“Leaders Who Matter” Profile: Ramasamy K. Veeran, Founder and Managing Director of Merchantrade Asia
When you’re in an industry where change happens not only on a daily basis but on an hourly basis, it pays to be nimble.
Mr. Ramasamy K. Veeran knows a thing or two about staying ahead of changes in the payments industry. Since founding Kuala Lumpur-based Merchantrade Asia, he’s deftly maneuvered the company through more transformations than most companies ever experience.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because like many an entrepreneurial story, Mr. Rama’s story begins a long time ago, with a dream, a role model and a child learning about business at the kitchen table.
“My mother had a home-based business supplying food to local hotels,” Mr. Rama recalls of his childhood in Kuala Lumpur. Her work was entrepreneurial and gutsy and involved hard work, long hours and sacrifice. The experience of watching his mother grow her business and gain first the trust of her customers, and then their loyalty, was one that he would never forget. The importance of trust would inform his own career path, which started immediately after high school (15 years later, he would go on to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration). He began his career in a large corporation and learned up close how business worked, but he knew he was not meant to spend his work life in someone else’s company. Instead, at age 27, inspired by his mother’s example, he decided to start his own company, Merchantrade Asia. The year was 1996.
In July 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis struck, nearly taking down the entire region’s economy, and Mr. Rama’s fledgling business along with it. The company stayed dormant from 1997 till 2001, and then relaunched operations in 2001 as equipment supplier for telecommunication companies, with initial four employees. In 2003, the company also became a service provider by providing telephony services such as calling cards and VoIP calls to migrants. But just as the business was gathering steam, the industry began changing as telephone companies began moving into the prepaid market, driving prices down. As a niche telephone company, Mr. Rama’s company was affected badly, and although they managed to grow to 20 employees, it was clear to Mr. Rama that the business was slowly going to become obsolete.
Yet again, Mr. Rama faced the question: Do I close the operation or remodel the company?
“The market segment I knew best was the migrant segment,” Mr. Rama says. He had trust in his customer base, and he knew they had trust in the company.
So, he struck out in a new direction, and in 2006 applied for a remittance license from the Central Bank of Malaysia. When it was granted in 2007, it was like getting a new lease on life.
“I believed in the migrant market and that kept me going. I could see it was a sustainable business,” he says.
After all the tumult, was there a moment when he knew he company was going to make it? Mr. Rama remembers exactly when that moment occurred: In 2009, when Sumitomo Corporation came on board as an investor.
“That was when I knew the business could grow faster, and I knew it would succeed,” he recalls. His confidence was further boosted in 2014 when regional telecom company Axiata, via its subsidiary Celcom Axiata, became Merchantrade Asia’s second institutional investor.
In a span of five years, Mr. Rama had gone from being the CEO of a small but ambitious company to the CEO of a fast-growing company with two institutional investors. The investors added tremendously to the opportunities available to the company, and also triggered a culture change within the company.
“Institutional investors come with different expectations. You can’t think small, because they look at a bigger picture,” he says. Overnight, the company had to adapt to having a board of directors, auditors, a risk committee, and many changes in procedures. “They wanted the company to grow and to see their vision implemented,” he says of the additions.
With growth came the need to delegate and allow others to handle things he was used to handling himself.
“It was not easy for me to let go,” he says. “It’s a culture shift from where I started ... I am a CEO, and now I am also a board member and a shareholder. I had to wear different hats.”
He attributes the company’s success to finding talented people who were passionate about the business and who were able to work with him and help him drive his vision.
“I got a good initial team and they were very loyal,” he reflects. “I made sure to engage with employees across the organization, to the point that a teller at one of our in-person locations would know me. I spent time with them to motivate them. Even today, I still recruit people myself.”
These days, the company employs 900 people, with subsidiaries in Nepal, Singapore and Dubai. But Malaysia is home, and as the Fintech industry continues to grow, Merchantrade will work to be a leader in Malaysia, Mr. Rama says.
Looking forward, Mr. Rama sees an exciting time ahead as the company enters the e-wallet business.
“Migrants are moving to e-wallets now,” he says, noting that migrants in Malaysia are increasingly receiving their salaries from their employers into an e-wallet, using the e-wallet to send their remittances, and later going to a store to pay for goods via their e-wallet.
“They can do everything from an e-wallet. That’s a trend we are seeing, and as such we are working to build an international platform,” he says, remarking that the company has been working diligently for years to build a proprietary network of banking partners in countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The company is also launching into the B2B market, with an initial target of SMEs who are currently using the SWIFT network.
“That’s our future,” Mr. Rama says. “B2B is something we need to grow because we have the experience in remittances, we have the network, and we can build the trust.”
While change has been a constant, and at times a challenge, Mr. Rama looks back and sees the good in it.
“When I started the business, we only knew collecting cash,” he says. “Then we moved to an online platform and now we’re moving to wallet. We’ve moved the value chain a few times, and each time, I feel like, `This is good.’ Giving a new experience to customers is rewarding, and it’s something the customers enjoy. We get a lot of letters from customers saying, `Hey, this is good. We appreciate your new service.’”
Reflecting back, Mr. Rama credits IAMTN as providing a constant source of support.
“To grow, you need to understand global issues and market trends,” Mr. Rama says. “We found IAMTN and it’s been the place where we learn what’s happening. That’s a perfect match for us. You can’t run a money transfer organization without being associated somewhere. You need an understanding what’s taking place globally, or how to improve your own technology. We learn from them.”