Western Union Business Services sees ‘immense’ potential for expansion in Asia

Despite being 167 years old and spanning the globe with outposts in most countries, Western Union thinks of itself as a fintech company, according to the top executive of its corporate solutions unit in Asia.

Svend Janssen, the head of Asia for Western Union Business Solutions, said the company is developing new technology as it seeks to innovate and better serve clients ranging from small businesses to multinational corporations for business-to-business payments, cash management and risk management services.

The business solutions unit, while not as old or well known as its retail money transfer business, is growing at a double-digit rate in Asia and the potential to expand in the region is “immense”, Janssen said.

“It is interesting to see this business gets increasingly attractive to more players,” Janssen said. “It’s a confirmation that more and more people see the opportunity to compete in the classic client and banking relationship, when it comes to corporate, international and cross-border payments. Of course, technology makes it easier for new entrants to enter.”

In the first half of 2018, nearly US$58 billion was invested in fintech firms globally, including US$14 billion by Chinese payments firm Ant Financial Services Group in June, according to a recent report by KPMG.

In 2014, Ant, which is privately held, was spun out of Alibaba Group, the parent company of the S outh China Morning Post. Ant tried to acquire Moneygram, a US competitor to Western Union on the money transfer side, but was blocked by US officials in January on national security concerns.

“The growing maturity of the fintech sector has led to an increase in the diversity of investors, including more active participation by corporates outside the big banks and largest insurance companies,” KPMG said in its July report.

“Globally, we are starting to see more mid-tier banks – in addition to insurance and wealth management companies – have recognised the need to embrace fintech and are making investments either directly or through participation in accelerators, incubators or innovation consortia,” the audit, tax and advisory firm said.

More than two dozen companies, including Standard Chartered Bank and online lender WeLab, have applied for the first batch of virtual banking licences, which are expected to be issued by year’s end.

Hong Kong draws 29 applications for virtual bank licences

In a survey conducted by PwC last year, 88 per cent of businesses surveyed, particularly in the payments, fund transfer and personal finance sectors, said they were worried that they would lose part of their business to stand-alone fintech companies.

As a result, 77 per cent of financial companies surveyed said they expect to increase their internal efforts to innovate and be more disruptive in the next three to five years, according to PwC.

Western Union’s business solutions business is banking on its technology, namely its WU Edge platform, as a way to better serve clients and keep them long term.

The service allows companies to make real-time, free payments to clients in 51 currencies, as well as manage payment invoices. There also are built-in tools for clients to directly communicate with their vendors.

The system bypasses traditional banks and the global financial messaging network run by Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

“These are the things that are very, very attractive to people because it’s about speed, because it’s about costs,” Janssen said. “On the platform, you have really perfect liquidity and exposure management. You can see how vulnerable you are to specific currencies. You can see your assets. You can have invoice management there as well. It helps small companies, it helps big companies as well.”

Western Union, as a whole, is also partnering with other companies on using blockchain technology and other fintech innovations to position its business for the future, Janssen said.

“A company like Western Union that for so long has been living on the basis of cash has very much an interest of being at the forefront of what’s going on,” Janssen said.

The ability to integrate its solutions into the existing systems of larger companies is an important aspect of winning clients, Janssen said.

He noted that Western Union Business Solutions is working with shipping clients in Singapore to manage payroll, where seamen need to be paid each month throughout Asia.

In the old days, orders for payments were made by phone; now it continues to be by email, Janssen said.

In addition, Western Union is working to integrate existing application programming interfaces used in the shipping industry into its Edge system to win and keep clients, he said.

“The nice thing about integration is it really works, it’s really easy, but it takes awhile to take up,” he said. “That increases the stickiness of the client relationship”.

The trade war between the United States and China have had a “positive” effect on the company’s business as more clients are seeking advice to navigate the uncertainty created by rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

“You can debate what does it mean to trading volumes? Therefore, what does it mean to forex trading volumes? Will the same amount of vendors still be paid?,” he said. “We are needed more than ever to help wherever there is uncertainty and, in particular, wherever there is volatility and where things are not predictable.”

As a whole, Western Union reported revenue of US$5.6 billion in 2017, with the business solutions operation accounting for about 7 per cent.

Asia is an area the Western Union believes it can expand the reach of its business solutions unit, said Janssen, who oversees the company’s business solutions operations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India and the Philippines. The unit also has a small office in Japan.

“We are expanding. We are looking at growing in existing countries where we are relatively small. Malaysia is an example,” Janssen said. “There are 900,000 companies that could be our clients. We are far away from that”.

Mainland China is one area where the company has taken a slower approach to expansion.

The business solutions unit has historically worked with Chinese companies who have operations in Hong Kong, rather than in mainland China, Janssen said.

However, it is in the student payments space, working with universities overseas to process payments for Chinese students who go abroad to study.

“We are moving more and more feet there. We do not have a business office for payments there,” Janssen said. “We are observing, monitoring in a very interested way observing the situation now. ”

This article was published by South China Morning Post. Click here to read the original.