from CVC Capital Partners. When he sent in his application for CEO of Influence, he included letters of recommendation from seven people – four of them fellow CEOs or presidents. He served on the board of the Salt Lake City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco for five years, acting as chairman his final two years. He passed his bar exam on the first try. He has served on a staggering number of boards.

And all this while raising two children, which Wiskirchen and his wife waited to have until he left the law practice of Holland & Hart, where he served as a business attorney for a number of Boise companies, mostly in the technology sector. “As an associate of a national law firm, you work a lot of hours,” he explains. “I still work a lot of hours, but I have more control over which hours.” For example, he says he doesn’t miss their sports games or ballet performances. “If I have to fly from San Francisco and then fly back the next morning, I do it.”

At this point, however, Wiskirchen is CEO of just one company, Kount. “They wanted me to concentrate exclusively on growing the account,” he says. “When someone gives you $80 million, they want you to be a good steward.”

Storyteller

Wiskirchen, 47, who doesn’t espouse the jeans-and-t-shirt look that you expect to see in a high-tech company, likes to tell stories. One of the stories he likes to tell is how he came to be CEO of Keynetics, which is where his venture into high tech started.

It was about a month after Wiskirchen had graduated from law school at the University of Notre Dame. He was attending a lecture by Bayless Manning, former dean of the Stanford Law School, about a leveraged student loan program. “He came up to me afterwards and he said, ‘Can I introduce myself?’ and I said, ‘I know who you are, sir.’ And he said, ‘I’ve given this presentation before and no one’s ever nodded where they should nod, frowned where they should frown, and smiled where they should smile, until today, and I want to take you to lunch.’”

So they went to lunch and Manning asked Wiskirchen what he thought of the plan. “I said, ‘Pretty good.’ He said, ‘So that implies you’d change it.’” Wiskirchen explained what he would change. “I could tell he wasn’t pleased, and I thought, ‘I’ve just antagonized him, like a fool.’” Then Manning called him. “’I thought you were a flippant young man until I got home and realized you were right. Can we have lunch again?’ We had lunch virtually every Friday from 1996 until he died two years ago.”

Manning, along with Tim Barber, Barber’s wife Eileen, and Geoff Hoyl, were the founders of Keynetics, a holding company for retail digital goods, which eventually moved to Boise. “Several years later, they asked me to take over as CEO, and I declined,” Wiskirchen says, because he wanted to make partner at Holland & Hart. “One year to the day, they came back and said, ‘You made partner. Now would you be interested in running Keynetics?’ So I agreed.”

Corporate Structure

So how do the three companies fit together? Keynetics is a holding company for the other two, Clickbank and Kount.

Clickbank is an online retailer of digital goods such as electronic books and memberships, largely produced by “infopreneurs,” Wiskirchen describes. “We help people turn their avocation into their vocation. During the day, they’re an elementary school teacher or an auto mechanic. Selling books at Clickbank, they make more money than during their day jobs, and they can leave that by the side and do what they’re most passionate about.”

What kind of books?  “Anything you can plug ‘how to’ in,” Wiskirchen says. “’How to attract hummingbirds to your yard.’ We have tens of thousands of titles.” The company has transactions in 180 countries every day, he says.

But in the process of running Clickbank, the management team realized it did one thing better than any of its competitors, and that was to detect and prevent fraud. So they set up another company, Kount, to focus just on that. “Kount is basically the spawn of Clickbank,” he says. It now serves as the exclusive fraud control for Chase, which controls more than half of the world’s “card not present” – in other words, Internet – transactions, as well as being the exclusive fraud control for Braintree, which is a division of PayPal. “There’s a globally pervasive need for the service we render,” he says. “Online fraud is growing at an almost unfathomable rate.”

Technology? In Idaho?

Idaho is not typically thought of as a high-tech hotbed, but Wiskirchen likes it. “I think it’s a great place to be,” he says. “People from New York and San Francisco ask, ‘Why are you in Boise?’ and they come here and see why and that it’s a great place.”

While as CEO of a privately held company he doesn’t have to reveal his salary, Wiskirchen says staying in Boise hasn’t hurt him. “I’m paid well. It hasn’t been limiting to my career,” he says. “I have every opportunity with these companies that I would in Seattle or San Francisco, and I get to do it from the luxury of Boise, Idaho.”

That said, it can be a challenge to find technical employees in Idaho. “It’s why we have our Colorado office,” Wiskirchen explains, because the company couldn’t hire enough technical workers in Boise. Nor is he a technologist himself. “You surround yourself with brilliant tech experts,” he says. “You steer the ship. Business is a team sport. I’m fortunate to have made good choices for team members, and they have created fantastic companies that are morally compelling.”

However, Boise State is now producing more computer science graduates than it did 10 years ago. “If we were starting with those companies now, we wouldn’t have to set them up remotely,” Wiskirchen says. “I’d think we could get the talent in Boise.” To help develop that talent, the company – located across the street from Boise State – hires “all kinds of interns,” he says.

Idaho also offers other advantages. “I actually feel like Idaho provides you with direct access to decision makers,” Wiskirchen says. “In California or Seattle, it’d be difficult to get through to the mayor or governor. If I need that in Idaho, or the director of the Department of Commerce, they’re a phone call away. I rarely haven’t been able to get in with them within a day or so.”

Not to mention all the other CEOs. “You just know each other,” Wiskirchen says. “It’s a small town. You know each other from the Arid Club, or from committees, nonprofit boards you’re on, clubs you’re in, the Chamber of Commerce. It’s a small enough town that you end up serving on the same committees as people.”

And the other CEOs recognize it. “He’s an amazing example to the rest of us in serving in the community,” says Gardner CEO and a 2015 CEO of Influence Tommy Ahlquist, who’s no slouch in that area himself. “His comments are always so thoughtful, so well thought out, and he’s really inspiring to be around.”

In particular, Ahlquist praised Wiskirchen’s contributions to Idaho 2020, which Ahlquist formed to help business leaders deal with issues facing Idaho. “When he speaks, everyone stops and listens because he has such wonderful insight,” he says. “That’s what I appreciate most about him.”

Philanthropy

As Ahlquist mentioned, Wiskirchen is involved in several civic and professional organizations. “Personally, I do it based on what I’m passionate about,” he explains. For example, his daughter studies ballet and his son is in Boy Scouts, so he supports Ballet Idaho and the Boy Scouts. “It changes as your family changes and your personal situation changes.”

Similarly, when Wiskirchen left Holland & Hart, he dropped several legal groups and started joining technology groups instead. That’s also how he came to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve Board is broken into 12 districts, with Idaho in the 12th, the San Francisco Fed. But the San Francisco Fed includes nine states, and amounts to about a third of the U.S. gross domestic product, so it’s broken into five branches: Salt Lake, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

“I reported monthly on the Internet and digital media sector, and on the economy in the state of Idaho,” Wiskirchen says. Other members included CEOs from companies such as Nordstrom, Chevron, and Costco, as well as bankers.

Members are allowed to serve two terms, after which Wiskirchen was replaced by Skip Oppenheimer, CEO of Oppenheimer Companies Inc. “Brad was very highly respected and made a major contribution to that body’s work including as the president the past two years,” Oppenheimer says. “He provided briefings and helpful guidance to the Federal Reserve on some of the critical issues relating to cybersecurity, to list just one of his accomplishments. His combination of strategic thinking, brainpower, concern for others’ welfare and energy are a powerful combination.”

One beneficiary that’s stayed constant is the Idaho Food Bank, which Wiskirchen has supported since 1997, when he was chair of Attorneys Against Hunger during his first year as an attorney. “There’s such a compelling need,” he says.

Keynetics also supports philanthropic organizations, both financially and through service projects, and employees vote on which ones to support. “As a company, I’m not involved at all,” Wiskirchen says. “I used to be, but I found I would go to meetings and I would say, ‘I know the executive director’ and miraculously everyone would vote for the things I voted for. It was almost like I had a veto. So I took myself off the committee.”

So what’s next? “My first, second, and third career priorities are just growing Kount,” Wiskirchen says. “I’m not worried about the next step. I figure it’ll take care of itself if I take care of the task at hand appropriately. If I do this job right, I don’t have to worry about things. I suspect I’m employable.”

And what will be the next step for Kount, which is already growing 50 percent faster than expected? “To be determined,” Wiskirchen says succinctly. “There are two options: Be acquired, or take it public. Time will tell which one we choose.”

About Sharon Fisher