We met with Ed Puckhaber, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Thanks Again, a B2C airport loyalty platform, and GlidePathCX, a B2B company focused on improving the passenger experience and maximizing airport value, to talk about his experience in the loyalty marketing industry in the past 20 years. Check out his interview below:
Tell us about yourself. What’s your story, and how did you get to where you are today?
I started out in banking and spent seven years as a corporate banker, working in Atlanta and New York City for two different banks. During that time, one of my colleagues, Marc Ellis, left to join his brother Jay in starting a pickup and delivery dry cleaning business in Brooklyn, Harlem, and Queens. I was still working at the bank, but in the evenings I was pursuing my interest in information technology and as a result helped Marc and Jay launch their first dry cleaning website. The company, called Pinstripes, quickly grew to about 3,000 customers.
Eventually I decided to leave banking altogether to join Marc and Jay, and we’ve been working together now for the better part of 20 years. As Pinstripes was growing, we developed a technology called MyCloset™ that tracked what people were wearing and their clothing brands. We gave people a 10% discount for letting us itemize their dry cleaning orders. With MyCloset we started wondering, where else could this be applicable? and decided to reach out to Tommy Hilfiger and Brooks Brothers to potentially collaborate. They said that if we could tell them what’s being cleaned, zipcode by zipcode through the US, (e.g., is it an Ann Taylor blouse? What color is it? What year was it purchased?) then they could figure out when people would need to replace that item and put an offer in front of them. We realized we could do that, so we began to develop a network of 2,000 dry cleaners, a US-wide marketing coalition, and started doing outbound promotional offers on the clean clothes we were returning. By 2003 we were working with about 50 different major retailers, everybody from Nine West to Ann Taylor, to Target and many others. With all this going on, we started wondering, how can we connect this network of dry cleaners to larger corporate entities since, for the most part, dry cleaning is a very mom-and-pop, fragmented industry without any national brand power? How can we connect them with a bigger industry?
We ended up partnering with a program called UPromise®, which is a loyalty program for college students paying university tuition. Through UPromise, we were able to offer on dry cleaning purchases 3% back that would go directly into students’ college savings accounts. UPromise told us, we have to find a way to track the transactions very consistently across this very fragmented industry. At the time there was only one good way to do that, called registered card (now known as card linking). Instead of having to integrate with every single point of sale system being used by different stores, which are constantly changing, UPromise taught us to track the transactions on the back-end via the payment card transaction networks instead.
Over the next years we partnered with several different companies to do that, working with merchant processor data first. Around 2013, we started integrating directly with the payment card networks like Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, in order to continue tracking the transactions on the back-end instead of at the point of sale. Then, in 2021, through our new partnership with Pentadata, we started tracking the transactions using account linking instead of card linking. Account linking takes advantage of “open banking” where consumers can opt-into sharing their data for various purposes such as mortgage applications and loyalty programs.
Through our dry cleaning network, we established the brand Thanks Again, coming from the sentiment, “Thanks Again for your business!” Now in the last decade, through a series of events, we’ve completely shifted our focus from dry cleaning to airport loyalty, while continuing to use the name Thanks Again as our B2C brand that works with specific airports. As of today, we’ve grown our ATL Rewards database to more than 5 million people. BOS Rewards and other airport-branded, white-labeled programs are starting to take off too, and we’re looking to launch dozens of large hub, medium hub, and small hub airports in the very near future. It’s been a wild ride going from dry cleaning to airports!
What was the process like for switching from card linking to account linking?
Honestly it was a pretty scary thing to take that leap. We knew that open banking was a European thing but wasn’t very prevalent in the United States yet. So we’ve been watching it play out in Europe and then also did some beta testing with Pentadata, which helped us become more comfortable with the technology and decide to move forward.
Another thing that directed us is that we’re not fans of screen scraping as a way to run account linking and prefer direct integrations instead, which is one of the reasons we chose to work with Pentadata because they’re committed to doing direct integrations wherever possible. Not having to use screen scraping gave us the impetus to move toward account linking.
Tell us about GlidePathCX. As you envision the future, where do you think things are going with your companies?
For many years we felt we needed a strong B2B brand because Thanks Again speaks to the consumer, but it doesn’t always speak to the airport management or to the airlines that we’re working with now. GlidePathCX is a perfect brand for that purpose. CX stands for customer experience which in the last two years has become the focus. We realized we needed to pivot toward looking at customer experience holistically, not just with loyalty. The data that you collect with a loyalty program is really a means to an end, translating to better, more targeted engagement and happier customers. So we put all the customer experience pieces – the engagement piece, marketing automation, loyalty, and appeasement mechanisms – together under the overarching brand GlidePathCX. We also created our business intelligence dashboard that brings it all together, and it’s really resonating quite well with businesses.
We’re excited to formally debut GlidePathCX at the ACI Customer Experience Global Summit in Krakow, Poland in September, as well as launch some other white labeled programs in the very near future!
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about launching a rewards loyalty program?
First, you have to be aware that there are things that are not going to be perfect. Even within card linking as a whole, there’s not a perfect solution. There are always nuances and issues that you have to work around or resolve. Second, standardization is a good thing. Getting consistent information from every single source is so important to run a successful loyalty program. Lastly, do your homework. If you’re trying to do account linking, you need to try to anticipate what the advantages and potential limitations could be. And then be aware that it takes awhile to really understand how everything works. It really helps to work with people who already have significant experience in card linking, account linking, and open banking.
To find out more about how Pentadata’s account linking and open banking services could benefit your company, reach out today.