Georgia’s biggest annual financial technology summit showed how the state is aiming to enhance its global reputation, both by attracting investment from overseas and helping homegrown upstarts take on industry challenges with international resonance.
The event was a clarion call to defend and augment the state’s reputation as an international leader in an industry that is attracting more attention as the digital economy blossoms.
The TAG Fintech 2017 event Feb. 9 drew about 700 attendees from both extremes of the fintech landscape, from startups like Qoins and TrustStamp to giants like Equifax Inc., the massive Atlanta-based credit information provider that is refashioning itself into a financial insights firm, and First Data Corp., the world’s largest payments processor.
The most explicit case for Atlanta’s ascendance was made by Barry McCarthy, First Data’s executive vice president and head of the new FinTech Atlanta initiative, a marketing umbrella to pitch the city as the “new home” of a sector that includes electronic payments, peer-to-peer lending, point of sale data collection, authentication methods and various other niche products.
Mr. McCarthy sat on a panel with other industry heavyweights from companies like InComm and Elavon. While their meandering conversation touched on recruitment and fintech curriculum in schools, the future of mobile payments and innovation, they made it clear that fintech is finally becoming “cool,” and that Atlanta is its epicenter — at least for their companies.
Elavon’s Guy Harris, head of North America for a company that employs 650 people in Atlanta, joked that the company’s mobile payments innovation center, The Grove, eschews members of his generation.
“I’m not allowed into The Grove because I’m too old,” he said.
Scott Meyerhoff, chief financial officer for InComm, said his company has used internships to get students and younger workers “indoctrinated” early and excited about an industry vital to the functioning of the global economy.
But the more acute representation of the city’s aspirations was on display during the next discussion, where Merchant e-Solutions CEO Tom Bell was flanked by three strong women who represent different pieces of Atlanta’s fintech flavor.
Mr. Bell represents what he calls a “17-year startup” that was bought by Brazil’s biggest processor, Cielo, for $670 million in 2012, mainly for its settlement platform.
Now a niche player that focuses heavily on e-commerce, Merchant E-Solutions has kept up its strength in the U.S., aided by a management team down in Brazil that understood the importance of staying grounded here even as it implemented the company’s solutions there.
In conversation with Metro Atlanta Chamber President Hala Moddelmog, Mr. Bell highlighted his positive experience being recruited to Georgia, process that culminated in a visit by Gov. Nathan Deal to the Cielo headquarters in Brazil in 2016.
Mr. Bell said the visit definitely helped, as did attention from Atlanta officials, who “swarmed” the company “in a positive way” when it became clear they were eyeing a move from the San Francisco bay area to Atlanta.
The CEO even said to Mr. Bell: “I’m getting more attention from Atlanta than I do from my own city.”
But still, the company needed to make a case, one that included estimates on cost savings, tax incentives, grants from Invest Atlanta, and ultimately, a clear sense that the right people would be easier to find here than there.
“The intangible part we sold was that the access to talent was going to be so much better here,” Mr. Bell told Global Atlanta, admitting that it was counterintuitive at first. “The theory of that case has proven more than we thought.”
Affordability helps with that: In California, the company had people commuting for two hours just to find housing they could pay for.
Ms. Moddelmog, who was moderating the discussion, said that mix of affordability and ambition is what sets Atlanta apart, along with the spirit of collaboration.
“Economic development, if you do it right, is a team sport,” she said, noting collaboration between the chamber, the mayor’s office and the governor’s office on Brazil outreach.
Georgina Nelson, CEO of London-based TruRating, felt that right away when she came to the city and was “taken under the wing” of major industry players. Now, she’s set up her U.S. beachhead here, with the help of the British consulate and the chamber. She echoed Ms. Moddelmog’s assertion about how nice it is to live here: With her home and office both just on the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside trail, Ms. Nelson doesn’t even own a car in a city known for its traffic.
“It’s about an amazing quality of life,” Ms. Nelson said.
Of course, the fact that she could get office space for $18 per square foot versus $80 in London helped quite a bit, as did proximity to potential customers.
But for Lara Hodgson, whose Atlanta-based NOW Corp. helps companies get their hands on trade credit they’ve “loaned” out by allowing customers to pay in the future, believes that the city’s story is just starting to be told.
When she heard Atlanta has a reputation among some venture capital firms for being “content with singles and doubles,” she was incensed.
“That reputation must go away, and I’m signing up to dispel that,” she said. “We’re going to redefine home run.”