Pinnacle Perspectives: FD Spotlight - James Ansell, WorldRemit

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9 months ago by David Taylor

Pinnacle Perspectives: FD Spotlight - James Ansell, WorldRemit

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In this article, Manager at Goodman Masson, David Taylor, talks to James Ansell about life at World Remit. James Ansell is the Finance Director at WorldRemit, a global money transfer business, digitizing the remittance space.

Could you explain WorldRemit for people who don’t know what you do?

People who want to transfer money to friends and family overseas can now do so by going onto the web, going onto the app and it’s a much more cost effective, convenient and accessible way of doing that.

What’s it like working for a high growth fintech business?

It’s very fast-paced! The company is only 8 years old or so, so there’s lots of growth, around 50% year on year, which it has been for a while. That’s expected to continue in the top line, which brings challenges of its own.

Okay, so what are the biggest challenges?

There’s a real need to try and keep that entrepreneurial spirit in the business, whilst at the same time making sure that controls are in place that allow it to function effectively and safely for the investors.

Also, the other big challenge is around talent. In a fintech environment in London, getting the right people in is important. You also need to continuously be making sure they can scale up and tool up more, to develop the product further. Getting the desired revenue growth that is going to drive the value of the company but doing so in a cost structure that is controlled.

How do you think your role as the FD is different to what it might be in a bigger company?

Managing close to double digit growth month on month - I imagine a larger company would be pleased to see a single digit growth year on year, so it’s a very different focus purely around growth.

It sounds like working in the environment is very intense, how does that affect your work life balance and your personal life?

I think if you’re going into that sort of space then you need to be confident that it is what you want. The reality is that it may be more demanding than a traditional company. At the same time however, there is that satisfaction of being part of a story that is developing and growing at such a rate, that you’re adding value, adding to people’s lives and dealing with a real-world problem.

I always make sure that I’m home in time, I have a four-year-old so I make sure to be home for bed time. I’m in the office by about 8:45, I normally leave about 6:15/6:30 and will do some work on the train, some at home if I need to, very rarely do I need to do anything on weekends and it’s the same for the team too.

I understand the founder Ismail sets a very high bar in terms of background and the caliber of the individual coming in. What is he like to work for?

There really is an incredible story behind Ismail. His background is one that you and I can’t imagine; coming from Somaliland, living in war zone and travelling across Africa to pursue his scholarship and study in the UK; working at the UN, whistle-blowing on corruption there and subsequently losing his job. Winning his case and starting the company from the compensation he received; to becoming the fintech success he is today. It’s phenomenal and it gives you an idea of his determination and capacity to overcome the challenges he faces. He’s very bright so you’ll be in a meeting with him and he will always throw something out that you weren’t prepared for, so being able to react and come back to what he’s asking is important. You just have to accept that you’re going to get blindsided sometimes and it doesn’t matter who you are, he’s always one step ahead! We make an effort to recruit at a good level, making sure we have a high academic bar and that we’ve got good people.

You joined WorldRemit from the Big Four. The traditional move would have been into a large corporate organisation. Why didn’t you make that move?

It just didn’t appeal, my practice experience was nearly 100% in transaction services so it was all project based, fast paced and varied. I was very much wanting to be part of a story that was project-based, forward looking, growth focused and fast-paced. That’s why I got into a fintech.

How big a shock was it going from the Big Four into a startup?

It was very different! I’m not sure I’d quite say ‘shock’ but it was very different from a firm with thousands of people in London alone, to a company that probably had about 120-130 people at the time - globally. I think the pace was probably the biggest surprise in terms of decision making. From day one, I was given a lot more responsibility to be making decisions and proposing changes that had a real impact on the growth of the company.

How much has your role changed in the period of time you’ve been there?

When I first joined I was Head of Commercial Finance in a much smaller team. I joined in what was a new function, so this was a chance to carve out and improve what was being done. One of the first things we did was to enhance the reporting and analysis around revenue, so the company had a better idea of where things were going, where money was coming from and the underlying profitability. I think as the company has grown, my remit has grown to the point where I have now become the Finance Director. I now have a very close partnering relationship with different parts of the business to support them. Whether it’s the business development team with a plan and focus on budget or working with the product team around which products can be introduced that we don’t have today.

What would you say were your biggest concerns in moving from a big company to a startup?

Culture was probably one of them. Coming from a Big 4 environment, you’re working with a large team of very talented individuals who all have a very similar background. So, if you’re working through a particular problem you have a lot of different people who you can go to for their input and their take on their particular specialism. You don’t necessarily have that in-house, but you still have access to outside advisors for support on areas that are particularly tricky. However, referring back to Ismail’s policy of having a high intellectual bar for recruiting candidates, you find you actually have joined a company where everybody is incredibly bright, capable and motivated. The difference being is that their abilities lie in different fields and different areas, so you get a much broader exposure to business in general rather than just a focus on finance.

Do you ever find yourself digging back through your old IFRS manuals from practice?

My role is much more commercially focused. However, there’s things that now and then do come up and that we do have to consider. But I guess for me in my role, it’s sufficient to be able to challenge that and question that, thinking ‘does that feel right’? Then we can deal with it from there.

How influential can you be on strategy and the decisions that the business takes as the FD in a high growth business?

I think there’s a really good opportunity to have some influence and I think it’s all then down to relationships. There’re two elements, in my mind, for the way that finance should operate; one is numbers-based and do we have enough pennies in the pot to pay our bills. But also, it’s that partnering and building the confidence and trust with the people you’re working with.

What are the biggest barriers to hiring as the FD of WorldRemit?

There are a couple of things. One is that fintech is seen as quite sexy and I guess you get people applying for it just because it’s fintech without really thinking about what the role is, or being dedicated to doing what it is. Especially in the last few years where the profile of the business has increased from what it was.

I think we need to recruit top quality candidates to maintain that historical rigor that the company has built its culture around, we don’t want to dilute that. Then it’s about finding somebody who can actually see the growth of the company as being their expansion plan, rather than a need to be coming in and already having a team of 2, 3, 4 people. Here your role will grow with you. For example, my own role started as a Head of Commercial Finance with one or two people and by the time I was promoted to the next level, there were four or five under me. My role hadn’t really changed as such, it was just the volume of work and the depth of the work that I covered which had changed.

So, what are the most important things you are looking for when you are hiring? And is that different to if you were hiring in your previous company?

I think in terms of what I’m looking for today is people who are very bright and personable; personality and how you interact with your colleagues, not only in finance but with people across the business, is incredible important, someone who has that thirst for knowledge and who’s got that enquiring mind. That’s important, I don’t want someone to just sit back and just take what they’re given, without any push. You need that ambition and that growth potential. Is that any different from what I was looking for before? Probably not.

Within your role, what’s the toughest decision you’ve ever had to make?

I think it’s the evaluation of and the moving on of people who you’ve brought into the team that haven’t worked out. The conversations that you have to have are ones that affect people’s own personal lives. But equally it’s not right for them or for the company.

What areas of the business do you feel you’ve had the most impact on?

I think it’s the maturity of the Business Development team, not in terms of the team itself, but in their understanding of value that we’re able to bring to them from a finance perspective when negotiating  deals and new partnerships.  

And having been the FD of a high-growth Fintech business for a couple of years now, do you feel that the experience you’ve gained now is transferrable to something else? A different industry or a bigger business for example?

Yeah, I think it is, at the senior level I think you always need to be a strategic partner across the business. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blue chip or somewhere like WorldRemit, or perhaps even smaller for that matter. Your role is to help support the CEO, especially when you progress to CFO level, you’re definitely a partner to the business in making things happen so absolutely the breadth and depth of experience that I have gained across the business is definitely transferable.