Crown Agents Bank With Albert Maasland, Group CEO

Crown Agents Bank looking to promote more effective global payment distribution and levels of financial inclusion: Crown Agents Bank is a UK regulated provider of wholesale FX and cross-border payment services connected across frontier and emerging markets. e-Forex spoke with its CEO, Albert Maasland, about his vision for the bank, it’s unique offering and growth opportunities, and its digital transformation journey.

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Albert Maasland, Crown Agents Bank, Group CEO

Four years ago you came out of semi-retirement to become CEO of Crown Agents Bank (CAB). What attracted you to the business?

Back in 2016, Fintech Unicorns were emerging and the term ‘digital transformation’ was just gaining momentum. Even then, I could see CAB’s enormous potential for growth; it was clear that technology could disrupt the business completely, but in a positive way. The bank’s client base and unique experience in frontier markets also drew me in, as I’ve spent large parts of my career focused on emerging and frontier markets and it’s an area where, with attention to detail, you can have a real impact. 

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We reduce the cost and friction associated with moving money where it’s needed

Could you tell us more about your background and career path to date?

My career has been described as eclectic. I have had stints as an entrepreneur starting up a mix of businesses from Britain to Canada and as far away as Zimbabwe, interspersed with long stints in senior roles in some of the most innovative and prestigious financial institutions in the world. These included Chase Manhattan, Deutsche Bank, Saxo, Standard Chartered and HSBC. Innovating, transforming and improving customer outcomes has been a lifelong passion for me. In the process I have spent a lifetime traveling and living all over the world, in places including London, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Sydney, Toronto and Cape Town. 

FX has shaped a number of my roles and is part of why CAB was such an attractive prospect. Acting as a trusted partner to Governments, Banks, Development Organisations and now category-leading Fintech payment specialists, we move money where it is needed specialising in developing, or also sometimes referred to as fragile, markets. From one location in the UK, we specialise in frontier market FX with a particular mission of fostering financial inclusion in developing nations. Not everything on my resume is cemented in financial services, however; I also co-founded one of the most successful professional Ice Hockey Clubs in the UK, a safari tourism business in Zimbabwe, dabbling in wholesale and retail services along the way. 

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CAB has been operating for nearly two centuries and has unprecedented relationships in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach markets

Tell us more about CAB. What are your primary products and services? How is the business structured?

CAB is a wholesale provider of FX and cross-border payments connecting some of the world’s fastest-growing economies as well as many ‘off the beaten track’ small states. We reduce the cost and friction associated with moving money where it’s needed, helping our clients make transactions to, from and across frontier and emerging markets. 

One of the most unique aspects of CAB is its heritage: it’s been operating for nearly two centuries and, as such, has unprecedented relationships in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach markets. This foundation of trust and access combined with the advanced technology we’ve been developing over the past few years is setting the stage for CAB to transform into a digital FX payments powerhouse. The bank is pivoting to best meet the needs of our clients in developed and frontier markets as their needs increasingly turn to emerging payment rails such as mobile money payments, in addition to or as an alternative to traditional cross-border and local payment channels. 

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Our team successfully handled an 87% increase in frontier currency flows in March 2020

You’re based in Sutton, but your clients span the globe. What sort of clients does CAB typically work with and where?

We serve hard-to-reach financial markets, with a heritage of trusted access. Our clients span Central Banks, governments, international development organisations, digital payment companies, commercial banks and pension schemes. Our blend of relationships and technology comes into play in the breadth of our offering; we process over 500 different currency pairings in 76 (and growing) different markets across Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America & the Caribbean and the Middle East. 

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Every member of the CAB team is motivated by their ability to make an impact

Serving some of the world’s hardest-to-reach markets requires a wealth of experience. 

It certainly does. Our growing team of professionals is fundamental in both maintaining and expanding our client base and extending our distribution channels and geographic scope. Their expertise and knowledge of the markets we serve is excellent and you can see the difference it makes to clients and the wider team. Last year we acquired US Fintech emerging markets payments specialist Segovia, adding its co-founder to our board. 

Their highly skilled engineering and technical resources are now working with our team in the UK to incorporate their payment gateway technology as part of our emerging digital architecture. The addition of experienced colleagues from the Segovia team has introduced greater domain experience with mobile money across Africa – the fastest growing payment rails across the continent with a Fintech perspective of the market, which has been a hugely valuable and complementary addition to the existing skillset in the Bank.

Regions like the Caribbean and large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa aren’t straightforward markets you can just turn your hand to; they come with a variety of sometimes unique challenges. Our experience in these markets and connections ensure we are well placed to navigate these challenges, allowing us to deliver on our mantra of ‘getting money where it is needed’!  

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In frontier markets, the cost and speed of payments can make a real difference to those reliant on these funds

The last few months haven’t been ‘business as usual’ for many sectors, and FX is no exception. Are you seeing significant increased demand for particular products or services?

The last few months have been unlike anything I’ve seen during my career. The unpredictability of the impact of coronavirus as it spread across the world has left no sector unchallenged. As for so many businesses, lockdown restrictions suddenly changed the way we work. I’ve been enormously proud of how the entire team reacted with dedication to our clients, adapting to new ways of interacting as well as servicing the increasing demands in some of the more challenging markets. 

The FX markets we serve often suffer from low liquidity and this crisis has exacerbated the situation, so keeping money moving has been more vital than ever. Despite, or indeed because of, the challenges and the requirements of our client franchise, our team successfully handled an 87% increase in frontier currency flows in March 2020, compared to March 2019. At the time of writing, we have experienced slightly more than 100% year on year growth in our FX business.  We manage very large flows in all the West African currencies in particular XOF and XAF and of course Naira and Cedi, but we are equally adept at Shillings, Kwacha, Ariary and Metical - indeed most African currencies. Our customers rely on us for many other currencies from Bangladesh to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti to Jamaica and Vanuatu to name just a few.  Our team delight in challenging me on my ability to name the currency – Dalasi, Guarani, Quetzal or Lilangeni anyone?

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Our blend of relationships and technology comes into play in the breadth of our offering

How important is getting the right people and process in a business like yours? 

In frontier markets, the cost and speed of payments, particularly remittances, can make a real difference to those reliant on these funds. Every member of the CAB team is motivated by their ability to make an impact. It’s critical for our people to care about their work and understand the impact on individuals and organisations behind every transaction - it’s what makes CAB the partner of choice for our clients time after time. Building a scalable digital infrastructure is a key part of our vision of being the aggregator of choice for FX payment flows across our markets but the people building, implementing, steering and promoting these capabilities are crucial to our success. This is even more important for those leading teams within the bank. They need to both possess and inspire that drive to deliver. 

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In 2017, we launched EMpowerFX, a next generation FX e-trading platform to streamline our FX delivery

How has your business model been tested by the crisis? Is there anything you would have done differently?

The economic and health crisis sparked by the pandemic has reinforced to me that we serve the markets we do for a very good reason. They are often overlooked and, in challenging times, less dedicated service providers and foreign capital tend to abandon these markets first or struggle to ensure alternate ways of settling trades in disrupted conditions. 

As we dedicate ourselves to them year after year, our teams are adept at analysing the risk and understanding how to mitigate it, so we have witnessed significant volume growth at a time when the pandemic has in some instances had the opposite effect on overall market volumes.  

I am proud of the plaudits we have received from a number of clients for our focus on ensuring that their payments were delivered reliably despite our teams working from home and amidst widespread lockdowns, shortened clearing times and particular pressure on some exchange rates across frontier markets. Times like these have reminded the whole bank that our unique partnerships, expertise and relationships are key to keeping some markets connected to the global economy. It has also encouraged us to accelerate some elements of the bank’s digital transformation efforts. 

As digital payments see a steep rise, we’re even more focused on executing on our technology roadmap. We’re in a good position in that we’ve already made great strides in adopting and optimising digital processes, making our FX and payments business efficient, reliable and secure. The sudden shift to working from home has caused banking as an industry to reflect on how it operates and find renewed energy to do even more. 

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Mobile money is completely revolutionising levels of financial inclusion across Africa

Speaking of technology, how is it helping to build on the bank’s vision?

Automation has been hugely important. In 2017, we launched EMpowerFX, a next generation FX e-trading platform to streamline our FX delivery and free up staff to concentrate on solving the challenges of our focus currencies’ peculiarities. Automation, enhanced distribution and increased profile led to recognition as we were awarded Global Finance’s Best FX Provider for Emerging Market Currencies. 

Last year, we built on this development with the acquisition of US venture backed Fintech Segovia Technology with their payment gateway technology and talented staff. They had developed significant expertise as an aggregator of mobile money payment flows across many markets throughout Africa. This acquisition helped boost transaction volumes and added new delivery channels, accounting for nearly 40% of all the transactions CAB processed last year. Mobile money is completely revolutionising levels of financial inclusion across Africa and is transforming our ability to deliver safe, lower cost and faster payments to end beneficiaries of our digital remittance clients, international development organisations, NGOs and others. 

As emerging and frontier markets embrace local technology and new payments infrastructure, the opportunities for how we move money to, from and across them continues to expand. These are incredibly exciting times, as the waves of innovation open new avenues for us to grow all the while making a difference in the lives of millions of people. 

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Our unique partnerships, expertise and relationships are key to keeping some markets connected to the global economy

How do you think the global transaction banking market will evolve and grow over the next few years? How much of an opportunity will this present for CAB?

Over the past few years, larger banks seem to have shifted their focus away from FX to other areas, but the crisis has heralded the return of volatility and more attention as demand soared. Fintech payment businesses have been gaining market share from incumbents squeezing margins but enhancing customer outcomes. For a specialist bank like CAB, we’re excited to see how we can combine the strength of our position in frontier currencies with our investment in enhanced payment rails in markets that can most benefit from new and more effective payment distribution and dramatic rise in levels of financial inclusion. We are raising our game and encouraged by the opportunities we see ahead of us to continue to grow at high double digit levels (or better) in future years. 

What growth should we expect to see from CAB in the future? 

As I’ve mentioned, there are very few limits to our growth opportunities in what we do on the back of our continued investment in our infrastructure. Becoming a platform that improves liquidity, pricing and end distribution for a wide range of partners in rapidly growing and innovating marketplaces off the traditional beaten path is exciting if not a little daunting. We want to build on the success we’ve already achieved in the past few years, maximising the potential of automation to continue to scale our business. 

We are regularly adding new currencies to our capabilities, and new payment rails so you can expect to see us continue to expand geographically so that we can connect even more hard-to-reach markets to the global financial ecosystem. What won’t change is our focus on continuing to move money where it’s needed most – continuing to earn our customers trust getting money where its supposed to be, when it should be there at a fair price.

David Parker is CIO of Crown Agents Bank and we asked him how CAB fits into the current FinTech and Banking evolution

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David Parker

If the last four years are anything to go by, the potential to grow and elevate CAB’s business through technology is enormous. Integrating new digital capabilities is an ongoing mission, as technology is continually evolving, and we are working hard to keep pace and offer the best possible service to our clients. Innovation in AI and ML in particular and application of advanced transaction monitoring and screening capabilities is essential in ensuring fast, cost-effective and safe transactions. 

Banks and Fintechs that serve Western Europe and the US have been talking a lot about how customer expectations have changed with technology, further boosted by the unfortunate events of this year. This is true across the globe and financial services firms like ours have a real opportunity to embrace new technologies and capabilities to better serve clients and improve the reputation of the financial services industry.

But evolution is the right term. We need to build on the strengths we already have and approach the future with an open mind. As a nearly 200-year-old institution undergoing a comprehensive digital transformation, we understand that the trust factor from heritage and innovation need to work in unison. 

I believe the key is keeping the client at the centre of everything you do. Marrying the best from the past mixed with the extraordinary opportunities afforded by new developments to  offer a superior service will, I am sure, support our efforts to become an FX and digital payments powerhouse, connecting some of the youngest and fastest growing markets in the world.