Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Hypepotamus Oct. 24 as part of its “Get to Know the CEO” series. It is published on Global Atlanta as part of our content partnership with the Southeast’s top source for innovation news. Sign up for Hypepotamus newsletters here.
Brightwell had become a known name in the maritime world as a payroll distribution platform for cruise ship workers. Customers came from just about every country in the world to get help moving money back home in a fast, easy, and affordable way. The Atlanta-based fintech firm was operating 24/7, moving $1 billion a year through its payments engine.
Business was great…until it wasn’t.
Cruises were hard hit at the start of the pandemic and the industry shuttered pretty much overnight. There was no telling if the industry would ever bounce back.
While the industry was transforming in the spring of 2020, so too was the Brightwell team. Right as the pandemic was starting, COO Larry Hipp was moving into the CEO seat.
Hipp was a veteran of the financial technology space when he first joined Brightwell in 2016. He started writing banking and check imaging software right after graduating from Auburn University.
“I’ve done just about any type of money movement except for gold and crypto. If it’s money, I’ve moved it,” he told Hypepotamus.
Hipp had the experience. But being a CEO at the start of COVID would have been unnerving for even the most seasoned C-Suite executive. We asked him to take us back to his first few months in the CEO seat to really understand what was going through his mind.
For Hipp, leadership at the time all came down to a focus on transparency.
Leading Through Uncertainty
“Probably one of the things that I’m most proud of in my professional career is how we made it through that time. We’re talking about massive uncertainty. People would come to me in May of 2020 and ask if they were going to have a job next week. There were parts of 2020 and beyond that were just completely out of our control. The federal government said you couldn’t bring a cruise ship into the United States. We could not get back to business,” he told Hypepotamus.
“So we went through that time with as much transparency as we possibly could. We let everybody know how much cash we had and how long we could get from Point A to Point B. We went into what we used to call ‘side hustle mode’ to put a little money in the pocket so that we could get through this thing.”
While COVID shuttered a lot of business, it also gave Brightwell the luxury of time.
“It was a golden opportunity for us to take our entire company and go, well, let’s figure out what we’re going to do next. And the things that we’re doing today, the products and services that we’re selling, were really born out of that time,” he added.
At the end of the day, Brightwell is a cross-border payments company. So with their extra time on their hands, Brightwell started looking at additional industries that could benefit from Readyremit, a fully embedded, compliant remittance solution. Alongside the cruise industry (which re-opened around July 2021), agriculture companies with global workforces, credit unions, banks, airlines, and esports companies are now all Brightwell customers.
Brightwell’s Next Chapter
Hipp said the team also focused on sustainable growth in terms of how it brought on new talent and thought about burning capital. So on the other side of COVID, Brightwell focused on “growing very thoughtfully.”
That caught the attention of customers and ecosystem leaders alike. Brightwell recently won the 2023 Fintech ADVANCE Award by the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) and it landed a new collaboration with Visa earlier this year.
Now in 2023, Brightwell’s cruise business is back and the team is building out its new service levels. And Hipp said the team is poised to double its headcount.
“We’re moving from a 75 person company, which operates very differently than the 150 person company we’re going to be in a few months,” Hipp said. “For us these days, the leadership transformation is happening at a level lower than us. In a 75 person company, the CEO, the COO, the Chief Product Officer are very much in the work. And now we’re asking: Who is that next layer of leadership for us?”