Executive profile: OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles
Christa Quarles was named CEO of OpenTable by The Priceline Group in late 2015, after serving as OpenTable's CFO, and then interim CEO when former CEO Matt Roberts became the Chairman of the company.
Quarles served as the Chief Business Owner for neighborhood-based social network Nextdoor, where she oversaw general business development and intelligence as well as other business functions like the human resources and legal departments, and shaped the company's business models. Nextdoor differentiated itself by having users' posts only be visible to people in the immediate neighborhood, effectively making it the first private social network that stood out from competition, and Quarles oversaw the dawn of revenue streams within the company – like the sale of household items and offering personal services in a manner similar to Craigslist – except Nextdoor promised more security and privacy.
Quarles has extensive experience with digital businesses that constantly evolve, and modernizing Web 1.0 businesses. She also has significant leadership experience in the gaming industry, having served as SVP and general manager for Disney Interactive where she led their mobile and social games divisions, and also as CFO of casual gaming giant Playdom prior to its acquisition by Disney. Before working for Playdom and Disney, she spent ten years as an equity research analyst specializing in the internet sector at Thomas Weisel Partners (now Stifel Financial), and also served as a managing director and senior equity research analyst for the same firm and its affiliated partnerships, having covered the internet sector since 2000. Holding a CFA designation along with a bachelors in economics from Carnegie Mellon University with honors and an MBA from Harvard, Quarles received recognition from Greenwich Associates, Forbes, and Starmine for her analyst work in the digital space. She then joined Playdom as CFO in 2009 and saw the company through its IPO, before helping sell the company to Disney for $760M immediately after acquiring and integrating seven companies for Playdom at a clip of one company per month.
Throughout her career spanning different industries in the digital space, Quarles' leadership style has been uniquely reflected in her ability to identify when, how, and where companies in the digital space are about to break and what can be done to save them. Her chief strategies for steering digital companies towards change are supporting fast growth by reactively leaning in, paying attention to how often companies temporarily break (but don't completely fail), and subsequently drawing a clear line between the finders and fixers of discrepancies. Quarles advocates avoidance of generalized solutions since no two companies will ever experience growth the same way, and her past successes have relied on closely monitoring four key areas during growth: headcount, revenue, users, and geographic expansion.
Quarles' HR philosophy that has contributed to the successes of the companies she has run is hiring passionate people, whether they are passionate about the company itself or simply their role in the company, and she can determine this in the first seven minutes of the interview. She believes that a passionate employee will be happier and more productive than one who doesn't care about the company or the job: workers must love solving the problems they are hired to solve rather than what the company sells so that they are not just another number in the headcount.
She has plans to bring OpenTable to new heights by reshaping how its users go out to dinner with mobile payments, personalized recommendations, premium reservations, and other updates that will keep the company at an advantage over the start-ups that continue to make tasks like placing reservations and orders more convenient and personalized. Ms. Quarles plans to especially focus on the review aspect of dining out per the user analysis of her growth strategy, as online reviews have become crucial to businesses of all sizes to get recognized and address problems.
Drawing upon her vast background in business intelligence and strategic growth management, OpenTable's business model is expected to see more changes under Quarles’ leadership, with goals of getting more user interaction and driving more business to restaurants that use OpenTable but also utilizing being a part of the Priceline Group. Quarles plans on making OpenTable universal through Priceline's technology and global travel aspects, vastly expanding from the eight countries the company currently operates in so that all users who are global travelers can seamlessly become global diners no matter what territory or market they are in. She is also harnessing the power of social media and search engines by forming key partnerships with Instagram and Google, so that photos of food and restaurants will integrate with OpenTable reviews straight from the users and simply entering a restaurant's name in Google will result in a button that lets the user make a reservation through OpenTable. Quarles will be adopting additional revenue streams for OpenTable as well, such as paying a premium for reservations at restaurants that fill up quickly, and she has been experimenting with surge pricing akin to Uber.
An integral component of her leadership philosophy includes working towards and even being affirmed by problems: that failures are one-directional and indicative of stagnation rather than innovating and drastically improving internal processes.
Read the June 2016 issue of Business Review USA & Canada magazine
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.