James Lloyd shares his fintech journey from a fair city to a fragrant harbour and makes a strong case for aspiring Irish entrepreneurs to go east.
Soon after getting married, my wife and I decided to move to Hong Kong; not least because, despite the dawning of the so-called ‘Asian Century’, heading east was still the road less travelled. Indeed, when we boarded a plane bound for ‘Asia’s World City’ in early 2012, we had never set foot in the city and didn’t know a single person living there.
I had started my corporate career with the strategy and operations team of Deloitte Consulting in Dublin, where I received training, advice, and – most importantly – industry exposure. In 2010, inspired by an interview with the founder in which he spoke about his ambitious plans for the company, I left Deloitte to join Realex Payments. Realex, recently acquired in a €115m transaction and rightly recognised as a great Irish success story, served as a crash-course in payments, e-commerce, financial technology, and the opportunities of entrepreneurship.
Having left Realex in order to move east, I landed in Hong Kong intent on staying in growth-stage ‘fintech’ – a new term for the long-established application of technology and innovation to financial services.
Hong Kong has long been steeped in entrepreneurship. Having established itself as a major entrepôt between China and the world in the late 1970s, the city had since developed into a major global trade hub and financial centre – a transformation which continued after the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.
‘In other cities, an unsolicited LinkedIn request from a newly arrived Irish immigrant might go unanswered; in Hong Kong, it typically led to a beer later that evening’
Hong Kong is a welcoming place. In other cities, an unsolicited LinkedIn request from a newly arrived Irish immigrant might go unanswered; in Hong Kong, it typically led to a beer later that evening (Tsingtao is a local favourite).
It was over one such beer that I was introduced to the co-founder of a NASDAQ-listed payment-processing company who had recently started a new ‘alternative finance’ platform provider – one predicated on a deep understanding of payment data and bank processes.
First steps to growth
I first joined AMP Credit Technologies as head of product management, before becoming head of strategy and corporate development as the company grew. At AMP, we enable banks and other financial institutions to profitably and efficiently offer unsecured loans to traditionally underserved small business customers.
We currently have operations in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and (most recently) the United Kingdom, with expansion plans across Asia and Europe. Last year alone, we were recognised by the interbank network SWIFT as a ‘growth-stage innovator’ and selected by Accenture to participate in the inaugural Fintech Innovation Lab Asia-Pacific – all while raising over $10m in venture-capital investment.
‘It is estimated that the Irish community in Hong Kong numbers around 3,000 people, out of a total population of 7.2m’
My learning experience these past few years – not least in bank partnership sales and venture fundraising – has been both steep and rewarding. It has exposed me to both the signal and the noise of fintech, both in Asia and beyond.
At a personal level, I am an active participant in the wider ecosystem: serving as an angel investor in, and mentor to, multiple payments and fintech start-ups, as well as a conference speaker, writer and adviser.
Keen to support the city that has been so welcoming to me, I have also assisted various governmental and non-governmental agencies – including the territory’s recently-established steering group on financial technologies – in seeking to position Hong Kong as the pre-eminent fintech hub in Asia.
The Irish connection
Hong Kong had nine Irish-born governors during its colonial period, and historical ties are still apparent in the street names: Connaught and Hennessy Roads are both major thoroughfares, while the Irish Consulate is located on Des Voeux Road (a name with links to Portarlington, County Laois).
More recently, the Irish connection was greatly strengthened with the arrival of Peter Ryan, Ireland’s first consul-general to the city, in April 2014. It is estimated that the Irish community in Hong Kong numbers around 3,000 people (out of a total population of 7.2m).
There are many successful Irish-owned and Irish-run businesses operating from Hong Kong and throughout the region – including financial technology players such as Monex and Fexco (both in the payments space; an area in which Irish companies seem to excel). I am also aware of several other Irish-owned or Irish-based fintech companies seeking to establish a presence in the city as a launchpad into Asia.
Broadening Ireland’s fintech vision
Just as Hong Kong seeks to establish itself as a fintech hub, so too does Ireland. The publication of the International Financial Services Strategy and the establishment of the Fintech & Payments Association of Ireland (FPAI) are to be welcomed in this regard.
The ambition of the strategy and supporting players is for Ireland to be “the recognised global location of choice for specialist international financial services” – with specific opportunities in financial technology.
Ireland is certainly well placed to capitalise on the growth of the financial technology industry by virtue of the country’s relative concentration of international financial services and tech companies, as well as the local start-up ecosystem that has developed around them.
‘The objective is to demystify Asia for those companies that might otherwise go directly to the US or Europe’
That said, it is imperative that the country looks beyond its borders – as well as the usual comparators of the UK and US – with the explicit objective of learning from and collaborating with other fintech hubs, including the major financial centres of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai.
The UK and the US are generally well understood within Irish industry – irrespective of the sector. Less well understood from a market entry, inbound investment or even operational perspective are the growth markets of Asia-Pacific. In order to help facilitate such market entry, the consul-general – alongside Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong – has sought to help Irish-owned or Irish-based financial technology companies forge links with and, ultimately, sell into Asia.
The objective is to demystify Asia for those companies that might otherwise go directly to the US or Europe (or have already done so). We expect to announce several such initiatives in the coming months.
So what does the future hold? For the foreseeable future, at least, we’re here to stay. Working and travelling in the region has convinced me that this is, indeed, the Asian Century. I highly recommend making the journey.
By James Lloyd
Head of strategy and corporate development at AMP Credit Technologies in Hong Kong, James Lloyd is working to bridge the divide between financial services incumbents and emerging fintech providers, with a focus on payments, remittances, and alternative finance.
Fintech Focus is a week of fresh fintech-focused content hosted on Siliconrepublic.com from 19 to 23 October. Stay up to date with the latest stories by subscribing to our news alerts, or follow the hashtag #FintechFocus from @siliconrepublic on Twitter.
Hong Kong harbour photo by Iakov Kalinin via Shutterstock