The potential for people to send money back to their countries of birth, from the comfort of their own homes, was something that Catherine Wines foresaw back in 2010 when, along with Ismail Ahmed, she co-founded London-based global money transfer company WorldRemit.
Defying conventional wisdom at the time, Wines believed that migrants were comfortable going online, and that they did, by and large, have bank accounts.
“It was a fallacy to think migrants didn’t have a bank account and didn’t want to use online services,” says Wines. “They used everything from Facebook and Skype to Whatsapp, and online booking services when they needed a flight to go home. Why wouldn’t they send money online?”
Besides, for some migrants, a two hour drive to a retail outlet to send money was not unheard of, according to Wines. She knew that technology could make sending money not only less expensive – because, by their nature, retail locations and cash are expensive – but also safer.
French-born Wines had grown up in Paris with a mother who owned a convenience store that served the local community, and Wines had learned a few things about the importance of loyalty and serving customers as she made deliveries to the store’s best customers. After moving to England after university, Wines obtained an accountancy certification and went on to pursue a career that enabled her to travel widely in the 1990s, including to emerging markets that incorporated China and countries in Eastern Europe. These she described as “very exciting as they were emerging from a different structure and political system. That opened my eyes to this big world and emerging economies”.
Wines got into remittances by chance in the early 2000s thanks to a friend who was running a group that included a small start-up in remittances which was struggling. Wines was asked to come in as finance director: very quickly, she became the managing director. Eventually that subsidiary was sold to Travelex Money Transfer and then to Coinstar Money Transfer, where Wines had the role of a regional director, actively involved in scaling up the business in the U.K., Ireland and Benelux. After leaving Coinstar, she met her future co-founder of WorldRemit, Ismail Ahmed. Ahmed had a compliance background and needed a founding team to set up the business. Wines happily came on board.
Looking back on the state of the money transfer industry in 2010, Wines recalls that it was very traditional and dominated by some large companies. As a result of lack of competition, prices were high.
“Ismail and I had more of a background in the financial services industry,” Wines says, “but we brought people with more technical and online marketing knowledge. The technology has moved on a lot, but back in 2010 it mainly involved setting up a website. Two years later we developed a mobile app.”
The company started in Africa because of the prominence of mobile money. “Today we are a leader in international remittances to mobile money accounts,” Wines says. Along the way, there were challenges.
First was the challenge of obtaining the required licences, which proved especially difficult for an online money transfer company. “Europe and the U.S. weren’t too bad because they were accustomed to online businesses and that was accepted, but in other jurisdictions the online model wasn’t understood. We went to where the online model was understood first.”
Second was the challenge of the enormous working capital requirements, Wines says, explaining, “If you go to our website or app and send $100 to the Philippines, the transaction is complete for the customer a few days before we get the money, so we have to send it in advance.”
Third was network building and doing integrations with partners. “All this takes time when you work with big banks or big mobile operators as they are slower moving when it comes to signing, etcetera,” she says. “It takes time and that’s a barrier to entry.”
The fourth challenge was bank de-risking. In 2012, Barclays was WorldRemit’s bank during the time when Barclays decided to close the accounts of money transfer companies. “We managed to keep our account because we were online since we didn’t take cash,” Wines recalls. “That was a close call. Keeping bank accounts was always a challenge that smaller money transfer companies experienced.”
Finally, the fact that regulations in the remittance sector can change overnight was a tremendous challenge. Wines recalled the summer of 2016 when the Nigerian Central Bank closed all remittances except for those sent via Western Union, MoneyGram and Ria. “We all worked together to explain to Central Bank and get reinstated. That was totally unexpected,” Wines says. “It can be a volatile environment. Sometimes a corridor that worked well can go down overnight.”
“There’s never a boring day between political events or the Internet going down and suddenly you can’t connect with your partners,” she laughs, adding, “Two years ago when there was an election in Uganda, the president switched off the Internet for a week. You don’t have any control and it’s obviously challenging.”
Today, in her role as Non-Executive Director, Wines has stepped down from the day-to-day management of the company. She currently serves on the board of directors, where her responsibilities focus on corporate governance and compliance. She represents WorldRemit with keynote appearances at major conferences and in the international media, speaking on fintech, innovation and women in business.
“Now it’s about scaling the business further,” Wines says. “Online is growing, but it’s still a small share of the total remittance market and there are still a lot of opportunities to grow and improve service and diversify product offering. That’s the future.”