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How I Made It: Steven W. Streit, founder and CEO of Green Dot Corp.

The former disc jockey and radio executive created the nation's largest provider of prepaid debit cards, catering to credit-challenged people trying to make ends meet.

November 13, 2011|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times
  • Steven W. Streit thought teenagers would use his prepaid debit cards for online purchases. But when drug store chain Rite Aid became the first big retailer to sell the cards, credit-challenged adults proved to be the main buyers.
Steven W. Streit thought teenagers would use his prepaid debit cards for… (Green Dot Corp. )

The gig: Steven W. Streit is founder and chief executive of Monrovia-based Green Dot Corp., the nation's largest provider of prepaid debit cards. Customers, mostly people without bank accounts, buy the cards at retail outlets, load them with cash or direct-deposit paychecks and use them like bank-issued plastic. They are branded under the Green Dot name and also branded for Wal-Mart Stores.

Past life: Streit was a disc jockey (Streiter with the Heater; the Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla) and radio programming executive. He was left jobless with a sizable golden parachute when Clear Channel took over AMFM Inc., where he was a vice president, in 1999.

"I like going to cities like Washington, D.C., or Orlando, [Fla.,] where stations where I worked are still thriving with the same formats I developed. A highlight on the fun scale was filling in for ['American Top 40' host] Casey Kasem in the mid-'90s. Casey Kasem was to music radio what Walter Cronkite was to TV news."

Paying his dues: Streit nearly exhausted his savings from his radio career getting Green Dot started. He thought teenagers would use his cards for online purchases. But when drugstore chain Rite Aid became the first big retailer to sell the cards, credit-challenged adults proved to be the main buyers.

Personal: Streit, 49, who is divorced, lives in Pasadena and has two sons and four daughters, all grown. He is preparing for the wedding of his eldest daughter, who is 24. Does an early-morning fitness regime with weights and cardiovascular exercise. Currently reading biography of Steve Jobs. Started a foundation, Patti's Way, that helps single mothers pay off debts.

On career-hopping: "What I have in common with other people who have switched businesses in a hurry is a highly curious mind. Maybe I have a plumber cleaning the main drain out to the street from my house. I'll go out hang out with him and spend 45 minutes finding out about clay pipes and all. And by the end of that 45 minutes I'll be able to have an intelligent conversation with someone else who is in the business."

On card costs: Green Dot customers pay on average $6.50 a month in total fees, Streit says. "That is fractional for what the average customer pays for checking at the bank, where one bounced check or overdraft costs you far more — $35 a lot of the time. I know many people use big banks and never pay a fee. But my average customer is a single mom with a couple of kids, trying to make ends meet. People like that are never going to have that $1,500 [minimum balance] just hanging out there at all times to avoid the monthly charge at the bank. And at Green Dot you can't overdraft."

Avoid confusion: "I like easy things, basic things. Even back in radio I liked that. I would launch a station with a new format — say easy listening. And I'd name it Easy 105. Or Rock 104. Or Country 103.... I think the consumer's mind likes simplicity. If you have to have an owners manual, you messed up."

On using his own product: "I use it on a daily basis at Starbucks, at the grocery store, for dry cleaning. If I'm shopping online to buy a product, I'll use it for that too. I don't use it for corporate expenses, and I wouldn't use it for large-ticket items — if I were booking a vacation to Europe, it wouldn't be great. But for all regular bill-paying and most of the daily things in my life, I use the debit card."

On banks: I'm not on the bank-bashing bandwagon. No one tool fits all. If you're making 80 grand, 90 grand or 100 grand a year and you're meticulous at balancing your bank book and you need to see a teller at a branch, then a bank may be perfect. If you make less than that and have challenges at keeping from going below the minimum [balance] — and that's half the country — then Green Dot's a great product for you. For Americans making less than $75,000, and especially less than $50,000, this is a product with a lot of utility. The median income in this country is $48,000 and change — that's a market opportunity of more than half the country."

scott.reckard@latimes.com

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