Chartwell Compliance Discusses Foreign Exchange With Alex Eadie, Executive Vice President – Chief Risk & Strategy Officer, FIRMA Foreign Exchange

Interview by Iman Boussaada

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of FIRMA?

Back in 1998 there were two brothers, Michael and Clive Oshry, who started the company. They recognized an opportunity within the foreign exchange (FX) and payments marketplace for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that was generally underserved by the banks. FIRMA took roots in western Canada, moving eastward over the years. In the mid-2000’s they ventured off internationally and expanded into the UK, New Zealand and Australia with the most recent expansion into the U.S. Our shop in Philadelphia is growing quickly as the people down there are working hard at expanding our reach and reputation.

Michael is now the sole owner of the company and we currently have 22 offices globally, employ about 240 people with about half of those people here at HQ in Edmonton.

What do you consider the most important value of your corporate culture?

We have four corporate values for our company: Trustworthy, Growth, Excellence and Adventurous. Of those four, the most important one and the one that we emphasize the most is ‘Trustworthy’. That comes down to doing exactly what we say we are going to do for the client, providing exceptional value and handling their funds with care. Existing FIRMA clients know this, but for new clients quite often security is their number one concern and that is why it is so engrained in our corporate culture.

Being trustworthy isn’t just a client-facing value for our company. It speaks to everybody being accountable between departments and across continents where we all work together to get the job done quickly, accurately and efficiently.

What are the most common issues your clients look for you to solve?

Our clients are looking for us to help them manage their FX and payment processing so that they can spend more time keeping an eye on what they do best – running their own core business processes.

A big part of our value added service model has to do with pro-actively putting market information that affects our clients in their hands for decision-making purposes. This way they don’t have to keep an eye on that themselves and can maintain their focus on managing other aspects of their operations.

We work primarily with small and medium sized businesses and they don’t typically have someone dedicated to foreign exchange. Nor will they have someone who is particularly well versed with sending payments internationally and there are often hidden costs that can add up. For instance, there are a lot of hoops that you have to jump through if you are sending payments into China and having an expert to be able to walk you through that can save time and money.

By helping a company cut costs it enhances their bottom line and provides them with resources to redeploy elsewhere in their operation.  Quite often getting funds to a supplier quickly can be a difference maker so we pride ourselves on moving payments faster than the banks can.

How has the company changed since entering the USA?

Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the regulatory scrutiny that happens in the U.S. It is different than any other country that we operate in, as I tend to find that in the U.S., because there are such segmented regimes between each state, it is almost like dealing with a bunch of different countries. Even though there is an overarching set of requirements by FinCEN, the Dodd Frank Act, etc., it is very state-centric so that has been a learning curve for us. We continue to foster building out our networks and connections with each state regulator in order to make sure that we are abiding by all of the current legislation and staying on top of leading best practices within the industry.

Where do you think the most significant growth will occur in the company in the next few years?

The U.S. is going to be one of the drivers of our new client growth. The economic results from Q1 were a little underwhelming although Q2 numbers seem to indicate a bit of a rebound. We fully expect there to be more ups and downs but maintain a viewpoint of looking at the broader picture in the U.S. – which is the fact that it’s still the world’s #1 economy and there is plenty of room for FIRMA to accumulate more market share. In North America we still have our biggest client base out of Canada, as that’s where we started, but despite some recent talks of recession, it will also continue to be a focus.

Steady growth is projected in the UK, as they seem to be on an upward trend but will need to be mindful of the Greek debt crisis. It’s tough to say exactly what the fallout from that will be from a Euro perspective.

China has also decided that they want a bit more of a measured pace for their growth and so that is impacting trade with Australia and New Zealand, however, we still expect things to grow at a nice pace in the medium to long-term.

How do you expect to manage that growth?

We will continue to make select investments in technology that support our business by delivering more value to our clients and we will also maintain a strong commitment on developing our people.

There is quite a bit of innovation and change happening in our industry these days. Having the right people to spot opportunities and bring forward good ideas to capitalize on will be vital for our success going forward.

What are some of the ways you work to ensure that FIRMA remains competitive in an ever-changing global marketplace?

We are keeping a close eye on payments technology, particularly disruptive technology such as cryptocurrencies, how other businesses are leveraging the block chain and similar innovations. Although there is a checkered past with some high profile cases of miss-use, we believe that the underlying technology has many potential benefits so we’re keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s happening.

How does technology help you stay compliant with regulatory mandates?

Technology helps us stay compliant by having all the fundamental base elements of a good compliance regime in regards to sanctions list screening, all of our alerts and case management plus the data and reporting that we have.

The broader organizational picture where technology helps is in integrating all of the stakeholders within the company, particularly one as geographically diverse as FIRMA. We have information and workflows that reach into the finance department, the trading function and many others. Without that integration it would be impossible to keep up with the volume and the speed that we need to be accountable for.

What are some of the most significant shifts that you’ve witnessed in the FX sector?

The biggest shift is the regulatory impact over the last 5-6 years. It took a step up after 9/11 with a lot of fundamental legislation that went into place and then it jumped to another level after the financial crisis with the G20 initiatives spearheading a lot more transparency in regards to derivatives.

We are seeing forwards now being classified as a security in many places that we operate which has made a definite impact on our business and required us to ramp up our investment in compliance and risk management in general.

Another shift is the impact of living in the digital era. Mobile technology and people leveraging their smart phone apps rather than sitting at their desks has prompted us to look carefully at how we can meet their service demands.

So, will FIRMA have a mobile app in the future?

Oh, I could see FIRMA coming out with all kinds of good stuff in the future! We have been around for a long time and have helped a lot of businesses become more successful. Our dedication towards implementing innovative FX and payment solutions will continue to advance.

Really, in a relatively uncertain global economy, we just want to be able to maintain our agility for responding to select opportunities that drive profitable growth and provide our people with interesting opportunities to further their careers.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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