Dubai: It has been a period of extreme change at Travelex, the foreign exchange company that is particularly active in the travel space. Disruptions caused by the pandemic was only part of the reason.
The real change at Travelex was all internal. As one of the key businesses of B.R. Shetty-owned financial services holding company Finablr, Travelex had to endure all of the turmoil it went through last year. (As had happened at NMC Healthcare, also owned by Shetty, Finablr saw the departure of its CEO and most of its senior executives, as well of the board members. This was brought on by bank funds getting diverted without a trace of it on the books. Finablr also owned the UAE Exchange Centre.)
There were moments during this phase when the future of Travelex came with stark doubts. But the management at the company scripted a way out, and putting in distance from whatever was going on at Finablr and UAE Exchange Centre.
Now, freshly rejuvenated, the UK company is primed for action. Batu Dolay, Managing Director for the Middle East and Turkey, spoke to Gulf News about the immediate future.
What will change at Travelex now that it is on its own?
With our new ownership structure, and in the face of the pandemic, our entire focus has been on becoming a more agile, lean organisation with a sharp focus on sustainable profitability. A key part to the success of this strategy has been the support of our airport partners, regional airlines and the governments and regulators of the countries we operate within.
Looking to the future, the ability to stay agile is key to our corporate growth. We are looking at modular, mobile store designs, reviewing our tech stacks to better leverage the benefits of cloud computing and thereafter expanding our digital product products and services.
Are there any outstanding issues yet to be settled after the de-merger? Are you planning to take in new shareholders?
Travelex is a British business and brand that has managed to maintain self-sufficiency from a legal and financial perspective. As we kept ourselves structurally separate from our previous owners, the impact of the de-merger was much less significant than it would otherwise have been.
In August 2020, we completed the onboarding of a new set of shareholders consisting of pedigree investment firms from both the US and the UK, providing a robust capital and ownership structure for the Travelex group. The new board and the group’s new shareholders have been extremely supportive of Travelex’s recovery and growth plans, both financially and strategically, and having that type of support has helped us make good strategic decisions in confidence as the business has recovered.
Have you already launched a standalone operation in the UAE?
Travelex UAE operates independently with its own management team, is separately regulated in the UAE, and plays a unique role in the provision of foreign exchange to travellers in the region. The UAE is also an HQ hub for the rest of the Travelex’s Middle Eastern and Turkey businesses, which is a region that is recovering well from the impacts of reduced travel due to the pandemic.
In the UAE, we operate through a jointly owned LLC and have been in partnership with the same JV partners for over 15 years, who have been nothing but supportive in the face of recent economic challenges. With our planned growth strategy for the next five years, we look forward to developing these relationships further.
Will it be a much smaller and more sharply focused business that emerges?
Travelex won’t necessarily be a smaller business – we are keeping pace with our regional airport partners who, if anything, are set on meeting 2019 levels of air traffic, if not exceeding them. We have fully maintained our ability to operate.
Travelex has always maintained core relationships with key financial institutions who both provide a variety of products and services, including loans and ancillary facilities. We too provides a range of FX-related services, including retail foreign exchange services and wholesale cash. These arrangements continue largely as before.
Even before and after the Travelex spinoff, it was felt that the business was getting kind of old school. Can an ‘old economy’ travellers cheque company have a digital future?
Travelex as a brand has a strong heritage, and as the retail landscape shifts, we are working to embrace new digital opportunities. Our strength has always been in our international network of retail operations allowing us to source and sell currencies that many of our customers would not be able to find anywhere else. In the UAE, alone we sell over 60 currencies to customers in varying denominations.
The retail foreign exchange and travel industries are changing, however, and so we have adapted to ensure we continue to be a natural component in our customers’ increasingly seamless travel experience. Our new strategy was constructed based on customers needing more time to focus on their trip, as we know that travellers today have increasingly busy lives.
This new strategy translates into Travelex deploying our on-the-move mobile kiosks across major airports regionally, growing our ATM estate and developing an optimised digital offering.
We have also developed technology that allows customers to reserve their foreign currency orders online, at the best rates and with no commission, and pick it up at their airport of choice when they fly. This means no more queuing downtown at busy malls and no more wondering if the currency you need is available.
None of this increased focus on digital services is to say that cash is no longer needed. Cash will always be needed (albeit more in some markets than others), and cash exchange remains a core Travelex service. We are not yet in a post-cash age…
The core business line – do you plan any tweaks there?
Every business in the region has had to adapt and tweak their offering in such uncertain times. We re-assessed our retail footprint based on customer flows through our airport environments, and this is where our on-the-move mobile kiosks have really shone. It allowed us to move with the ebb and flow of our airport partners without compromising upon the amenities available to customers.
We have also tweaked our currency offerings to focus on key post-pandemic corridors that are accepting of travel. This has ensured that the volumes of people flying to a single destination can obtain the currencies they need.