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“We see a big change in mentality, a sense of community around data and tech”

As Head of Data Science at Ebury, a rising force in the financial services industry, data savant Enrique Colin struggles constantly to close the gap between the changing technology and the customer. PostFunnel sat with Enrique for a talk about the data he enjoys so much, the challenges in his unique field, and mused about the most important thing you should teach your children

Rebecca Wojno
April 12 2018

It is not rare to encounter an interviewee who’s in love with his role. But in the case of Enrique Colin, head of data science at Ebury, it’s more than that. In his key position in a rising financial services company that raised over $100M, has around 650 employees and just opened its 15th office worldwide, he’s constantly in an ‘awe’ mood: whether it’s the challenges of the fintech industry, the sheer number of developments in data technology and machine learning or helping to educate obstinate potential clients, it is all done with a sincere sense of mission. PostFunnel sat down for a fascinating chat with Enrique for this month’s powwow:

Can you give us a brief description of your career background thus far?

“I’m an electro-mechanical engineer by degree. I started off doing research for a year, this was a project around, well, something quite technical involving high-speed railways, for high-speed trains. Then I moved into consulting for some time in the energy space. I also did some trading. So for a year, I was in a prop trading fund, trading commodities and short-term interest rates, some other products, financial products, and then I landed at Ebury a little more than three and a half years ago. I was always interested in financial markets, in understanding the markets. Back then, we were around 50 employees. We’re now north of 600. So it’s been a journey.”

So with that kind of growth, your role has probably changed as well

“Yes, yes, when I joined Ebury I was hired to build their risk procedure on the transaction writing processes while we launched our trade finance, import/export finance products. So, to be honest, it was nothing that I had done before. But I had a great interest and I was especially interested in the people who interviewed me. I just saw so many clever people aligned towards the same goal, and I said, ‘this must be something interesting, something big.’ Because the company was growing so rapidly, it was natural for me to evolve towards a more data analyst role.”

We’re talking about a tremendous amount of data…

“It is. Our main goal was figuring out how could we be leveraging all the internal and external data we were gathering and creating more efficient processes. So fast-forward, one year later, and we decided to set up a team, a function for this. We decided to set up our team in Madrid, though I’m still based in London, and right now, we’ve got a team of eight people in Madrid strictly focused on data engineering, analytics, and data science. And we’re covering pretty much all streams. We have projects with sales and retention. We’ve got projects with risk and treasury. We’ve got some projects with compliance and operations. So that pretty much covers the whole spectrum of functions here at Ebury.”

Educating the customers

 Can you tell us a little about Ebury?

“Yes. So I would call what we do financial services. And more specifically, we’re an e-money institution. We’re not a bank, but we provide financial services to SMEs that are trading overseas. So regardless of whether they’re wholesalers, manufacturers or services companies, our clients are small and medium enterprises, typically companies that are trading overseas. They’re either importing from the far east, or they’re exporting to the U.S., or they’re providing financial services or some sort of services in Continental Europe and hence have some exposure to other currencies and the need for products around import/export finance and payments.

What exactly are you offering them?

“We offer risk management solutions around currency risk. We offer collection and payment capabilities. We offer import/export finance, so it would be the whole trade finance. These are companies that need a revolving cash facility for up to five months, to top up for, let’s say, the Christmas season. We’re offering those products. We see ourselves as an end-to-end solution for these SMBs that have some exposure to international trade. In one single stop they can manage their risks, execute payments, manage their invoices and their cash flows through our revolving cash facility. We offer some more tech solutions around API connectivity to their ERPs and accounting systems.

Picture the last two years, U.S. elections, Brexit. There have been strong moves in the market and some risks that you’d have had to insure against, and that’s the type of insurance, that’s the type of risk management solution we provide. And then everything else is just sort of a complement to these propositions, right, to this risk management solution.”

In a recent conference you talked about the need to educate your customers and convince them that there’s a better way to do business. Not such an easy thing. How do you overcome that obstacle?

“I wouldn’t frame that as convincing, but more about educating businesses on the available financial solutions that have traditionally been limited to blue chips or large enterprises and now are being enabled to smaller companies. It’s more about understanding how these solutions can mend frictions for SMBs that maturation institutions, (commercial banks) couldn’t resolve.

“There’s a life cycle here. Our simplest problem would be executing payments. A company might find that Ebury is helping them out in solving their problem around making international transfers, because we might be cheaper than the bank. But then we also have the capabilities of offering currency exchange on those payments and we have a broad range of currencies. So gradually this client could start to understand that, ‘hey, by paying my suppliers in domestic currency, I can qualify for discounts.’ It’s a whole learning process. We do serve some larger clients that are perfectly aware of what is it that we’re selling, there’s no education or nurturing process for them, whereas for the smaller clients, it’s sort of a learning curve. We find it easier to connect with fast-growing companies in those scenarios where the bank might not be catching up with the client’s growth rate, while we can be more flexible. And that’s where we excel even more.”

The new eco-system

Tell us a little about your CRM strategy

“Our servicing depends on the needs of the clients. We’ve got an online platform, where we offer most of our capabilities, but clients can also access everything via an API. Then we have our account management team which is more of a relationship-based model where there’s a closer touch, more of a human connection. When I joined Ebury, we were just launching our online platform, and right now, we’re pretty much relying on it to execute a large proportion of our business. For us, what’s key is to understand what the client’s needs and exposures are so that we’re precise in the content we present to our clients. We want to be able to notify them or share relevant content. As a CFO from an SME, I might not be interested in getting information on every single macroeconomic event, just the content that affects my business, because that affects my currencies and exposures. That’s what’s key for us.”

How do you “follow” your customers, aside from making sure that they receive the most relevant communications?

“There’s a pretty thorough deep data gathering exercise that happens all the way from the initial touch point we have with any lead or prospect that starts far before a company becomes our client. Throughout our acquisition and onboarding, we need to understand the client’s business nature, their cycles, their exposures, their interests, their fears. Why they’re hesitant to use one solution or another. And then throughout the life of the client, its transactional history, we’re coding that. We’re understanding their behavior and gathering further data throughout the relationship. And as our clients evolve and move towards more complex or broader solutions, there’s more data being fed into our overall ecosystem.”

Data for everyone

How do you feel about this data-first era?

“Given my role and given my background, I could not be happier. I think it’s completely necessary. I think data is here to enable employees to tailor propositions to clients. The more we can tailor our proposition and the more granular we can be in this targeting exercise, the better, and at the same time, the better we can measure our proposition and iterate.”

As technology only gets better in terms of the data we’re able to collect, do you foresee any challenges?

“To me it’s not that much about the infrastructure or the data that we’re collecting. It’s much more about the business questions we’re asking ourselves. What are we trying to solve and how are we using these building blocks to solve them? We’ve seen 10 years of massive changes in infrastructure. We’ve seen five years of massive changes in open source libraries and frameworks. All of these exercises need to be materialized to increase efficiency for the business or improve the overall customer experience.”

Where does the creative process fit in in such a data-driven market? Anything out of the box?

“So, my team is the most data-driven in the company, but even though the company is following strict data-driven frameworks, there is still a very large proportion of the business that is more relationship-based.

There needs to be a clear communication between the teams, so while tech is coming up with solutions, we need to make business aware of what we’re working with so we can come up with solutions. And then there’s a lot of A/B testing. We’re running pilots. We’re monitoring pretty much everything. We’re quite open in the sense that if someone has a good idea and wants to go the extra mile to implement it, no one is gonna stop that person, as long as that makes sense for the business. We are always empowering employees on the tech side and even encouraging that they acquire new skills, new frameworks, to challenge existing processes, existing operating procedures in the business, and present new solutions.”

Do you think that AI capabilities are going to change the way you work at Ebury?

“At the moment, our AI capabilities focus on customer acquisition, so understanding the market’s segments so we can better serve and identifying those opportunities. It’s also helps manage our risk. That’s a pretty big piece. Moving forward, AI could be another layer for our processes; learning what works and what doesn’t, and give the employee suggestions or recommendations. We always see AI as an enabler, as a tool to empower employees. It’s the synergy between both.”

Code as a second language

If you hadn’t chosen this career path, what would you be doing instead?

“If I weren’t doing financial services, I would still love to be in data. So, healthcare, energy, retail, pretty much anything else. And that’s the beauty of the whole framework, that it’s applicable to all other industries. And if I wasn’t in data, I think I’d probably be doing something with engineering. I’d probably go towards a more vocational career around electromechanical engineering.”

What advice do you wish you were given when you first started your career and what advice would you give to the younger generations?

“In a nutshell, I’d probably say learn to code. Learn to program, maybe not from a computer software developer perspective, but don’t be reluctant to learn how to code more than you’d learn a second language. Be curious. Question existing frameworks and processes and embrace new frameworks and skills. And sometimes it’s the fear of starting from zero, but I find few downsides in doing that.

I think we live in a great time where we are capable of doing lots of stuff, thanks to the open source community and the amazing infrastructure that’s been around for the last 10 years. And I would really encourage anyone with some interest in this space to try to make a career out of it.”

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