Fintech acquisitions: prone to failure?

Fintech acquisitions: prone to failure?
by Tze Yeen Liew

Industrial observers have raised concerns about acquisitions and partnerships by existing financial institutions gradually cannibalizing the lofty ideals that many fintechs were built on — disrupting the financial landscape by removing financial intermediaries that do not add value to the global economy, and empowering consumers to take charge of their personal finances and investments. Kerim Derhalli, who founded micro-investment app Investr in 2013 after leaving his position as Head of Equity Trading at Deutsche Bank, believes that firms are only into the business of financial technology and not ‘fintech’ per se if they are just helping existing financial intermediaries marginally improve their existing processes. At BusinessCloud’s ‘The Future of FinTech’ event, he further elaborates that fintech is ‘the manifestation in the financial markets of the information revolution’; the democratisation of financial data previously only within the stranglehold of large financial institutions.

In spite of valid criticism, the ongoing pattern of aggressive fintech acquisitions by established financial institutions shows no sign of slowing down.

Gjensidige’s digital banking unit acquired

Not too long ago Nordea, a leading bank in the Nordic region,  announced that it will be acquiring Norwegian insurer Gjensidige Forsikring‘s digital banking unit for EUR578 million cash, effectively adding 176k customers and EUR4,840 million of their assets onto their balance sheet. With the acquisition of Gjensidige digital platform, Nordea will also be distributing Gijensidige’s insurance products to its own 900,000 customers. The acquisition, Gjensidige believes, aims at providing opportunities for the insurer to expand its customer reach through synergising with a leading Nordic bank that is also receptive to their digitalisation and innovation priorities.

Just days prior to Gjensidige’s acquisition, Bloomberg reported that that French payments processor Ingenico Group SA is being targeted for buyout by several firms; including private equity giants CVC Capital Partners, Hellman & Friedman, and Bain Capital — all of which were actively vetting through ‘Europe’s hottest fintechs‘ for the next acquisition target. As of March 2018, Ingenico remains unacquired, even though it has taken over fintechs Paymark and Bambora.

Fool hardy, not fool proof

Contrary to the optimism permeating from these acquisition sprees, multiple studies point to the sordid truth that 80% of acquisitions, both tech and non-tech, fail. A failed acquisition is defined as one that brings no added value to the acquirer or acquired. A survey of tech acquisition literature from 2002 to the present shows that the 80% fail rate is fairly consistent (McCarthy and Aalbers, 2017; Vester, 2002; Graebner and Eisenhardt, 2010, Evans, 2004). Cisco, one of the world’s largest tech conglomerates, are anomalous for having managed to reduce the failure rate of their own acquisitions to 70% mainly by acquiring en masse and spreading out their risks.

The reasons for failure are manifold. The extrinsic factors are primarily related to geographical distance between the acquirer and the acquiree, which increases monitoring, transactional and information transfer costs; and decreases the efficiency of tacit, or ‘soft knowledge’. Cultural disparities, on the other hand, have a lesser negative impact on tech companies (McCarthy and Aalbers, 2017).

The intrinsic factors, on the other hand, point to ineffective structural integration and coordination: Lack of integrative decision making, integrative systemic processes and holistic changes required from both companies (Bannert and Tschirky, 2004). Specific to the acquisition of small tech firms by larger incumbents, integration helps acquirers “use the acquired firm’s existing knowledge as an input to their own innovation processes (leveraging what they know), but hinders their reliance on the acquired firm as an independent source of ongoing innovation [leveraging what they do]” (Puranam and Srikanth, 2007).

A gambler never makes the same mistake twice, just three or four more times

As we can see, tech acquisitions are not without their challenges, especially in the rapidly expanding EU Fintech domain. Despite irrefutable evidence that acquisitions are futile in 2 our 3 instances, the strategic benefits that result from a potentially successful acquisition emboldens companies into taking those risks. Tech acquisitions are also made by incumbents to quickly expand ‘key pipelines’ (Puranam, Sing & Zollo, 2003). A recent case in point is the recent deal between BBVA and ABN AMRO, as they attempt to expand their joint digital reach with new solarisBank investment by funnelling a whopping EUR 56 million into the small startup.

German fintech solarisBank announced a successful EUR 56.6 million financing deal, the second highest to date for a German fintech after Kreditech. Their latest Series B funding round is a combination of new funding from Spanish BBVA, Dutch ABN AMRO and Visa as well as renewed investments from current investors Arvato Financial Solutions and SBI Group. The deal follows a broader trend of financial incumbents rapidly acquiring stakes in emerging fintechs around Europe.

The financing deal is notable as solarisBank happens to be the world’s first banking platform with a full banking license. Founded in March 2016, the company offers “banking-as-a-platform” technology to corporate clients all around Europe and offers products in three categories of banking: digital banking and cards; payments and “e-money”; and lending and deposits. The company is also distinguished for its use of modern RESTful APIs in speeding up the integration of its modular services.

Although BBVA and ABN AMRO’s financial backing of solarisBank heralds the first major investment forays by large European banks in the German fintech scene, it dovetails with the broader existing strategies of both finance heavyweights in undergoing digital transformation. BBVA believes that acquisitions in emerging fintechs will hasten BBVA’s growth in the ‘banking as a service (BaaS)’ area, and has recently acquired major stakes in various other digital banking startups all around the world; including Silicon Valley gig-oriented banking platform Azlo, Finnish online business banking service Holvi, the UK’s mobile only Atom Bank, Oregon-based checking account startup Simple and new fintech venture capital partnership Propel. Today, approximately 42% of BBVA’s customers access their banking services online.

Despite changes in investor lineup, Berlin-based fintech incubator Finleap remains as solarisBank’s largest investor with a stake of 30%, followed by BBVA. The new funds will be used to help further geographic expansion, the fintech said in its press release, as well as the continued development of its online banking platform and the launch of new products. solarisBank has received capital injections in excess of EUR 95 million over the past two years, with initial seed and series A funding rounds closing at EUR 12.2 million and EUR 26.3 million respectively.

ABN AMRO has also completed a slew of its own fintech investment and acquisitions via its in-house Digital Impact Fund (DIF). The fund also owns four other fintech companies: US cloud-based lending platform Cloud Lending Services; US cybersecurity firm BehavioSec; Swedish finance planning app Tink; and an upcoming blockchain-based energy trading platform. With its latest investment in solarisBank, ABN AMRO intends to expand the clientele base of its own subsidiary Moneyou, by allowing the banking platform to access solarisBank’s customers and stakeholders in Germany.

Easier said than done

The key element to avoiding acquisition failure is to ensure that an effective integration strategy is in place, and best practices vary immensely according to the industry and cultural peculiarities. An interesting example: A 2004 empirical study 228 financial acquisitions in the US banking industry (Zollo and Singh, 2004) highlights that: 1. Codifying and formalizing acquisition knowledge and know-how into systems, manuals and tools is strongly correlated to positive acquisition performance; 2. The level of integration between two firms significantly enhances performance and; 3. Replacing top managers in the acquired firm is a sure-fire way to negatively impact both sentiment and performance.

A tech based acquisition, however, would require a different strategy that is cognizant of the role that independence plays in driving innovation especially if both firms are in the same line of business — and therefore needs to be capable of guiding the acquirer in striking the right balance between the two extremes of full structural integration and maintaining full operational independence. In fact, acquirers who often buy small tech-based firms for their tech capabilities often discover that the post merger integration process has all but destroyed the innovative capabilities that made the firm an attractive target in the first place (Puranam and Chaudhuri, 2009).

The FINDER questions

The FinTech industry poses its own set of unique challenges being an amalgamation of both the finance and tech industries. One might easily infer that the an effective integration strategy is a middle path between existing strategies of the aforementioned industries, but that would mean ignoring the glaring asymmetry that exist between both the acquirer (larger, hierarchical, established, and more often than not; a financial or banking incumbent that is trying to improve its digital capabilities) and the acquired (a smaller, younger, more tech-than-finance competitor that is often sought out by the former for knowledge grafting). What would be the best form of symbiotic existence for both firms in the EU context, such that the spirit of innovation and competition is retained postmerger? How can insights from network analysis and literature deepen our understanding of the rapidly changing fintech ecosystem?

 

 

 

 

Five PhD fellows recruited

During the second half of 2018 we began our search for five PhD fellows. About 360 applications landed on the desks of our selection committee. The applicants reached out to us via the vacancy on the Radboud University website or via our partners in this ambitious project. The origin of the applicants was quite diverse; we received applications from (amongst others) The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, USA, Germany, Russia, Poland, South Africa, China, Kenya, etc.

The selection committee interviewed 37 candidates for the FINDER program. These interview rounds were mostly set up following this scheme:

  • First interview with one or two members of the Selection Committee
  • Second interview with Selection Committee member & Academic partner
  • Third interview with Selection Committee member & Business partner
  • Fourth interview with Selection Committee member & Academic partner & Business partner

Writing assignments were given in between interviews to be discussed / evaluated during upcoming interview. Also, the three phases of training were discussed during these interviews:

  • Phase 1:
    Each ESR will spend their first 10 months of doctoral training at Radboud University. The intensive study of literature, attending taught modules of their doctoral program and interactions with their supervisory team will enable them to prepare for their industrial placement and data collection at Atos.
  • Phase 2:
    After 10 months in The Netherlands ESRs will relocate to Atos in Spain or Germany for 18 months. This period will be devoted to intensive industrial training and data collection. To enhance on-going supervision, the lead academic supervisors will visit ESRs at Atos premises, with other meetings organized by communication technology. ESR will attend training at Radboud University.
  • Phase 3:
    ESRs will spend the last 8 months (and more) of their doctoral training at Radboud University to focus on writing up their thesis and working on manuscripts for publication.

It is with great please that we introduce you to our PhD Fellows:

James Ellis is currently completing his Master’s degree in Globalization & Development Studies at Maastricht University, where his research centers around a Science & Technology Studies analysis of drone usage among farmers in South Africa. Prior to that, he has worked since 2012 as a broadcast journalist in the United States Air Force, through which he has gained dynamic experience in leadership, management, strategic planning, and naturally, journalistic research. Furthermore, his rise through military ranks and recognition for quality work afforded him the opportunity to attend formal leadership, management, and entrepreneurship courses and go on to apply the concepts learned therein to a wide range of settings. After leaving the full-time military, he has pursued the establishment of an academic career in order to leverage his unorthodox range of experiences and lessons from around the world into current, ongoing management research in hopes of implementing unique arguments into the process of research, publication, and theory-building.

Barbara Voelkl is a PhD fellow in the FINDER working stream focusing on alternative business models in digital ecosystems. With BSc degrees in Psychology and Business Administration and a MSc in International Business, her research interest lies in the intersection between digitalization and human behavior. More specific, she is enthusiastic about revealing the cognitive and behavioral aspects of collaborative business models in and between new ventures and incumbents. After studying and gaining initial work experience in Germany, Norway, The Philippines, Japan and Taiwan, she highly values intercultural teamwork as well as a cross-cultural research context.

Tze Yeen Liew was a Research analyst at Holland FinTech responsible for curating and producing fintech-related insights for stakeholders before she joined the FINDER program at Radboud University. Tze Yeen holds a Bachelors degree in Finance, Accounting and Management from the University of Nottingham and a Masters in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, where she also received the Queen Elizabeth Departmental Scholarship. Tze Yeen’s prior academic experience is diverse, stretching from corporate governance to migration policy. Her research interests encompass structuring and analyzing characteristics of learning networks that exist between financial incumbents and acquired fintechs.​

The profiles of the other two PhD fellows will follow.

 

Voleo

Online financial decision making holds the future. And various fintech companies are jumping on board of this trend. But how do people come to decision making on these platforms, and how does new technology allow for more inclusive or even social investment decision making?

As part of the FINDER research agenda, Voleo Inc. serves as a case-study-in-point on this terrain. The FINDER program is proud to be working with this innovative fintech start up to explore some fundamental research questions that link technology, behavioural decision making and dynamic social networks.

Voleo is a Canada-based mobile fintech company that is transforming the retail investing space through its powerful, collaborative investing platform. Voleo has increased retail investor participation in the stock market by breaking down barriers to entry, facilitating trust and improving financial literacy. As an interesting example of successful scale up of fintech technology and entrepreneurial activity, the Voleo platform is being white-labeled by major financial institutions around the world as an innovative product to engage and retain a new category of investors.

In their press release on this FINDER cooperation Thomas Beattie, CEO of Voleo, stated, “Dr. Aalbers has extensive knowledge in the field of collaboration, and his team at FINDER are doing important work in researching and uncovering insights about organizational and consumer behaviour. There is a clear synergy between Voleo’s objectives as an emerging technology, its users’ objectives as part of a community, and FINDER’s goal of understanding social interaction in the digital age. We are especially excited to apply learnings from this study and equip our users with new tools in the coming years.”

From the FINDER program perspective, due to Voleo’s differentiated positioning in the online brokerage industry and their unique approach to social investing Voleo was top of mind when deciding upon the final configuration of consortium partners for the FINDER research scoping. The welcoming spirit to work close with some of our FINDER PhD fellows, and the willingness to help them understand the business side of things make Voleo in a valued research partner. We are looking forward this collaboration.

To find out more about Voleo, please visit their website: https://www.myvoleo.com

Read all about Voleo being selected for the FINDER project in their press release: https://ir.myvoleo.com/newsroom/index.php?content_id=103