Why Smartphones Are Payments’ Biggest Innovators

Innovation is happening at the speed of payments — which, as it turns out, can be pretty fast these days.

In this edition of the PYMNTS’ Commander in Chief Series, Western Union Global Money Transfer President Odilon Almeida shares a day in the life as leader of one of the largest global person-to-person money transfer networks, what smartphones have done for the payments space and why security and compliance are always key in a game where the rules are changing every day.

PYMNTS: What does a day in your life look like?

OA: As president of Western Union Global Money Transfer, I oversee our global person-to-person money transfer via our combined digital and retail walk-in agent network that connects more than 200 countries and territories. This means staying tuned to the ebbs and flows of money movement within the 16,000 corridors we service every day.

My day begins early at 5:00am, and I kick it off following a triathlon-training regime at least five to six times [per] week, immaterial of where my travels take me in the world.

I travel three weeks out of four to meet our stakeholders in the markets they are in — customers, agents, regulators and employees. My schedule is carefully planned and prioritized, although I must be agile to adjust the course and adapt my schedule to unpredicted opportunities. I try to keep this to a minimum.

My office depends on the city and country I am in on that specific day. It is mobile, but my routine is not. The essence of every week is reviewing business performance and forecasts, discussing opportunities, predicting and mitigating risks, looking for small openings for transformation and innovating. This routine occurs no matter where I am in the world.

My weekend, however, is at home. This is an agreement I have had with my family for many years now. As much as is practicable, I try to be at home from Friday to Sunday.

PYMNTS: What is the most difficult part of your job and why?

OA: When you are leading the global money transfer business of a company with a legacy of 166 years, staying the same can never be an option. Continually innovating to stay ahead of what our customers want comes from managing risk, and this is one of the most difficult and one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Rules of the game are changing every day; assessing, mitigating or being opportunistic about those changes is what sets your business apart. This is true for any financial service operator with a global presence and [is] true for Western Union, as we link our digital and physical networks.

With regards to risk management, anticipating risks remains critical to our strategy in order to facilitate success and/or mitigate potential crises.

Some insights into my risk management may include:

  • Digitalization: While it is increasingly fueling our growth, you must keep up with it as it continues to evolve.
  • Competition: Traditional and nontraditional market players keep us on our toes, but it has also brought out the best in us, as we have taken our heritage and made it relevant for today’s modern money mover.
  • Geo-politics and regulation: There are times when you feel you are operating in a stabilized environment in one country, when, seemingly from nowhere, it steers off in the opposite direction. Sometimes this can even happen in nations that have had stability for decades.
  • Ethics, trust and compliance: These are the fundamental assets to win the trust of the customer and hold the confidence of regulators.

PYMNTS: What do you wish you had more time to do?

OA: I wish that I had more time to go into the field with the sole purpose of experiencing the market. Understanding the customer, getting a sense of their landscape whether that is economic, social or political, appreciating the little nuances that make engagement with our products and services more successful, is invaluable. It is a quality that can be dismissed easily, as the world increasingly becomes reliant on digital connectivity.

I found visiting markets valuable when our focus was predominantly walk-in retail, but I have subsequently [learned] that it is just as important to be as familiar with these aspects even if your business is digital — something I’ve really come to appreciate as our digital footprint has grown.

PYMNTS: What does innovation mean to you?

OA: Innovation can be many things, but the most impactful innovation I have seen is when it is carried out incrementally. The result can be transformational and make a massive difference.

True innovation begins at the heart of the business, out in the field, knowing what customers want today and what they may want tomorrow. It is these small changes that build [a] lean management mentality that creates a sea change from the bottom up. This approach paves the way for amplification of success in a manner that is sustainable. Small shifts can make way for transformational shifts.

PYMNTS: Speaking specifically of the payments and commerce space, what in your opinion is the most impactful innovation in that realm in the last five years?

OA: The ability to do virtually anything remotely from the palm of your hand via a smartphone and all the various systems, processes and cloud systems working behind the scene[s] to make it seamless. A mash-up of processes work behind the scene[s] to drive a seamless experience — whether that is compliance, payments, personal identification, personal preferences, aided product and service journeys, real-time updates and service fulfillment based on the customer-driven time preferences — instantaneous or otherwise.

The future will build upon the smartphone with artificial intelligence, voice recognition and augmented reality.

PYMNTS: Any recent success stories you would like to share with us?

OA: Western Union’s innovation over time has built a powerful cross-border platform for moving money almost anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, but the digital space is relatively new. In an age when speed, convenience and trust mean everything, we have increased the number of ways to send and fund those transactions within Western Union’s cross-border platform.

The ability to bridge both digital and physical worlds has been key to WU’s digital and retail success, and we are well-positioned to further connect these worlds because we are driving our innovation on the back of what our customers want — whether they are banked, underbanked or unbanked. This is our success story, and it continues to evolve.