Episode 42: Data, The Icon For Growth
Guest: Bahea Izmeqna, Chief Operating Officer, Greensill
Interviewer: Sam Tidswell-Norrish, International CMO, Dun & Bradstreet
Hi, welcome back. I am joined today by Bahea, the Chief Operating Officer at Greensill. Welcome back.
Greensill in my world as a household name. I've known and admired Greensill for a long time. In fact, I'd be looking forward to having this conversation with you ever since I first heard about Greensill from Aaron Goldman, who's one of your board members at GA, General Atlantic. For those that don't know, Greensill so well, it's a Supply Chain Finance business. It's arguably one of the fastest growing financial technology firms on the planet and it's doing some amazing stuff. Can you tell us a little bit about Greensill to begin with?
So we are the leading non-bank provider of Supply Chain Finance. Our main offices are in Australia and UK over here in London, where I am based in North England. In 2019 Greensill has financed $143 billion. We have around eight million plus customers, and we are presented in 175 plus countries. What's we do is Supply Chain Finance, we focus on working on capital solutions, and balance sheet optimization.
You’ve said it far more eloquently than I would ever said it, So I appreciate that. You've had a very interesting career. I know that you're in the Chief Operating Officer position now and previously, you were the leading payments Business Network International, which is owned by a bank and by two private equity firms, and you are the group CEO there as well. But before that role at network International, you had a CIO role and a technology transformation role. Can you tell us a little bit about your career and how it's evolved and a little bit about why technology has always been at the heart of it?
To be honest, I've never thought about myself when I was much younger, that I will be in the technology space. My parents are both doctors, so I thought by default, any son of a doctor will be a doctor. But when I was about to enter university, I've seen technology as the new thing in the market. And I thought that there's something interesting for me start with. So as I started my uni I found I really loved development, I liked programming, and funnily enough, my first job was a programmer where actually I tutored for a programming language. And then from there I moved to programming. But after a couple of years, I started noticing myself more in change in transformation, in really utilizing this programming into a new way of development, a new way of processing changing the way how we work today to a better or a scalable way. And years moved managed couple of transformation programs, which I really enjoy, because you just look how things are working today and try to come up with new ideas and new thinking and achieving the same type of target but in a better way. And from there I have moved to CIO, technology and then focused a little bit on the COO side. The reason why COO was lot attractive for me, is that you cover both and by the way, in both roles I’ve been a COO, I've also managed that technology as part of it.
That's awesome. And it takes quite a unique skill set to be able to do the operational side and the technology side. And one of my colleagues and mentors has exactly the same skill set. So I know exactly how unusual that is. You joined Greensill in September of last year, you're relatively new into the organization what have been some of your priorities for the business since you joined? And how is COVID changing those strategic imperatives?
Yeah, it's always a traditional answer, right, everybody answers saying that number one priority is the customer. It is the true answer. And it is the truth of my priority always as a COO or even managing technology is how can I support the customer better. I think COVID didn't change this. What I can say COVID has changed is what is it you have to do to achieve - this priority. It's not that my priority or Greensill’s actual priority was different before it is the way how we achieve and how we can use technology, how can we use data, how we can be more digitized to be able to achieve this goal.
COVID has obviously been an interesting dynamic for many, many businesses. Greensill did something that I've been a huge admirer of I've spoken about this particular move, on a number of different podcasts because it's really, for me being such a sign of strength and leadership from your organization. But you guys acquired an organization from Australia called Earnd at the start of COVID, which allows people to draw down on their salaries they earn, which may sound like a simple thing. But when you think about the fact that businesses and governments have been focused on SMEs being paid on time, but they haven't been necessarily so focused on paying their employees on time, this is really an important innovation. It's particularly important through COVID-19 helping people budget helping people spend more, and you guys launched it and made it free for NHS workers. That was a huge statement. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how your COVID strategy and that were interlinked?
Let me actually tell you the main vision of Greensill. So Greensill’s vision is to make finance fairer, faster and cheaper. If you think about it from our traditional business, what we do is that we help small and medium suppliers or companies to get to their money in a faster way, cheaper than others because it is their right and we feel as an organization that it is unfair for a small business to wait three or six months to get their money where they sometimes are in need for it. It's the same concept we apply on the employees. Every day you work it's your right as an employee, you really earned it. And from here the word Earnd comes because you earned your money. You just wait 30 days to get your salary and therefore what we're doing today is helping these employees when they are needed, for free, not to go and get a loan or spend some money and pay interest and instead get what they earned today, today itself, and use this money whenever they need it.
Yeah, it's a relatively simple sounding innovation, but it's game changing for millions of people and who needs it more than the health workers on the front line at the moment. It was awesome to see. So moving on. And the topic of this podcast is the power of data. And you guys are a truly data enabled business. So I want to get straight into it. Data underpins everything we do in business. It's especially true in financial services and supply chains even more so, now in the environment we're in. For Greensill, of course, working in the supply chain finance industry, with companies all over the world, data is crucial, with data needing to inform pretty much every decision you guys make throughout the day, you're investing heavily in the space. What benefits are you guys expecting to garner from your technology and data investments? Where do you see this opportunity going?
In my view, usually data is an icon that shows me growth. That, at the end makes us scale for reach to the level that we want, whether that is by increase ourselves or increase our market space, or by minimizing the risk that we're doing. As you've mentioned, Greensill has invested in a huge transformation program, which is over 100 million, is our budget for this program. And if this means anything, this means that it means Greensill is a big believer in the data value in our business. In general, the main value for me, is when we digitize these processes is actually scaling not only in the matter of how many transactions we're going to support or how many funding deals we're going to do, but also allows us to scale geographically. Because being able to feel confident with your processes and you feel that things are automated, digitized, it is based on data rather than people dependent, allows you to duplicate this and multiple geographies.
Is part of the reason why our firms are such good partners, you guys have global scale and even more global ambition. We are a truly global commercial data business. One of the things we at Dun and Bradstreet talk a lot about is data stewardship, which really is a fancy word for the best practice of handling data to get the most from it. And particularly when there is such vast amounts available, you think about all the different ultimate data sources that we look at, and the complicated data sources that aren't necessarily plans and refined and structured the way you need them to when you get them. It's our job to do that for our clients. But not often do we come across organizations like yours, where you have your own strategies in place, and something I'd love to hear a little bit more about now, and I think our listeners would, is your data lake model where you've created this ecosystem of data that underpins and feeds into your systems. Can you explain a little bit about that model the size of the project, which judging by the numbers you've just said is probably significant, and the benefits you expect to reap from it?
Yes, sure, first of all, let me say that D&B really made a great partner in this program and the source the information that we're getting the structure details that we get from you made our life a little bit easier. But as you've said, usually startups, they don't really focus a lot on the technology side of companies at the beginning, in terms of how to digitize it and how to scale they focus on the value to achieve a specific target. After a couple of years, you start seeing data fragmented, something in Excel sheet, different system, different details. And the approach that I usually take in any transformation program from the data is to keep data in the middle, it is the core of any platform that we are running. What this helps, it really helps us maximize the use of it in creating more value, and allowing each single person working in that program and in the transformation to think about ‘yes, I have to feed data, get data’ and start being more dependent on the AI technology rather than traditional way of yes nor rule based. So that is the first approach I take in the data transformation. The second one is the simplicity. What I like, for example, about the integration with D&B that we have today is basically you get from a name or a country or a couple of fields that we're sending to the D&B, you get a huge amount of information about the companies or the organizations that we're working with. And it is simple, right? It's that flexibility that allows the people to use it. And it's the same concept that I would like to always have with my clients is the more we’re simple and the integration from data perspective, the more value the more acceptance we will get from them and the easy integration we will get. As I said before, our investment is really huge in that area. We're a big believer in it. And our engagement is a good example of it.
You've almost answered the question for me, but maybe we can go a little bit more granular. Can you describe some of the scenarios where having high quality data in advance has led to better decision making?
In general how our model is working is it's about allowing us to fund these individual organizations in order to be able to fund or to provide this value for the organization, we need more information about it to be able to assess, to score to define that is this money going to be paid back or not from the organization? And D&B what we have is that we have the financial information of the organization, we have the scoring of organization, we have variants of the organization that allows us to assess our risk and based on it fund the company with the right amount. As a good example, if we started working with an organization that we know nothing about if we don't use data, and the exposure that we would provide for that organization is much less - when we use the data from D&B and see that, yes, this organization is trustworthy and they have done couple of years of transactions or the sheets or the balance sheets of them is available, so it gives us ability to provide higher funds for them.
I guess what I'm hearing is the importance of the projects that you're working on is substantial. And having this data, having the analytical capability to make better decisions is going to ultimately drive much superior performance for your business comparatively to others, but most importantly, just to have high benchmarks internally. But it definitely takes courage and true leadership to take on projects of this scale. Can you particularly with your technology transformation hat on? Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what it takes to embrace something like this any advice you've got for people that want to help transform their businesses, but don't perhaps know how?
I mean for me, in a lot of cases it is necessity. We have an example of a lot of companies that don't keep up with the latest technology, but they don't also have keep up on the marketplace. In a transformation or basically in general, moving towards data and moving towards digitalization or real time processing in a lot of sectors and this is really key. Yes, it will not be simple, you will face challenges, never expect it to be an easy journey. And it will never be easy because you don't only tackle a technology problem, you also tackle a change of the behavior. So another example of the model that we're working today, you're moving away from a person who looks at the information and say, okay, this is what we will do to a model where actually this is the information. This is what we suggest. And this is where AI technology comes into it. And this is what we suggest, these are the scores, these are the options and then can you choose one of them? At the beginning of each transformation program, you see people saying, No, no, no, no, this is not good. It's not the right choices and people keep to their own decision. But the beauty about it is after a couple of months, or sometimes takes a little bit longer, but you could see people start asking okay, so what is the score of this one, which option was the highest score. So you see that the transformation is actually a whole people are working is there. So the real value that comes when it is being completed, not only from technology point of view, but on behavior of processes around that; is where I feel that transformation as a value. But my advice for people is always don't expect that to be an easy journey. Pause, refocus, think about the big target, big value and keep going.
And ultimately, I guess, think about where the end benefits lie and who your key stakeholders are. And you said at the beginning, that Greensill has a real focus on the customer, recently, we surveyed a number of CMOS in May of this year about their organizations and what their focus shifts have been since the pandemic outbreak and the top three answers were all customer focused, you know, from keeping them informed on services, finding new ways to help customers developing new solutions with us. And I know that driving a customer centric workplace is something that's of paramount importance to you and of the DNA of Greensill. But how do you actually go about instilling this mentality and ethic in the workforce? And particularly, you know, you guys are in many countries, you have a lot of employees. How, as you grow, do you keep that true north?
To be able to globally scale, you need to have that belief in your technology and your decisions to be able to replicate it in multiple countries. Think about it as an exec of any organization when you want to open in a new country or basically in sometimes it's even different whole regions, right. So Greensill is opening in China and India to different regions than UK. If we have the right technology, if we have the right decisions, if we have the right data sources, and to be honest here actually, D&B is also providing the value because you're also globally; and if we have these are in place, it allows us to be able to be more confident in the model that we are running across the model that we are running and being able to scale and multiple too. I would add one more thing is actually being agnostic in the thinking of that transformation is also a key for us to be able to scale in multiple geographies.
One of the areas that is a particular importance to me and is an area passion is identifying next generation talent. And ultimately, I think for Greensill to continue on its extraordinary trajectory. You guys have got to be super plugged in to the talent that can take this organization forwards. How do you as a group go about thinking about talent, and nurturing it, I guess once you have great people in your organization?
When I joined Greensill, we were around, I think 400 employees, and today we're over 1000 employees. So in less than a year, we've doubled to more than doubled. So how I look to talent in technology in IT , I look at passion, and I like to have people who believe in what you are doing. And Greensill in general has been built as a family organization with the concept, truly concept, of a family starting from Lex down, to every single employee in the organization. And the idea is that if you believe what you're doing, you're going to give it the max you have. The vision that we have, again, it's make finance fairer, faster and cheaper for people is actually a real value add for the way how people are coming to Greensill. So I am one of the people who enjoying Greensill, I really like that we're linking a human side to actually technology which I've never experienced before. You always think technology always serves people, but in this case, you're also supporting people financially, which is a great vision to support. How we hire or what is the approach that we're taking in hiring is I think we went locally here in UK we've opened around more than 200 positions and the Northwest around base today to hire into technology and operation. We're pretty open, we use internal talent, reference, etc. And so really no specific method for that we are following. As long as you have the talent, you have the passion and you believe in what we're doing, you're always welcome.
I love that. It's a great answer. Another area sort of linked to talent that I like to ask about, and you've been at two of the greatest financial technology firms that have both been super-fast trajectory, I suspect you got a great answer to this question. I like to think about mentorship and always ask people who've had great careers or having great careers, about the guidance or inspiration that they've been fortunate enough to have. Are there any people in your career that you've sought such guidance and advice from who've been really pivotal in helping shape you to become the leader You are?
Yeah, I always had and I will always be a big believer in mentorship, and myself also like to support people and mentor people in my life because I think all of us can learn from each other. I would like to mention a couple of names a variety of people who I work with, like Hend Al Ali at Network International. So when I joined at the beginning, she really supported me on the people side and teach me a lot of tricks let's put it this way of how to grow with an organization. And Pierre Samec is General Atlantic partner also has supported me and still actually supporting me even when I move to install of how he has approached the world of technology specifically. There is Simon Haslam was the CEO, which is funny enough, the CEO of Network International was my mentor and that's how I became actually COO, Group COO at Network so I always have people that have supported me a lot other in Jordan a long time ago, Hani Idris, etc. So from the time I started, I had people really always looking after me, and that's why I do with myself right now. I care about people and look after people and to be able to grow them. And I really feel happy when you look at them and see that they became seniors in their positions, which I expect that others also having the same when they see me. But I would also highlight one thing about the mentorship there is also a concept of looking at people. So you look at an example and you see, oh my god, yes, they are actually doing the right thing in the right way. They have a different vision to the world. And in my view, I always say it, this world needs more good people, much more than successful people. So I always love to have good people in my life supporting me because you achieve that value and you see the actual end benefit of your leadership.
I couldn't agree more. In fact, I had a conversation with our CEO at Dun and Bradstreet, Anthony Jabbour which really stuck in my mind and he said, it's not how successful you are. But it's how you get there. And I think the way that people carry themselves in business, it's essential, it's far less about how successful you are the sort of person that you want to be and how you want to be represented. If you had to give yourself a piece of advice, your younger self, I should say, a piece of advice that perhaps took you a little bit longer to realize or a little bit longer to learn, what do you think that piece of advice would be?
People who don't know me may laugh, but I would say calm down.
And always want everything to happen very fast. And that comes actually from my natural, how I am and how I talk so I think the advice that I would give myself as a person is calm down, things will happen. Just give it some time. The truth is, I've learned a lot. I mean, even my mistakes have learned from them right, at the moment when a mistake or an issue happen, you feel lucky. But after a couple of years, you start realizing that actually it was good that it happened because you've learned something. So in my view, All of us should just let it go and learn from the mistakes that we've doing. And also support others because have personally been supported from a lot of people, which made me who I am right now is back to good people concept.
That's a great answer. It really is. Calm down. I like that. I suspect that not calming down and being fast paced has also been one of the reasons you've been so successful. So it's probably a gift and a curse. Bahea, what's the best business book that you read?
You will laugh, but the Four, it's about Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
I have to look it up. The largest four largest companies, five largest, companies I think actually in the S&P 500 are worth 20% of the total market cap of the S&P 500. It's quite an incredible journey that those companies have been on. We're looking at organizations of truly enormous proportions these days. Do you think having companies that are of this size benefits our economy and society or do you think we have too many eggs into too few baskets?
I'm really supportive of big organizations. Yes, we have to support small organization. But I mean, I shouldn't talk about other companies. But companies like Amazon who has basically supported us during the pandemic, I think having such services is really great. And about the companies or you could see the way how they use FinTech or how they use technology and data helped all of us and for me, this book is back to this whole concept of big companies, comes of the value and the service they are providing for the customers. So in a lot of cases, if you think without the social media, it would have been really away from my family, and never be able to contact them. So I really am a big believer that it drives the world to a better place in general. These big companies have it all and I believe in Greensill also is one of them had the vision and this vision is around how to change the world to a better place and from there, they have driven their success.
I love it. So The Four, by Scott Galloway, The hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. There we go. You heard it here. Bahea, thank you so much. We're at the end of the podcast. But it was even more of a pleasure than I thought it would be. I've been looking forward to this for a long time both with you but also with a partner that we're just so excited to work with. So huge thanks on many levels, and we'll look forward to speaking again soon.
I share the same. I'm really glad for our partnership.