Today, we’re talking to Richard Chunn, one of Privalgo’s founders and directors. Richard heads up the company’s operational services. In this article, we’ll talk about building up a robust financial tech platform in under a year, online threats in 2021, and the positive mental effects of fishing.
As far as I see it, no tech team, no Privalgo. It’s the backbone of the company.
If you’re going to start a financial services company in 2018, you’re going to need some kind of tech platform. Especially, if your philosophy is to be disruptive in the fintech industry.
What were your previous roles before Privalgo?
I started out as a communications engineer for Lloyds Bank, based in Chelmsford, where I live. It all got moved over to London and I was made redundant in 1998.
Then I met Stewart (Privalgo’s Chairman) through my father. Stewart was working at Exchange Direct and needed an IT person, so I went to work there. That’s when I also met Mark Smith-Halvorsen and Melvin Fraser (Corporate FX founders).
My role started really hands on. I was responsible for supporting all the tech. That’s where I really learned my craft alongside a very talented IT Consultant. Obviously, you need to keep on learning. The IT world is a lot different in 2021 than it was in 1999.
Exchange Direct came to an end and I was invited (along with Mel) by Stewart and Mark, to become a founding partner of Corporate FX in 2001, which eventually became Global Reach Group.
What are the biggest differences? Is it faster now? Was it faster then?
Since then, there’s been an explosion of internet services. When we first started Corporate FX, we didn’t have an internet connection on a main machine. There was one internet terminal in the corner of the sales floor, and they had to share it to lead source. Can you imagine using that model today?
The cloud computing side has gone bananas. Choosing to be completely cloud-based has been a massive advantage, especially with the pandemic. As soon a lockdown hit, we could all pack up and go work from home the next day. A lot of companies struggled with that.
Although our infrastructure is relatively compact, it still presents challenges.
When it came to starting a new company on your own, how daunting was it, knowing that the other founders are not as technically proficient as you are?
Rich: Yes, granted they’re not tech professionals, but tech touches everyone at varying levels so everybody has experience and an opinion on what good or bad looks like. We have worked together for years and know each other inside out. The level of trust we have with one another isn’t something that can be gained overnight.
I count myself incredibly fortunate to do a job I love with a group of friends. That said, it was still daunting to be doing it again from scratch. But I was excited at the prospect of making something very special.
All eyes were on you then? The founders had this great idea for a company, it was up to you to carry it out.
Rich: Yeah, the thing is though, I had been in this position before. When Dan asked me if I wanted to come on as a founder, I’d already lived it, building Corporate FX. I took Corporate FX from seven of us sitting around a desk to selling it to private equity. I ran that all the way through.
When Dan and Zeb asked me if I wanted to do it again, I was like yes! I can do it all again. This time we can go fully cloud-based, fully platform-based and have a nice modern technology stack that’s scalable. It sort of relit the fire within me.
These last two years have been really good for me. I’ve got my mojo back.
Did you go down the route that if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it my way?
Rich: Not necessarily MY way but I was brought on for a reason and that’s my tech knowledge. I’m not saying I’m the best tech person in the world – I’m not. What I am good at is aligning the right tech with what the business needs and doing it cost-effectively.
You hear horror stories of tech projects that run and run and cost millions of pounds because they’re not managed properly. I’ve always found that interesting, especially in the public sector, where these tech projects get out of control.
I love building up the tech team and learning from new people. For example, bringing in Sam [Sam Amin, Head of Technology], who has a completely different skill set to me, bearing in mind I’m not a developer, has meant I’ve been able to dive deeper into architecture and infrastructure. I love bringing people in who know things I don’t, so I can learn from them and then we share and build together. I think that’s a really good way to build a team. There’s zero value in employing really smart people, then not listening to them.
I get the impression from the other Founders that there isn’t much debate about what happens with the tech projects.
Rich: It’s not like I don’t get challenged… I do, frequently. They may have read something or heard something from someone at a different company. But ultimately everything comes back to me to review and assess then ultimately make the decision.
This structure is due to change slightly in 2021 as Sam is moving into Head of Technology. My role is broadening to provide oversight and direction for not only Technology, but some more operational areas of the business, namely Settlements, Trade Execution and Client Services.
It’s nice for me because I don’t have a lot of red tape and process to go through to get things signed off. And obviously that comes with its own set of challenges because if things go wrong, it all lies with me. So, if there’s a security issue or the platform isn’t working, it’s my responsibility. But then again, if all goes well, I get the recognition. But the responsibility is heavy now as it’s a big system.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome? Was it building the system? Finding the people? Was it continuing to have new ideas and innovate?
Initially, it was how much we were trying to build from nothing. We started planning it out in February 2018 and we used an outsourced development partner. We used business analysts to scope how we wanted this to work and come together.
We didn’t have Sam at that point, so we needed to bring in some architects. That was the core start to the project and then we built out the rest of the services from there.
I only had six months to build it. It ran a couple of months over, purely because there was just so much to do. I still see that as a massive achievement, as we only slipped by about eight weeks. From essentially writing things down on a ‘cigarette packet’ a year earlier to having it all set up and running a year later was a huge success.
We made some mistakes – I think that’s natural. The key is to not repeat previous mistakes and we achieved that.
At the beginning, when you were writing the initial plans, how involved were the other directors? Did they just leave to you to it?
They were heavily involved. We all had our own things to focus on. Matt set up how he wanted the sales processes to work. Dan designed all the compliance systems. Zeb looked after all the dealing platform processes. Nicky and Dawn effectively built the whole back office. That team was powerful when we were putting it all together.
That’s when I thought, bloody hell, this is going to be a good business. It was at that point I knew the business was going to fly, and we’re proving it today.
What are you most proud of so far?
Rich: Leaving tech aside for a second, I’m incredibly proud of the collaboration between teams. In previous businesses, it’s always been siloed to a degree. We don’t have that in this business. Here, everyone feels like they’ve got a voice. If they want to improve something or change something, they can voice it and it’ll get listened to.
It’s great for my team as the staff who use the tech have completely bought into it. Our Relationship Managers are frequently coming up with ideas and improvements for our Clients. We review all ideas and whilst we might not always implement them, it creates an environment where everyone feels included in how and what we are doing with development.
Everyone has some input into the tech, and I think that’s brilliant. It will make the system better in the long run.
When it comes to employing people, do you bring someone in to work on something you need done or do you recruit someone to implement an idea?
A mixture. Where we can outsource, we will. We have an outsourced team, who are great and do a lot of the heavy lifting. When it comes to having control over our IP and our estate, I’ll keep that in my team in London.
For 2021, we have the right people in place now to see it through. For the security side, we will also be developing further through 2021.
Would you say security is the biggest fear? Everything I use here has so many layers of security.
Rich: 100%. There are so many threat actors out there at the moment. The people who are trying to get into these systems are really clever. They’re becoming really sophisticated.
This is where you see big institutions getting hacked. They have billions of pounds of security behind them and hackers are still getting in. My theory for Privalgo has always been the more layers of security we can put in place; the more likely hackers will give up and move onto the next person. They’re continually looking for weaknesses that can be found in lax security.
We focus heavily on staff security awareness, as no matter how much protection is in place it can all fall over if the squidgy organic bit behind the keyboard (users) proves to be the weakest link.
Look at the disaster the NHS had when that ransomware went into it. That was entirely preventable.
With businesses of our size – in fact, sometimes any size – there tends to be less-than-adequate board-level attention to cyber security. It’s getting more attention now because of areas like GDPR and some high-profile security incidents. But in general, cyber security needs to be much more prevalent on-board agendas, in my opinion.
If everyone had the tech background you had, it would be so much easier to allocate budget to tech and security because everyone understood it more.
Rich: Yeah, tech is still seen as a bit of a dark art by non-tech people.
If you had a limitless budget, what three things would you do or change?
Rich: That’s a really good question. I probably wouldn’t change much. If I had a limitless budget at the start, I would have had a bigger team. Same solutions, just a much bigger team to get things to a more established MVP (Minimum Viable Product).
Moving into blockchain, Machine Learning and AI would be the things I’d look at next. They’re relatively new technologies and require a load of money to do something that potentially could end up not being very beneficial. So, with a limitless budget, I’d use a lot more for R&D.
Right now, are you happy with the position that we’re in? We’re doing well, we’re trading. But is there anything that irks you at night, that you think, I could do with getting the budget or time for something?
I want to get as close as we can to 100% resilience.
Plus, now we’re out of the fire-fighting stage with our system, I want to go out to our clients more and see what they would like from us. For me, it’s about being obsessed with our clients’ expectation of us and the client journey. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s behind it, if the front end doesn’t work, our clients will find one that does.
That’s where we want to get to. As we continue building this, we have to focus on the client and what they want. Not what we think they want.
With tech, there’s always new things coming out, and not everyone swims in the same direction. How do you pick which direction to go in? We could be left behind if we pick the wrong way.
Yeah, that’s always a concern. You’re right, there’s always new tech coming out. Someone develops something and it’s hailed as the next best thing – it’ll instantly boost sales if you implement it blah blah blah…
Having been in the industry a long time – both tech and FX – I need to make sure these tech solutions align with our path in terms of where we’re going from a revenue and business strategy perspective. The business strategy should be the driving force. So, I sit down with the rest of the board and we discuss the strategy and I figure out how tech can facilitate the strategy and what solutions are required to get there.
That’s how I’ve kept a level head with it all. Like you said, there’s so much new tech coming all the time, and that’s never going to slow down.
As the business evolves, we will deliver more and more tech solutions to our client base and expand our product offering. Staying agile is key to achieving this.
Do you think that’s doable?
Definitely doable. It depends on what happens over the next few years and what we plan to do from a strategy perspective. Whatever that may be, you can bet it will need tech solutions to deliver it!
Do you think you’ll be the main driver in that? With whatever initiatives that come, we can’t stand still with this at the end of the day. Can we?
Yes, not at all. The way that technology is developing, I’ll be moving into an operations role next year. I’ll still oversee tech but from a strategic point of view. I’ll also be picking up settlements and client services as we progress through 2021 and beyond.
Tech’s my life. I’ve been doing it for over twenty years. Right now, though, I’m very hands on. I need to be more hands off and continue to look at the bigger picture.
This brings me on to one of my final questions. How do you switch off?
[Laughing] I generally don’t switch off. You’ll be able to get me on the phone whenever you want.
But fishing is usually where I take a break. If I get the chance to go fishing, I’m in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal, so I’ve got no choice but to switch off. I sort of have to force myself into it.
This working from home is interesting, as well. I remember saying over ten years ago that we should be working from home more. My colleagues said it was because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning – which was probably true some days! But in 2020, we were forced into working from home. For us it’s worked really well.
From the start, I’ve always wanted to be agile with our premises, to be agile with our systems and services. I’ve always been wary of anything that could paint us into a corner. The lockdown proved we were on the right path.
Would you see it as backward step if we were all to go back into the office?
Honestly, I really miss the office atmosphere. We should have the flexibility to work from home in my opinion – if people want to, they can. It’s the flexibility that’s really helped a lot of people in the company at this time.
Also, in a strange way, I think it’s made people better at communicating with each other. I think at the beginning, we overdid the communication. You could see people zoning out on Teams meetings, but I think we’ve got the balance right now.
All in all, I think the lockdown has changed our business for the better.
Thanks, Rich, that was great. Anything you’d like to finish on?
I just wanted to say, going back to when we started this, from the three of us sitting in Dan’s (Privalgo’s CEO) house, sticking post-it notes on his window about how we want the business to be set up, to where it is today, is phenomenal. The fact that we are essentially a start-up, not even through our first business plan and we’re profitable is astonishing, especially through a global pandemic.
And that’s nothing to do with us in all honesty. Yes, we put the structures and team in place but it’s the people who’re working for us who have got the business to where we are today and will continue to drive it forward.
That’s definitely a good one to finish on. Cheers Richard.
It is always enlightening to be around individuals that are honest and open with their opinions. Privalgo promote this philosophy of free-thinking and development. Continual training, support and conversation seems to be a mantra that senior members of staff encourage and reward. I look forward to many more meetings with extremely well-informed individuals like Richard.
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