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Foreign exchange specialist OzForex has a formula for its projected 30% growth rate this year: keep it high-tech and “high-touch”.
Here is what the OzForex chief executive Neil Helm means.
Within an hour of somebody typing in their details and requesting foreign currency on the OzForex site, they get a call from someone seeking to walk them through what they’ve asked for.
“It does differentiate us from the banks,’’ Helm says. “They might argue their customer service is better or worse or their pricing is better or worse but we think we have the complete package in terms of being able to provide a high-tech, high-touch solution.”
He says nobody gets that sort of personalised service from banks.
“People are often surprised when they register to use the service on a Saturday morning and within an hour someone has called them,’’ Helm says. “If you were to register to use the service online, we will call you within an hour to confirm your first deal. We will get you all set up on the account and do the electronic verification to make sure we know who you are and you are all ready to start trading.
“When a client books their first trade, we will call them to make sure they’re getting the trade right. They can call up any time with questions like ‘I have forgotten my password’ or ‘What’s the status of my transaction?’ That service is available 24/7.
“The aim is to give our clients a better deal than they can get elsewhere; that’s our philosophy. We want to really make it a smart, simple solution for them and we use technology to make the whole experience relatively simple and transparent.”
Sydney-based OzForex, which now employs 135 people around the world, has an $8 billion turnover and is now expanding into the US. Depending on the currency and how much someone is moving, its fees range from .2% to 1%. “On average the margin we make is 50 basis points. When you compare it to some of the banks and other providers, they are sometimes around 2%,” Helms says. This gives the company an estimated revenue of $40 million.
In the beginning
It started as a one-man business – an information site – in 1998. Its founder Matt Gilmour was working on the foreign exchange desk at financial group BT.
The idea for the business came when he saw that no one was providing a foreign exchange offering for small retail clients and small to medium enterprises. The key: create an offering that’s simple to use. And because it was technology-based, there would be lower overheads so customers would pay less than what the banks would charge.
“You don’t need to walk into a branch and move your money through queuing up to a teller and doing it that way,’’ Helm says. “Secondly, it’s relatively easy to use so once you’re registered to use the service, then you can execute and transact online.”
Gilmour’s company has grown rapidly. It set up a New Zealand office in 2001, London in 2005, Toronto in 2007, Hong Kong in 2011 and it entered the US this year. Its spectacular growth has been recognised in BRW’s Fast 100 and Deloitte Technology’s Fast 50 Awards.
The big change came in 2007 when Gilmour and Helm, who at that time was working at Macquarie, got talking about the business. The two knew each other well – they had worked together at BT – and were on a surfing trip. At the time, Helm was working for Macquarie. They started talking about the business and Macquarie’s need to provide better foreign exchange service for its retail clients.
The result: Macquarie ended up buying 51 per cent of the business and Helm came across as the CEO, while staying on the Macquarie payroll. In November 2010, global venture capital firm Accel Partners and US-based private equity company Carlyle Group bought minority stakes. Macquarie reduced its stake. Macquarie, Carlyle, Accel and two other investors, including Gilmour, now have roughly equal stakes in the company. As part of the deal, Helm left Macquarie and went onto the OzForex books.
Helm says the high-tech, high-touch model is critical. “Historically, a lot of companies have either been great at technology and rubbish at customer service or great at customer service but have no platform behind them. We believe we have a really good mix of those things,’’ he says.
“We’re using technology to facilitate transactions to make it simpler for clients but we’re high-touch in the sense that we provide a personalised service for even the smallest clients because small clients turn into big clients over time.”
The company’s model is reflected in its recruitment strategy, he says.
“We recruit university graduates and we have intensive hands-on training so they progressively over a period of three to six months work their way through the system.
“After about two years, those staff then move on hopefully to other roles within the business, whether it’s the corporate desk dealing with corporate clients, or going into leadership roles or going overseas to work in other offices.”
As a result, the company has a retention rate of 95 per cent.
OzForex has several models driving its growth. There is its White Label strategy where it works with other institutions, providing their customer service. One example is ING Direct. “That [company’s] website is actually our website but we branded it ING Direct. When clients call us here, we answer the phone for ING Direct. It’s effectively dealing with an ING Direct branded website but the website is hosted by us.”
That is the model that will underpin its growth in the US. The US is largely a state-based system so OzForex has picked up licences in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Colorado. Licenses for California and New York are about to come through. When you consider that California has a population of nearly 38 million, compared to Australia’s 22 million, the US is likely to drive a lot of future growth.
He says innovation and staying ahead of trends is critical. OzForex staff play a big role in helping the company anticipate trends ahead.
“We look at it as being an ongoing part of our business,’’ he says. “The payments industry per se globally is changing quickly; a lot of it around domestic payments and the use of mobile,’’ he says.
Staff are required to provide ideas. “We constantly run internal competitions,’’ he says. “Once a month, we might say: ‘Give us 20 good ideas on how we might pay our clients’ or ‘Give us 20 good ideas on ways to improve the customer experience and what they see from their perspective and checking the status of their trades’.”
The big challenge, he says, is managing the growth. Apart from last year, where growth came in at 12% – something he attributes to market conditions – growth in other years has been tracking steady at 25 to 30%. And with the American market and its new multi-currency debit card in place, the company says it is back on track for 30% growth this year.
But growth needs to be managed. OzForex ensures it has enough staff in place around the world to service a growing client base, which is now at 100,000 customers – and expanding.
Helm says the technology is robust enough to handle the growth but the real issue is having people on the ground to deal with it.
“We forecast every month and have a pretty good indication of if we continue to grow the way we’re growing how many staff we will need form a customer service perspective.”
“We’re constantly looking at our customer service offering or the customer experience saying how can we improve that and make it more scalable?
“The challenge you always have is you don’t lose your high-touch philosophy by making everything online but still make the business scalable in terms of making a great customer service. That’s the challenge of our business, to ensure we don’t lessen the level we have set around customer service as the business grows.”