27 Apr 10 questions to Robert Bell, the man behind KlickEx
An international award winning financial innovator, Robert is an experienced business leader with proven expertise in the energy, technology, trade, cyber security, economics, banking and digital financial infrastructure sector. Robert guides regulatory policy formation and national regulatory operations and is invited to speak regularly as an expert on digital financial security and international payments exchange and financial inclusion at world leader forums including: The G20, United Nations, Commonwealth Heads of Government, The International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, The Asian Development Bank, and other global financial institutions.
Robert was twice the NZ Hi-Tech Young Achiever of the Year (2012, 2013), twice listed in the Top Banking Executives to Watch (2013, 2014) by Bank Innovation Magazine, and in 2017 won a New Zealander of the Year Medal for services to local communities.
Robert holds degrees in both Finance and Economics, is a graduate of Stanford University’s Advanced Financial & Quantitative Engineering program, studied Cyber Security, Policy and Network Resiliency at M.I.T., and is a candidate to complete Harvard Business School’s Executive Governance program in 2019.
1. Explain your background in detail and tell us your prime goals?
My primary goal is to build a well-diversified business that serves its customers well. One that looks after the communities in which the customers, employees and other stakeholders live. And it’s also to be an organization that people look up to and aspire towards, either to become a part of; as a customer, an employee, a business partner, or someone wanting to build on top of our services in areas we haven’t thought of – or even to be recognized as an organization with a culture that others wish to replicate in their own way – and by imitating us, in some way, become meaningful to the societies that they come from, too.
In terms of my background: Some of the earliest memories I have are of growing up on a farm in New Zealand where my parents had a big sheep and cattle station. We grew up in the rural part of the North Island, learning the basics of life the old fashioned way; where hard work is really rewarded in front of your eyes. You can see what you do every day. You build your fences, you manage your stock well and everything has really good feedback, so you’re always learning, always optimizing. There is a lot of data that you can measure and model when you run a farm. I really learned a lot about that from a young age.
I also grew up spending some time in the Pacific islands. I learned a lot about communities, in particular about distant communities in the outer islands of Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu. This is where I came up with a lot of my early ideas about building advanced infrastructure for people that didn’t have access to that sort of thing.
Seeing all this, I thought that financial infrastructure was the most absent, first, and one of the easiest things to create – things like rural banking and mobile money. So I went back to New Zealand to figure out how I could build a financial service businesses that could help the largest number of people possible. The Pacific Islands had nearly 80% of people un-banked – whereas New Zealand was nearly 100% banked. I ended up going to university and studying economics and politics, regional trade, Marine Science, as well a little bit of law, particularly maritime law and financial theory.
I then joined the largest bank (in the world) at the time, and I learned a lot about all the details of how the banking system worked, and of course, I recognized a few places where innovations and improvements could be made. Throughout the time there I saw the financial crises unfold, and the provisions that had to be made for that. Billions and Billions of dollars. I learned how to keep the bank running through the difficult times.
After those difficult moments, I went on to do energy trading and I learned about volatility in markets and shortly after that, I began several companies. One of them was KlickEx, another was an Electric Car company, and another nano-technology related.
Pretty soon, KlickEx began to take up most of my time, and began to grow from moving money between bank accounts in real time, to becoming a platform where any financial transaction can go between countries as cheaply as an SMS, and as quickly as email.
We were particularly good at cross boarder payments and low liquidity currencies. And then it really became a tool for a domestic and financial inclusion across the Pacific.
In about 2011, I moved to UK to help expand KlickEx, and I did a lot of work in building KlickEx on the international side, acquiring several companies, and running the US and EU divisions as they outgrew the Pacific. In 2013, I came back to New Zealand and became the Chairman and CEO of KlickEx in the Pacific too, intent on building services worldwide and representing the communities and the customers that needed socially aware banking services.
We’ve since grown a lot over that time; in my first 18 months as Chairman, we went from doing $2m in retail sales per year to over $90m, and more than $386m wholesale volumes through our systems. We’ve also been through no less than six technology builds since 2006, and about eight compliance and transaction auditing systems, with more than 200 staff and contractors giving us their best work on aspects as wide ranging as Distributed Ledger Systems, AML/Anti-Terrorist Software, FX markets, Collateral Management Systems, Biometric screening, and access to Central Bank Payments.
To this day I still champion the use of sophisticated financial services, ethically offered, in small communities like the ones where we began; and as such, more than 90% of the households in some of our markets use our services at least once or twice per year, which is huge.
2. Tell us about the company and the services it provides.
KlickEx is the most well known aspect of what we do. We also own an ultra long range rescue and research ship, medical facilities, invest in agri-robotics and nano-technology for nutrition and food security, and build electric cars, too. But from a consumer’s perspective, it’s all KlickEx. That’s our auditing and compliance platform that enables the Pacific Islands to have one of the lowest cost, lowest risk payment services in the world, comparing apples for apples. It moves money between bank accounts and fuels the mobile money systems across the Pacific better than anything else in the region – and is impressive on a comparable world scale too.
We built this in response to a very simple social need – to serve the people who support their families in the region, so they can earn in one country, and send money home quickly, cheaply, and securely. In the modern era, in particularly in the Pacific, cross boarder migration and work is very common. Most of the population from many Pacific Island countries (there are 21) live outside their home countries, working in Australia, New Zealand or the United States, but still have families back home who need help.
Given the differences between each countries’ economic circumstances, there is a major requirement for one part of the family to support another, cross boarder. This is very natural – and our system has been very successful in helping meet these needs in a very compliant way. The financial services sector is a regulated sector, and compliance is almost 90% of what we do.
When we started, a lot of the infrastructure was missing in the Pacific, so we went and we built everything from agent location terminals with biometric point of sale devices, all the way through to central banking platforms, credit card systems, and cross boarder mobile money; and we’re now one of the most successful regions in the world, having easily accessible highly compliant banking services that are affordable, no matter how much, or how little you earn.
3. How did you decide to pursue the career you are working on today?
I chose this career because I believed it was the way that I thought could help the most people. I figured at the time, that when you go to work, you look for something that would be a good job for yourself, so you can provide to your family, but also the job you can help the most number of others. Some companies helped other companies do their jobs – and I like that – but banking seemed to do all of it – help the biggest companies, and help the smallest ones and their employees too. So I joined HSBC when it had 135 million customers around the world and I imagined that it would be a great platform to come up with new ideas to help a lot of people. I hoped that if I could make every one of those customers at least one dollar better off every month, that would be a good use of my time.
And the Bank could use that extra money to go and build banking services in countries like those I had grown up in. I knew a lot of effort was going by the World Bank and other NGO’s to places like Africa and Asia to do the same sorts of things I wanted to do in the Pacific – where financial services were often a gateway to escape poverty and subsistence lifestyle. And I didn’t want the pacific to be left behind. Given this, there seemed to substantial future of work for me to do and it was something that I would enjoy, if it could really help people. All I had to do was find a way to make good technology and safe services available to as many families as possible .
4. What was the pivotal moment or inspiration?
There were two. The first time was when I was in Fiji and we were visiting the outter islands, in the Yasawa archipelago, and I saw the barter and subsistence economy in full force. And realised that even in Fiji, it was the same as it had been in Vanuatu. It was a regional problem that could be solved. At a young age, I could see that back in NZ we had a far more technology focused payment system that enabled efficient commerce. I was pretty young when that happened so it wasn’t really what triggered this as a career, but it planted the seeds.
Fast forwarding to a more pivotal moment, where I was leaving my trading job, and met the world bank… I guess meeting the World Bank was the key. I was on a trading desk in the City, and I walked out through the office building and in the foyer was a World Bank forum called “Infrastructure for the Pacific”; and I thought “Wow, this is great. The Pacific is finally going to get financial infrastructure.”
Of course, having certain biases, this is what I thought was the most obvious first step. So in I went into the forum, and talked my way into getting a seat. They were talking about mining and ports and roads and I thought “that’s interesting but it’s the wrong kind of infrastructure, the first thing you need there is financial infrastructure.”
So I got talking to the Senior Executives in attendance, and they said that they would love Financial Infrastructure but nobody knew how to help or how to build it. This is reminiscent of blockchain today, in fact, if we fast forward a decade!
At the time, with my experience with banks and trading, I quickly realized that we could build everything from the grass roots stage, and get the Holy Grail of real time payment systems and inter-operability, which are now known as Immediate Settlements, Foreign Exchange and Digital Financial Inclusion, all at once. We could bank the unbanked, do cross boarder FX in real time and we could do immediate domestic payments too, and so combining those forces into something powerful that had never being seen in the banking world before.
That was the kind of challenge that I liked to have a go at. They said yes – and here we are today.
5. What is the most important characteristic that every CEO should possess?
That’s a hard one because every company is a little bit different as is the team around each CEO, and so requires a specific recipe of care and attention. So there is not really one rule. Everybody wants to be treated by respect, everybody likes to have a CEO that empowers and pushes them to achieve what they are capable of. And a lot of people don’t know what they are capable of until they’ve been pushed.
As a CEO you have to tread that line very carefully because you can’t drive people faster that they can go, but on the other hand, people get frustrated if they don’t go as fast as they want to go. So there is a real balance between keeping the team focused on the customers and keeping the team happy. Managing the team dynamics, and keeping the team focused on the customer is such an art – and to do this effectively through the layers of structure necessary to sustain a business, is a very impressive feat.
6. What are the most pressing challenges that CEOs are facing today to be innovative? And Why?
We come from a particularly innovative sector – where we began is now known as financial technology or Fintech, and this regarded is one of the most innovative sectors in the world right now. Every CEO is challenged by dozens and dozens incumbents and startup companies in a very established market, bringing to the table new offerings, new opportunities; and the ability to evaluate these claims with the cold light of reality has been the hardest for me.
So many innovations are just the same product, dressed up in lower prices, making VC funded losses impressing media, and that’s a hard reality. I know other industries have gone through this too – Fintech is not as unique as some think it is. But knowing the difference between momentum created by value vs a mud-slide of discounting and false economies, is the key to staying alive right now.
We acquired few companies, we’ve done a lot of diligence on other ones that we haven’t acquired, and of course we’ve been a tremendous growth story ourselves having being recognized worldwide for our Pacific efforts. We’ve seen a lot, and we are getting pretty good at calling the fake news, for what it is.
Taking all this energy from the market in the innovation space, and translating to something that will really make a tangible difference to your customers, is the hardest thing.
Every person selling innovation or clamming having innovation is not necessarily someone that is doing anything that costumers care about, and keeping your team focused on what makes your customers happy is really the challenge in the modern market place.
7. What are the key values, which helped you to overcome the roadblocks/challenges in your career as a CEO?
I’ve had a unique path to be a CEO. First I’ve started a company and other than finding my technology partner/co-founder after years of searching, first thing we did was to bring in an external CEO to run the office. I didn’t think, believe or assume that I had the skill sets to manage people and to convince either internal or external senior executives to believe in me, in the slow moving banking world.
Fast-forward 3 years, and I found myself running the company again and the first thing I did was find a new CEO, and again, a few months after that, I was back as CEO again. So one of the key characteristics was endurance and perseverance. That’s been a huge factor.
When we first started the company, people would say “ Oh wow, you’ve got an amazing technical innovation. How long until banks will copy you and kill your unique service proposition?” And advisors would always give us between 3 to 18 months – and yet we’ve been here nearly 10 years and still, just about no bank in the world can do what we do. So, speed to market or agility used to be one key metric, but really I believe that surviving in the long run and making decisions that keep your business going through good times and bad times is a critical to running a company, and is the success of being a CEO.
Key value are endurance, perseverance but most of all empathy with your cutomers.
Knowing why your customers are annoyed, what frictions they have, and how well you understand the problem that they want to solve, makes or breaks you. If you understand why your existing or future customers have a problem, and if you are solving it the way they hope for, you’ve got a very successful company, but only if you can empathize with that.
And when hiring people I found no matter the qualification they present, no matter the prior experiences, the best people to look after customers in the most sustainable and profitable and inspiring way, are people who understand what costumer problem is and who want to work with you to solve it for their own sense of pride. Where solving the problem for them also gives them a certain status, that everyone benefits from; and helps to keep driving innovation while our competitors’ maintain willingness to not see problems. We love to hire people who never want to see customers be disadvantaged by a solvable problem, ever again.
8. Tell us something about your memorable incident under your leadership.
One of the most pleasing things you can see as a leader, is the success of your team. The success of your team is measured by economic success, innovation, and culture. And I’m very proud to have seen this pretty often, at KlickEx.
Our first incidence was winning the Financial World Innovation Awards, under the Community Banking Initiative of the Year. We had won their Payments Initiative of the Year award, twice before – but never the wholistic “banking” accolade. It was a real thrill for the team. And I was very proud.
Following that, we won the SWIFT worldwide startup award, again – that was a moment where we were recognized as having broad industry impact and relevance. It was very good to travel again with the team, and end up on the stage at the end shaking hands with very senior people.
Racing forward, the moment where we excelled so remarkably, during some of the critical “de-risking” issues affecting emerging markets so profoundly, was pretty incredible too. This time, it was the back office quality of our operation that really stood out. We implemented full alternative and contingency inter-bank-payment systems in a matter of days to protect customers and other non-bank financial institutions in six countries – as a full banking market failure rolled out across successive send markets segments in New Zealand, Australia in particular – affecting up to 20-40% of GDP in our receive side markets. KlickEx, and our team implemented several key systems which still remain in place today, that established us as the “go-to” team for high-sensitivity systems.
Following this, our team collected a “New Zealander(s) of the Year” Award for services to the community. Seeing the team collect that, was a moment I’ll always be very proud of.
9. What would you advise to the budding entrepreneurs entering into the market?
Entrepreneurship is a very hard business. And anyone that enters this field is worthy of praise for bravery, and selflessness. They must expect to give up a lot, in order to make a living, and to succeed. Being an entrepreneur of a start-up is both, idealistic and brave.
Anyone that is getting started, and I’m aware this will sound cliché, but you need to know that is going to be harder and longer than you expect and you are probably going to be the most excited person you know, or your family knows, about your product, to the point that you often wonder if you’re alone in your ability to see what you’re doing.
Be ready to give unlimited amount of energy to those who believe in you, as well as to those who don’t. All while, having enough energy to smile and listen to your customers who will guide you forward. Paying customers are the best advisors, and funders you can hope for. But they too are not always right!
You can’t go out there and be like Kodak, who misunderstood who their most important customers were: assuming it was the high end of the market that would lead the demands and set the trends – they listened to their best repeat customers: Professional Photographers. They misunderstood that the most important part of taking photographs for most of their (very fat tail) client base was not high quality, long lasting, (even if expensive), film – it was the ability to immediately look at photos, show them to friend, share them easily (copy good ones) and take as many possible, before selecting a few, if any, to print or share. The customers willing to pay the most for their existing products, were not good indicators of what most of the customers really wanted.
Know your customers, know your business.
10. How do you see the industry in coming years, and how do you see yourself catalyzing that change?
The coming years are going to be very interesting. There is always change in the financial services industry, even though it looks like a proverbial Swan, sitting gracefully on the top of the water – the legs are always kicking like crazy – whether its for new regulation, new opportunities, new landscapes or possibly new challenges. Financial services do have a reputation of being slow and moving at a snail’s pace, but the reason they appear slow moving, is because they are not in a race. The only time they need to preform, is when there is a disaster, and at that time, when everything around is collapsing at the speed of light, a slow moving Bank, in that moment, is basically a God amongst its peers. This industry prides itself on surviving the unexpected. This is arguably, the primary requirement of any financial services business, in the long run: to buck the trend in a crash.
The only constant is always change, and always has been. We have built a very strong strategic advantage in the Pacific where we have been fanatic about and focused on customers’ needs, because we have a culture of listening and responding better, I believe, than any other enterprise in our field. Following where our clever customers lead us, is a skill that we defines us and crafts our path towards very exciting places, as we speak.
As for my part, personally? I am an evangelist of certain things, and someone who likes to be out there solving problems, hands on at times, highly theoretical at times, and as practical as possible, the rest of the time. I enjoy keeping close contact with customers, meeting with partners, regulators, and governments. I enjoy seeing trends a long way out.
We’ve been leading a lot of the major advances, in a region where which some say has no right to expect to leadership, a region that’s too small and one which doesn’t have financial scale. But we are the only region on the planet successfully using blockchain as a primary system; to see what blockchain can do and where it might lead. The pacific is literally leading the world. So if I can stay somewhere in the forefront, near the coal face of innovation; then you’ll see me smiling for many more years to come.
Provide the quote that best describes you and your goals.
I think I can, I thought I could.
It’s a quote from The little engine who could. The little engine, was an unsuspecting optimistic train in a children’s story book that tried to pull a load of toys over a hill, so the children could be happy on the other side. And she realized as she went, that the hill was too big; and failure was almost certain. Until she looked at the children, and found the reason that shear willpower and enthusiasm and determination would make it happen. The little blue engine though she could. She thought she could, and so she did.
And with that, she gets over the hill – and all of a sudden, the train accelerates down the other side of the hill and the euphoria from the toys and the train was wonderful. And the little engine surprised even herself.
And so it’s a lesson to everybody. Like Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”