So how does a businessman, not a banker, start a successful fintech providing SMEs in Asia with vital banking services? NextMoney Editor Neil Martin has a quick chat with lawyer and entrepreneur Bertrand Théaud, Founder and Director of Hong Kong based Statrys, and asks, so how did he do it then?
Spend a few minutes with French-born Bertrand Théaud and you quickly realise that he is not your usual fintech CEO. For a start, he left school quite a few years ago and has earned his spurs building traditional businesses throughout Asia.
A Thai-resident and a regular face in the Hong Kong business community, the grey-haired and urbane Bertrand could easily fit into a John Le Carré novel. I can almost see him having a chat with Jerry Westerby in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
But he does share one characteristic with many other fintech CEOs – his frustration at not being able to do something in the financial services industry made him start his own fintech.
He says: “I’ve been an entrepreneur for a while and had different businesses. Over the years I’ve had more and more difficulty getting access to good banking services in Asia. Not even speaking about customer service.”
He added: “For many years in Asia it was easy for anyone to come to Hong Kong, set up a company and open a bank account. Then, as the banks were mandated by governments to be at the forefront of the fight against money –
laundering and terrorism, it went to the other extreme. Today, if you want to open a business account in Hong Kong and you’re not a resident or your business is not based here, you’ll have a very challenging time.”
Hands in the air
So, far from throwing his hands in the air and surrendering, Bertrand decided to do something about it and set up Statrys in July 2018.
His first main concern was finding the right people to join the company, so it wasn’t until he had found the right team, that the company was properly able to get going in November, 2018.
He explains: “As a lawyer and entrepreneur, I have always been in contact with many business owners setting up their operations in Asia, especially in Hong Kong. Many of them had the same problem dealing with their banks . That’s what triggered my curiosity and interest. I did some research on alternative solutions to traditional banking in Hong Kong, as the same exists in Europe. I understood that regulations in Hong Kong and more generally in Asia were not as fintech friendly as they are in Europe. Still, I found out about the existence in Hong Kong of what are called Money Service Operators – MSO, a form of financial institution authorised to provide payment services.
As I researched this extensively, I realised it was possible to apply for the MSO licence, and this is how the whole story started.”
For Bertrand, his audience was very much in focus and it can mean anything from a solo entrepreneur to a well-established business. Indeed, a typical customer is very much the type of company he has been advising for the last 25 years. It is these types of companies which he finds most comfortable to deal with.
Bertrand also makes the point that “there’s a bunch of SMEs frustrated by business banking, they are charged high fees for their transactions and get limited customer support at critical times for their business.”
Statrys mainly serves companies that are incorporated in Hong Kong, although some are also incorporated in Singapore. But the plan is to grow in Asia and Bertrand wants to serve companies in different jurisdictions across South East Asia.
As for the company’s approach, it believes an early achievement has been with customer service, which is what Bertrand believes makes the company stand out from the others.
“Like many companies we use Slack…” says Bertrand, and one of the channels that we have on Slack is the #LoveWall where anyone can post feedback from clients, and it’s always a great moment each time there is a new post reporting a client saying good things about the team, service, and features.
“We want to continue to develop and add more features but I think what we are doing is a good job on listening to the client, helping them when they have the need, and we can already see some clients referring us to their friends and fellow entrepreneurs. That is a really good sign that we are going in the right direction.”
Statrys is powered by open banking platform Railsbank, which now operates throughout South East Asia.
So the obvious next question is, does Bertrand get on with the banks, the ones that might have cold-shouldered him in the past?
In this he’s quite candid: “Discussing with the banks was also challenging. I don’t have a track record in the banking industry. A lot of people we discussed with last year thought ‘this guy will never make it’ (they didn’t tell me but I could see it in their eyes). Now it’s interesting to see the shift of interest: since we went live, we’ve managed to seal deals with many future partners that we had chased in vain for over a year.”
Final question for Bertrand is, how does he see fintech developing in Asia in the coming years?
“Something that I find interesting is that when you live in Asia, you see the region looks to the US as the leader in almost every field. But this is not true when it comes to the fintech world. Europe was the pioneer to promoting and passing regulations that helped fintech emerge. Fintech in Asia is not anywhere close to what happened in Europe 10 years ago. Not because there is no appetite, but mainly because the regulations haven’t changed as quickly. There is still a lot of change that must happen in Asia if we want the fintech scene to be as active as in Europe. ”
And you kinda know, given his background and views, that Bertrand will do his best to help fintech thrive in Asia.