Today we sat down with Manu Rajan, the CEO of Wing.
Wing (Cambodia) Limited Specialised Bank is Cambodia’s leading mobile banking services provider with the commitment of providing financial inclusion via mobile banking services to the unbanked and under-banked.
Mäd: Thanks for joining us today. To begin, our readers would be interested to hear about your background and route to success with Wing: Could you describe what led to your appointment as CEO, and your keen interest in mobile financial Services?
Manu: Absolutely. I actually started my journey in direct marketing and then moved into advertising. Soon after that, I joined Ge Capital International Services where I was responsible for managing the Analytics portfolios of big private label credit card issuers like Walmart and JCPenney for the US Market.
I then joined Telecom in 2008, but I feel I’d missed the bus so-to-speak, as the trend had already grown rapidly years before... then by 2010, the market had really begun to slow down globally. There were multiple reasons why the market wasn’t doing so well; After 2007, so many new players had entered and tried to capture market share using predatory pricing strategies. Companies then began to look at India and Africa to expand, and for more competitive cost benefits.
At one point in 2009, India had approximately 13 operators in a single state. Competition was fierce, with price being projected as the main advantage. To make things worse VOIP came forward in 2013/2014, and took away the revenue from international calling and voice calling.
Despite feeling like I’d missed the bus, I remained in the industry from 2008 to 2018, continuously covering about 18 countries in Africa. I spent some time in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea. After that, I arrived in Cambodia.
While I was in Papua New Guinea, I discovered Wing. I’d already been managing mobile financial services from 2013 onwards. Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing Mobile Financial Services markets in the world. If we put things in context of the country’s size, GDP and population, Wing could arguably be the largest mobile financial services provider in the world. The transaction volume is already up to 90% of the country GDP value, which really fascinated me.
I got the opportunity to join as CCO - before a year was up, my CEO Mr. Jojo Malolos moved back to the Philippines, which gave me the opportunity to take over the leadership from him.
Mäd: That’s excellent, what do you think led to this success story of Wing gaining to 80%-90% of the GDP?
Manu: Timing was one key factor. All around the world, successful mobile financial services companies happened to be in the right place at the right time. They started to cover the majority of the market. For the past 12 years, there are 3 factors that we’ve learned from the market about what drives the success for an MFS company:
1. Trust is super important. Wing is one of the most trusted brands in Cambodia. People work hard for their money and would not deal with a money transfer company if they cannot trust the brand. People need trust and assurance that their money will reach its destination safely, securely, and instantly. We built trust by being transparent with any costs, and assuring that our prices are relevant and fair.
2. Self-confidence. We learned that people with lower incomes don’t have the confidence in their ability to make the transaction themselves. This demographic rarely takes the chance of doing the transactions themselves. They worry that simple mistakes may result in the money not reaching their family. To tackle this, we have agents that empower customers and enable Wing to succeed.
In 2012, we changed the transaction model and introduced the Wing Wei Luy, which helps a customer to transfer money through an agent using their mobile number. The mobile numbers are used as their unique identity and the agent assists the customer to carry out the digital transaction.
3. Use-Cases. We realized that we need to create as many use-cases for the customers as we can. Hence, we introduced over a period of time, everything from money transfer, bill payments, international remittance, merchant transactions, payroll solutions, Mastercard and visa issuance, eCommerce support, micro savings, micro lending, loan referrals, loyalty programs for merchants, supply chain solutions and online payments.
Another Wing success story is that each part of society has hacked their own solutions out of the various eco-systems we have built. For example, social commerce platforms use Wing as the payment option to do transactions for their business. Vendors can sell their products online via Facebook, by advertising their products and announcing that each purchase can be paid for through Wing by simply using their phone numbers.
All these factors and features have brought Wing to receive the success that it has.
Mäd: Ok, it sounds very multi-functional. So instead of just consumer offerings, you also have business offerings?
Manu: Absolutely. We cater for every segment of society, either they have identified a Wing solution themselves or we design solutions for them based on the business problems they share with us.
Mäd: Making the service all-inclusive must therefore be key, we find a lot of work has to go into clever UX solutions if the market is going to be so diverse.
Manu: The vision is to provide every single Cambodian with convenient access to mobile financial services that drive improvement of their daily lives. We look at solutions to serve, with an intention to ultimately improve their lives.
Mäd: Looking ahead, say 10 years or so, what are the key opportunities and threats that Wing foresees on the horizon? For example, do you think the active push to increase Khmer Riel circulation will have an impact on Wing operations?
Manu: I have noticed that in Cambodia, the concept of Mobile Financial Services has been embraced by the Banking/Financial Institutions. For all these banks and microfinance institutions, Wing has become their additional arm/branch to manage operations like collecting loans. Wing becomes a complimentary service to financial institutions to grow their business, which is one of the reasons why it became so successful.
We accept that we don’t know what the future looks like. In an unbanked economy, any physical point where cash can change hands is a potential competition - from tuk tuks to large retail chains. The definition of competition is fast changing around us and one needs to be mindful of that.
We have nearly 9,000 agents across all districts of Cambodia. They provide places for people to get cash or carry out a digital transaction. People are growing more sophisticated and tech savvy, and further aware of modern banking practices. We’ve noticed that the younger generation is more likely to use Digital Services themselves compared to the slightly older generation who prefers assisted digital transactions through an agent.
We joined hands with many leading banks and also Bakong in 2020. It brings down the overheads to the partner and allows customers to use our agents to collect their loan re-payments or cash out money, using Wing Agents just like a human ATM. It allows the financial institution to continue focusing more on their core services while allowing us to handle the agent network.
Mäd: Being part of The Royal Group with Cellcard in the group - that must have had significant benefits?
Manu: Wing works completely agnostic of any other operators. All telecom operators use Wing, it’s extremely inclusive. We get to work with everyone and we can even come in as a solution for those who aren’t equipped with smartphones, hence, any telecom customer can be our customer. We don’t deal exclusivity to any company even if it’s part of Royal Group.
Our model is not competitive, but collaborative.
Mäd: What are the key benefits of a society going cashless, and moving financial transactions to digital platforms?
Manu: It’s a behavioral trait and it’s not there in the older generation. It’s expats, affluent youth, white collar workers, [etcetera], that are much more comfortable going cashless. For people with lower income still adjusting to digital shifts, they value having the cash in their hands… to feel that it’s real and actually theirs.
More than 50% of Cambodians are young and confident in using apps, so maybe in 5-10 years we’ll have more digital transactions than cash!
Mäd: With riel pushed more over dollars, perhaps digital makes it easier as no more cumbersome stacks of notes for bigger transactions.
Manu: For us, we don’t see much bias towards dollars in provinces as about 40% of our total transactions are still in Riel. That’s a large number considering the cities still prefer dollar transactions. It gets skewed when it comes to the cities, especially in Phnom Penh. And, some provinces have even been recorded to use more than 60% of transactions in Riel.
Mäd: As a CEO, how do you prioritise what you should—and shouldn’t do—what’s your framework? For example, do you manage tasks on a day-to-day basis or week-to-week, as time can feel limited at senior levels?
Manu: I'm a pretty hands-on person. I need to be on top of things as we look at Wing as 20 startups put together as a single entity; There are large numbers of projects going on at once, so we have a priority metric that we have put in place. I need to plan what I need to look at, or what has to be let go for now... we re-prioritized some projects because of Covid.
I’d add that I enjoy doing what I do. It’s an advantage as most tasks don't appear to me as ‘work’. This helps massively as many of my tasks involve keeping a very close eye on things.
We have regular reviews periodically, to take care of any problems. We have put in place a strategic plan with monthly milestones and it helps. The last two years we’ve stayed on track and gone far.
Mäd: We’ve noted Wing has very strong commitments to various CSR initiatives. How important is this to the Wing brand, and indeed to conducting business in Cambodia?
Manu: The whole business has been driven by our vision: To improve the lives of all Cambodians.
The future is digital: we stand for digital, gender, and financial inclusion. In fact, our core existence stems from striving for financial inclusion.
Since the mission is to improve lives, we look for ways we can do that through exploring the ecosystems we’ve built. We work with Smile Cambodia: they do free surgeries for patients with cleft lips, especially for children. With our help, Smile Cambodia can reach all corners of the country and create important awareness that people can have access to this free health service.
Wing does a lot of great work with various ministries. We work with the ministry of education on teacher training. We want the next generation to be financially liberated. We also work with the ministry of health to help impoverished pregnant women to create a Wing account for receiving grants from the government from pregnancy to child birth.
Additionally, we work with the ministry of labor and MOSAVY to distribute the Social Protection Fund from the government during Covid. We created an innovative solution using the Poor ID issued by the government to disburse this cash through Wing Agents.
Mäd: That brings us on to an interesting question. We have seen some media outlets recently lambasting microloan providers and offering up worrying statistics about debt in Cambodia, especially to the poorer sections of society. This morning we saw an article claiming that the average debt was $3,800 per person yet the average salary sits at $1,800. Do you think it’s been too easy for people to access financial products, and is the communication clear enough on loan paybacks, and terms and conditions?
Manu: Averages are misleading if we use the debt value divided by the population. The loan amounts in urban areas are most likely to be higher. We are also trying to help the financial institutions that are ready to disburse smaller ticket size loans to reach rural areas through our Network. Banks can use Wing as a source of giving out loans in every nook and corner of the country.
We look at lower ticket sized loans, to see if people at the very bottom are served, and we’ve found there is room for improvement. The distribution of the loans we collect tells us this. So, we might still have a large section of society that could be potentially underserved.
Mäd: That’s interesting. So do you think it’s a debt crisis or a misuse of numbers?
Manu: I’m the wrong person to ask since we’re not a lending agency. Going by the current Non-Performing Loans we have for the country; I don’t think there’s any issue. We have healthy KPIs compared to many markets in the world.
Mäd: That’s fair. We’re working with multiple banks and they’re all moving forward - in a really healthy manner. So it feels a discord to see International media calling it a crisis.
Manu: We have a lot of people looking for loans, so we have a loan referral service. We can do the matchmaking - to help find the ideal loan at the ideal rate, that genuinely suits their requirements. We already have the partnerships with the financial institutions so we get a lot of requests, it shows there is a need there.
In the last 10 years the Cambodian economy had steady annual growth by about 7%; it’s one of the fastest in the world. That phenomenal growth wouldn’t have happened on its own without a lot of support from the Financial Services industry. The CMA has mentioned that majority of the Cambodian households have been served with a loan and that is truly a great achievement.
Mäd: Moving on to our final topic, with the tech landscape evolving so quickly, what approach does Wing have to hiring and developing talent - and have there been any key lessons learned through team building?
Manu: We jokingly say that we’re the training ground for most businesses in the industry!
We seem to be doing well. There’s a relatively high retention rate, so the human resources development team at Wing certainly does a phenomenal job.
We offer a lot of long-term value. For example, we provide life coaching, and we work with organizations to train leaders. The life coach is assigned to every senior team member, and are with them throughout the year - to discuss work, personal development… basically everything. It can be very difficult to justify subjective investment like this in a normal organization, but we’ve seen great results since the program began 2 years ago. It makes us better human beings. It helps the team manage stress and helps them live easier lives.
We need better humans to drive better businesses.
We often notice that it’s difficult to get youngsters with the necessary skill sets we need, and it’d be expensive to keep getting expats. We work with Mekong DataU. They recruit and train young Cambodians on key skills, and put them on the jobs to develop great skills through mentorship. Then, if the organization is happy with the results then it can absorb them. We are proud partners of this initiative and find it very innovative. We work with them to customize training and get the right results.
We also work with universities, seeking out the right youngsters to fit our vision.
Mäd: Always a good idea, catch budding talent and train them with the right methodology. Everyone gets the advantages from team members (personal growth) through to the business bottom line.
Manu: Yes, absolutely. Upcoming talent is so key. I don’t know what the competition will look like 5 years from now, we need the youngsters to come and out-think people like me!