As a successful 20-something marketing executive, Melanie Cochrane made a crucial decision. A colleague just finishing a stint in the London office of American Express asked if she would like to apply for a job as part of the head office marketing team in the Big Apple.
Jumping from a small pond into a big, incredibly competitive lake like the head office of a global giant was both exhilarating and intimidating, and it had all the elements of a swim or sink proposition.
Yet Melanie gave her colleague her answer in just a fraction more than a New York minute. “My colleague said she’d like to have me as part of her team,” recalls Melanie, now the CEO and Group Managing Director of leading data, analytics and technology firm Equifax Australia. “I went home and said to my husband: ‘What do you reckon? Do you fancy giving it a shot and living in New York? He said, ‘Yeah sure. Let’s go!”
Melanie Cochrane never thought of herself as a risk taker. Yet, when Melanie looks back at a stellar business career that spans the past three decades, with leadership positions in some of the world’s largest and most innovative global companies, she now recognises that taking risks is fundamental to the person she is today.
“I never categorised myself as a risk taker,” says Melanie, who was born in Leicester in the UK and graduated in business studies and marketing from Brighton University. “But I love innovation and I love encouraging the people I work with to take risks. Now I look back and I see that what I have done is risk taking. And all those conversations started with me saying ‘Yes,’ and then asking myself ‘What is the worst that can happen?’
“I have had so many times when I have endured self-doubt or imposter syndrome or any of those phrases that people like to use,” says Melanie.
“I remember arriving in New York and getting the escalator up to the head office on my first day at Amex and being absolutely terrified. I can’t tell you how many times I have said to myself ‘What have I just talked myself into?’”
Not that Melanie needed to worry. Combining dedication and drive with a love of innovation and an uncanny talent for team building, Melanie fitted right into the highly competitive business culture at Amex, where she found experience, reward, and increasing responsibility in a variety of leadership roles.
From marketing, Melanie moved to work in the business-to-business (B2B) side of American Express. “I did more business development and strategy than traditional marketing,” she recalls.
What followed was an entrée to a globe-trotting series of jobs leading business teams across the world. She had a six-year appointment based in Australia, and took out Australian citizenship, while looking after AMEX business clients in Sydney, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and India before being approached by head office to run teams working with mid-size businesses across the US out of the office in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Moving to Phoenix, I thought I would love the job but hate living there because of the heat,” she recalls. “And yes, it was damned hot, but I loved everything about it. I could go hiking in the Grand Canyon and live in this incredible desert. It was beautiful.
“I had no idea that running in the desert and jumping over rattle snakes and avoiding coyotes was going to be a part of my life.”
As beautiful and beguiling as the desert was, it was nothing compared to the excitement of Melanie’s next move. AMEX asked her to lead its Global Digital Servicing Transformation Program, a cornerstone strategy to establish AMEX as a Digital leader in the technological age.
“That was something completely outside of my comfort zone,” says Melanie. “I didn’t have a strong technical background. I had about eight bosses and I wasn’t really sure what everybody wanted.”
The job was an enormous effort of collaboration and coordination, of pulling together an ambitious global strategy and then executing it. “I clearly remember sitting down with my brand new team and saying, ‘OK, where do we start?’
It was viscerally exciting. “I had such talented people working for me,” says Melanie. “The world was changing and changing fast, and we had to change with it.”
The transformation and its success gave AMEX the ability to evolve quickly and seize opportunities in that rapidly changing world.
But by then, Melanie was already on a plane back to Australia to become Regional Senior Vice President and General Manager of Corporate Payments and then later Merchant Services, for AMEX in Japan, Asia Pacific & Australia
After five years in “a dream job,” a company restructure gave Melanie an opportunity to take a break. She planned to take a year off and travel, but her plans coincided with the beginning of the global pandemic.
“I had a great chance to decide what I wanted to do next,” she says. “I spent some time in the start-up community learning more about innovation and how corporates take outside innovation in. I really enjoyed being involved in digital transformation, data and getting more involved in the fin-tech world and opening my eyes a little more to the opportunities available.”
Then, about a year ago, data, analytics and technology company Equifax came knocking with an opportunity to lead the company, a challenge that Melanie believes came at exactly the right time.
“I had decided that I was ready to run a business again,” she says. “It was a little lonely working on my own as a consultant. The timing was perfect in hindsight because I had learned that the rate and pace of change in data analytics is simply incredible.
Even so, her first year in the job has been a massive learning curve, she says. “I am definitely not a data scientist, and I am not a technician, but I am fascinated by the things we are able to do for our customers. We have the bandwidth and the freedom, from being part of a bigger organisation, to really bring our business model to life here in Australia and New Zealand.”
Equifax Australia is also in the midst of a digital transformation, redesigning its technology platform and transferring to the cloud to create a cloud native secure environment, a massive operation that has vast potential for the company and the services it provides.
At its core, Equifax began as a traditional credit bureau, Melanie says, but it has evolved into so much more, that change is underpinned by data analytics.
“Once completed the company will have everything in data fabric, in a data lake,” says Melanie. “Traditionally, data sets are siloed, and are not dynamic. In the cloud, we are able to take in so much more data and find unique ways to solve customer problems whether that is being able to identify fraud, being able to identify a supply chain risk or rate a building construction project or even background screening for employees.”
Melanie points to the Building and Construction Project that Equifax has created in conjunction with the NSW Building Commissioner to mitigate risk in the construction and development sector.
“It’s a rating scorecard,” Melanie explains. “There have been a lot of stories about defects in buildings lately. There are a lot of terrible stories about developers going bust and not being able to complete projects or leaving faulty buildings where people are left with sky rocketing strata fees and their personal life savings being impacted through major defects.
“There has been an agenda for reform in this area and we have been working on this project for the past couple of years to help create transparency around the construction industry whether that is for big business, small business or just you or I.”
Away from the office, she shares her life with her husband Andy and their dog Seven (he was the seventh of the litter), a German short-haired pointer. A hockey player in her youth, Melanie also loves team sports. She has combined that love with a passion for horses and now plays polo in western Sydney on the weekends.
“I love animals and I love games with sticks and balls – polo has all of these and even though I play very badly I love it,” she says.
Melanie believes in what she is doing, just as much as she believes in the people around her.
“I am mature enough to know that I am not going to always be the smartest person in the room,’ she says. “And we have some seriously smart people working with us. We have very deep conversations around data privacy, AI, and ethics.
And these conversations include the role that Equifax can play.
“I love the intellectual challenge and I love being able to let people have their wings. I want people to flourish and create an environment that people are proud to be a part of. Being surrounded by such great people and seeing what we can do for our customers is such a great experience.”
Melanie recognises that her role leading Equifax is a bit of a stretch for her “technical” skill set, but that’s also something that has characterised her entire career.
“It’s the optimist in me,” she says. “I’m an extremely optimistic person. Life is definitely a glass half full. I will always look for the silver lining and I think when taking risks or putting yourself outside your comfort zone – and coming to Equifax was definitely outside my comfort zone – you just have to take the attitude that you will find the way and that in the end I wasn’t hired for my technical expertise but for my leadership.
“What I am excited about is what the next few years will bring as we harness the amazing change that we are going through right now.
There are so many solutions we will be able to find for our customers and how that will create even broader impacts.
“Bringing trust and transparency into different ecosystems has huge potential so the timing couldn’t be better in terms of the amount of change and positive disruption from new technologies and the capabilities that come from that.
“I believe I will lead this business for many years to come and help us evolve and deliver in a way that even a few years ago we didn’t think possible. There is so much to offer, and I am confident we will thrive at the next horizon.”