Having dropped the kids off at school, Julian Wells is speed walking the three miles into the Leeds headquarters of strategy firm Whitecap Consulting. Apparently, 7.45 a.m. is the best time for an uninterrupted chat with the financial services-focused strategy consultant.
With a young family, a full-time job, leadership roles at FinTech North and FinTech West, and interests including golf, football and running, one might assume that his schedule is full. However, Wells doesn’t seem to agree, as he’s just embarked on a part-time Doctor of Business Administration degree.
As a child, Wells moved from country to country, constantly adapting to new environments. Following spells in Germany and Italy, he returned to the U.K., where his early career included a stint at Boston Consulting Group. He moved to Leeds 15 years ago, and joined Whitecap in 2012.
Strength in numbers
In addition to his day job as a strategy consultant, Wells is one of the driving forces behind events-based, community building non-profit FinTech North, which has put on over 50 events across northern England since 2016.
Underpinning FinTech North is the philosophy that northern conurbations need to come together to form a cohesive and collaborative unit. Rather than competing against each other for investment and specialised skills, Wells advocates uniting together to promote success and prosperity for all. This, he believes, will enable the North to market itself more effectively both nationally and internationally.
He acknowledges, nevertheless, that “Every city needs to develop its proposition”, pointing to Edinburgh’s reputation for asset management as an example1 (blog).
In 2019, FinTech North’s sister organisation FinTech West was set up to extend activities to Bristol and the surrounding region.
Around the same time, partly in response to an increasing number of enquiries about the regional fintech landscape, Whitecap decided to collect and analyse granular data on a number of regional hubs.
Everyone knows what a “fintech” is … or do they?
As a starting point, Whitecap set out to define “fintech” in order to appropriately benchmark its findings. However, the deeper the team dug, the more definitions Wells and his colleagues uncovered.
For example, where do challenger banks such as Monzo and Starling fit in? Although they started out small, they have achieved considerable scale. And what about established financial services names that are emphasising digital initiatives?
In the end, the team settled on a broad description of fintech: “The application of technology to improve financial products and services”. Organisations were then divided into three categories: 1) start-ups and scale-ups; 2) established financial services organisations and fintechs; and 3) tech firms whose focus includes a financial services component.
Honchos, hedgehogs … and orange buses
The north east England report2 was the first to be published, in December 2019, with Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and the West Midlands set to follow soon.
The research highlights 153 fintech start-ups and scale-ups with their main offices in the North East, including Barclays Tech Stars 2019 participant Paid. The company, which helps freelancers and micro businesses get paid more quickly, is also one of three north east companies on Tech Nation’s fintech programme. The others are reverse auction insurance marketplace honcho, and reporting and reconciliation platform Kani (pronounced “canny” which, in addition to meaning “shrewd”, also means “nice” in northern parts of the U.K.) 4.
Together with a further two firms headquartered elsewhere that have a north east presence, this brings the number of fintech start-ups and scale-ups to 173, employing 4173 people in all.
Durham-based Atom Bank is listed under the “Established financial services and fintech” category along with national and international brands – some with local roots – such as software company Sage and Virgin Money. As pointed out in the FinTech North section of the Department for International Trade’s fintech report5, “The FinTech community in the north is mainly made up of established businesses seeking to embrace FinTech, rather than startups looking to drive disruptive change”.
The “Tech” category includes organisations with a partial financial services focus such as professional services firm Accenture, mobile app developer hedgehog lab (which built honcho’s app)6, and design agency Orange Bus.
Investment focused on London fintechs …
Although the wealth of “fintech” definitions makes meaningful national comparisons of numbers and types of fintechs a challenge, the investment picture leaves no doubt about where the money is going. UK fintech industry body Innovate Finance cites PitchBook data showing that 94% of venture capital investment in UK fintech went to London-based companies in 20187.
Ever the optimist, Wells is positive on northern fintech. Echoing his call for collaboration between the regions, Wells advocates cooperation with the capital: “This is about working with London, not competing with it” 1 (blog).
… which are investing in the regions
Noticing a general pattern of larger investments in fewer fintechs, Wells expects regional growth to be driven by the geographical expansion of established companies. He highlights the number of London-headquartered fintechs adding regional hubs as they scale, mentioning Monzo’s decision to add a Cardiff operation, Starling opting for Southampton, Curve and ClearBank heading to Bristol, and iwoca settling on Leeds.
Running to keep up
Although we’ve only scratched the surface of this rapidly evolving area, Wells has now reached the office, and it’s time for him to turn his attention to client matters.
Rather than speed walking to work, he may need to start running to keep pace with developments in regional fintech.
1Whitecap Consulting (2018) ‘10 key trends in regional FinTech in the UK’,14 August. Available at: https://www.whitecapconsulting.co.uk/articles/10-key-trends-in-regional-fintech-in-the-uk/ (Accessed: 24 January 2020)
2Whitecap Consulting (2019) ‘North East FinTech Ecosystem Report 2019-2020’ December. Available at: https://www.whitecapconsulting.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/North-East-FinTech-Ecosystem-Report-2019-20-high-res.pdf (Accessed: 24 January 2020)
3The figures include Newcastle-based Block Matrix’ Bottle Pay bitcoin app, which the team decided to close at the end of 2019 in advance of changes in European Union cryptocurrency legislation: Manning, J. (2019) ‘Bottle Pay shuts down following new EU rules on cryptocurrencies’, BusinessLive, 20 December. Available at: https://www.business-live.co.uk/technology/bottle-pay-shuts-down-following-17452715 (Accessed: 24 January 2020)
4Kani Payments home page. Available at: https://www.kanipayments.com/ (Accessed: 24 January 2020)
5Department for International Trade (2019) ‘UK FinTech State of the Nation’, p .18, April. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/801277/UK-fintech-state-of-the-nation.pdf (Accessed: 24 January 2020)
6Hedgehog Lab blog: ‘Delivering complex technical integrations and engaging design for an insurance disruptor’. Available at: https://www.hedgehoglab.com/work/honcho (Accessed: 25 January 2020)
7Innovate Finance (2019) ‘2018 FinTech VC Investment Landscape’, p. 27. Available at: https://www.innovatefinance.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/innovate-finance-2018-vc-investment-landscape-120219.pdf (Accessed: 26 January 2020)
Correction: The first sentence of the fourth paragraph has been updated to reflect Wells’ assertion that he is not the only driving force behind FinTech North.