Revolut’s U.K. boss says London risks losing its crown as the global center for fintechs

The new UK boss of Revolut Ltd. is calling for action to shore up London’s place as the global center for fintechs.

With Paris and New York competing to host promising finance startups, London is at risk of a growing drift of workers away from the city, according to Francesca Carlesi, who joined Revolut in December. This week, she signed up to a new “Unicorn Council” of the UK’s largest fintechs, set up by trade body Innovate Finance, to push the government on startup-friendly policies.

London took the lead on digital bank launches after the financial crisis, but “something has shifted in the last two or three years,” said Carlesi. Still, she suggested the city remains on Revolut’s radar for an eventual initial public offering, despite the complaints of co-founder Nik Storonsky about British regulations holding back businesses.

“The UK is our home and is also one where a lot of our investors come from,” Carlesi said in her first interview in her new role at one of Europe’s biggest fintech businesses. “We know that companies are always better off to list where their biggest market is.” For now, though, listing is not the focus and a decision will depend on various factors, she added.

Global investors such as Sequoia are showing interest in the region’s fintech scene, yet such firms want to see that “companies that are born here are nurtured to potentially become global leaders in the sector,” Carlesi said.

For now, her focus at Revolut is helping the firm tackle a string of problems with its accounts, controls management and culture as it heads into a third year of waiting for a banking license in the UK, its main market.

“We are determined to do the hard work to get there. We’re taking it one step at the time and we’re moving in the right direction,” Carlesi said.

Shared Vision

Before joining Revolut, Carlesi co-founded digital mortgage lender Molo and sold the majority of the business a year ago to Australian finance firm ColCap. The Italian’s career has also included stints at Deutsche Bank AG, Barclays Plc and McKinsey.

Carlesi said she “clicked” with Revolut CEO Storonsky, who also quit a career in banking for the uncertainty of startups. “We think the same about how you should embrace a role in a growing company,” said Carlesi.

They both believe Revolut — created in 2015 to offer cheap foreign exchange — has the potential to be the only European fintech to sit alongside America’s global tech giants. “None of the big banks have been able to establish the concept of being a global platform which gives you specific services in each country. That’s the challenge that Revolut has taken on,” Carlesi said.

Revolut, which was most recently valued at $33 billion in a 2021 funding round, is in 38 countries. The UK remains key, with 1,200 employees and eight million of its roughly 40 million customers. Its biggest investors include SoftBank Group Corp. and Tiger Global Management.

Trusted Player

Carlesi is focused on Revolut’s shift from being a disrupter to being a “trusted player.”

That includes working through a list of issues that have hindered its UK banking license application, including simplifying its share structure and dealing with problems raised by its auditor’s warning last year that it could not verify the majority of the 2021 revenues.

Revolut published its delayed 2022 accounts in December, saying revenue was just over $1 billion and on track to hit $2 billion in 2023. The firm has said its revenue-tracking issues were resolved. It’s yet to name a permanent chief financial officer after the previous one left last year.

Carlesi described the issues as “a very good lesson,” and said work is going well on the 2023 accounts.

Revolut’s high growth rate — it is adding about one million customers a month globally — is under control and can be reduced if necessary, according to Carlesi. She also pointed out the firm’s “superpower” in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which it is deploying to fight fraud and help others in a sector trying to get a grip on scams that start mostly online.

Carlesi has witnessed “toxic culture” in other places she has worked, and knows bringing about change in large institutions can be like “moving an oil tanker.” But she believes Revolut is different.

It is “high intensity,” but also “very transparent and open to challenge,” she said. “It is very rare to be able to really say what you think.”

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