Shaper: Sacha Zackariya

Show aired on 21st April 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM. Thank you so much for joining. Jazz Shapers is where you get to hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone in who is shaping the world of business, we like to call them Business Shapers. My Business Shaper today is Sacha Zackariya and he is the CEO and Co-Founder at The Change Group; they are the travel money specialists. You may have seen them on your travels. Six hundred people plus around the world and a fabulous turnover too. You will be hearing all about his business and how he has co-founded it with his family and indeed they are all still in it. Thank you so much for joining Sacha.

Sacha Zackariya
Elliot it is a pleasure, really nice to be here.

Elliot Moss
Now tell me, your, your background is you are an engineer. We worked out earlier we studied at the same time, we are both as young as each other.

Sacha Zackariya
Absolutely.

Elliot Moss
University of Warwick and then a post-grad I think in financial economics, you sound very educated and indeed an MBA. You just… you obviously you liked to…

Sacha Zackariya
I liked partying. It’s the only way of describing it. Either that or I was a masochist for extra studies.

Elliot Moss
Now you’ve also done all sorts of interesting things before you set this business up you were involved with your family. Just tell me before we go into flying and things which is something I am interested in. Tell me how this business came about back in the early ‘90s?

Sacha Zackariya
So basically we saw a market opportunity taking place up in the Nordics where there were very few people who were providing services to international tourists who were flying in at the weekend and as my mother observed, saw with my late father, basically there were no provisions for them to be able to change their British pounds, their French franc at the time into Danish krones. So we thought ’you know what, this is a great opportunity’, so my mother painstakingly put together the business there and also here in the UK and then my father and I, we went alongside with her and supported her and helped grow the business over the last twenty five years.

Elliot Moss
Now did your mum have a background in business? I mean it’s a… you know, many of us have, I always say this, people observe opportunities and then they say inside their heads or they talk to their friends and it doesn’t go any further. What enable your mother to actually do something about it apart from obviously your father and you helping?

Sacha Zackariya
Fortunately my father had previously been running a similar type of business so he was then able to devote more time to it. We had 3i Plc, the venture capital group come on board very early on and they were excited by the idea of providing international services to what is now called a financial disintermediation to get the core technology opportunity and it’s really interesting because at the time it didn’t feel that we were doing anything special but these days you pick up the newspaper, everyone is talking about Fintech but twenty five years ago that word didn’t exist but that’s exactly what we were doing, we were providing an alternative to the banking arrangements that were in countries from Finland to Iceland to Australia to the US.

Elliot Moss
And around that time you were, I believe you had just finished University so you… and you also then went into to do other things, you didn’t immediately go into the family business. Is that right?

Sacha Zackariya
That’s right so obviously cash flow as tight in the first few years, it’s the case with a lot of small businesses so I did some things from the background. I invested the money that I earned from my day job in engineering and from taking out bank loans and various bits and pieces that you beg, borrow and steal. My parents put in their funds so together we were able to do it.

Elliot Moss
And right now, I mentioned it earlier, there’s over six hundred people in the business. How many countries are you in?

Sacha Zackariya
We are in thirteen countries. We cover Australia, the US and North America and basically we have about a hundred and ten wholly owned branches and offices and then we have a pan-European and US ATM network which sits complimentary to the actual stand-alone branches.

Elliot Moss
Just before we go to Frank Sinatra, you’ve got to be honest about this. Was it more fun setting it up than it is now managing it?

Sacha Zackariya
It’s an interesting debate. I would argue the set-up is much more interesting. It’s nerve wracking but at the same time it’s that seat of the pants kind of thing. You get that feeling back sometimes when you do an MNA deal, so when we buy business or occasionally when we’ve sold bits of businesses, you get that so over the course of the last few years we’ve done about eighteen MNA deals and that certainly gives you that seat of your pants feeling again. So you get that back but yeah, the day-to-day management, it’s processes, it’s systems, it’s having really great people surrounding you and we are fortunate at The Change Group that we’ve got you know, people who have joined us as sales consultants and they’ve worked their way all the way through management up to Board Directors. So we’ve got really great support teams which we are very proud of.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from Sacha Zackariya, my Business Shaper today. He likes the seat of the pants stuff but he’s an engineer so he quite likes processes too. Time for some more music it’s Fly Me To The Moon from the big man.

That was Fly Me To The Moon from Frank Sinatra of course. Sacha Zackariya is my Business Shaper today; CEO and Co-Founder at The Change Group and we’ve already established he is very well educated. You speak three languages as well I believe?

Sacha Zackariya
Yes for my sins I speak French, German and a smattering of Dutch occasionally when…

Elliot Moss
And Dutch, I’ve got here German?

Sacha Zackariya
Yes I have German too.

Elliot Moss
You have German, of course you do. But that… it’s a serious point behind that. Obviously you are a co-founder in a business and you talked about your mum setting the… putting the plan in place and your father who had been already involved in a similar business doing it and so on but there are many schools of thoughts on this. You went down the ‘I’m going to be educated and I am going to get some rigor route’. Has it helped you? Do you still lean on that MBA education that you got from INSEAD? Are there moments when you go ‘I’m really pleased I did that’?

Sacha Zackariya
Yeah there are. There’s a lot where quite frankly you are simply having to think on the fly and no amount of education can prepare you for that kind of thing but there’s more technical things when you get into transfer pricing and you get into some marketing strategies or you are sitting there doing an MNA deal and you are negotiating with a bank and funny enough you talked about languages, you know you get a smattering of French and German at school but it is only when you land in these countries and you suddenly realise ‘oops I’ve got to deal with these people’ and it’s not good enough to try and speak English to them and that’s when you suddenly realise ‘hey international business does mean you’ve got to learn these languages’.

Elliot Moss
Without sounding trite about it, making an effort makes a massive difference doesn’t it?

Sacha Zackariya
It really does. I mean I still love interacting with people around the world. I think that’s one of the great things of the planet, the fact that people travel and the opportunities that come about because of low cost airlines and if you think about the growth of my business, it’s come about because people are travelling so much, it’s one of the biggest growth industries you know at the moment, the growth projections are to go well over 1.5 billion people travelling. It’s huge. Every single year the number of people who get on to aircraft and from my perspective because of this whilst we are going electronic to a degree and using pre-paid cards and things like that, people still want to have that cash in their hand for when they are going on to that exotic location or when they are simply going to Berlin. Not so exotic but quite frankly you turn up, 80% of all small transactions in Germany are done in cash. Lots of places will not accept cards and so being able to help them with advice, being able to help them with their travel needs and at the same time of course, change some money for them, make some money out of it, it’s fabulous.

Elliot Moss
How have you managed to differentiate what you do from the travel execs of the world and you touched on kind of what’s going on now with pre-paid cards, whether it’s a revolute or whoever it might be. What’s been The Change Group difference as it were for the consumer? What would they have said ‘ah that’s why I am going to go there’ because it’s hard isn’t it to make a difference?

Sacha Zackariya
It is hard to make a difference where it’s a commodity product but to put it into perspective, people think cash is dying but ten years ago when the ECB started printing Euro bank notes, they printed about two hundred billion of them. To date there is 1.2 trillion Euro’s worth of bank notes in circulation. The growth is phenomenal. So people are clearly loving cash and wanting to hold on to cash for a variety of reasons. To make a difference therefore it’s all about service. It’s about having the right people, well trained – you know our staff go through a four month training programme, some of it on job, some of it off job – in order to get across the values that we espouse which is about inclusivity, it’s about bringing people together, it’s about respecting difference of nationality and understanding that and helping to service the customer needs and give them that extra bit that they weren’t expecting necessarily and that’s in the communication style, it’s in the way in which they speak to people, how they process those transactions and not just be a cashier but really a consultant, a sales consultant, someone who listens and tries to help the traveller who has landed in their country, probably for the first time and how can they assist them with what they are planning to do.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my guest, that’s Sacha Zackariya who you have been listening to, CEO and Co-Founder of The Change Group. He’ll be back in a few minutes and before that we’ve got some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I am very lucky because I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business, doing things we all in our dreams and our spare time have gone ‘I wish I’d have done that’. My Business Shaper today is Sacha Zackariya and he is the CEO and Co-Founder at The Change Group. We are going to come to him in a moment but if you’d like to listen to any one of the many hundreds of people that I have had the pleasure of meeting over the past few years, go into iTunes, put in the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’ or on your next trip with British Airways you can also go on to the Highlife channel and find some there or even if you are feeling in a natty mood, ask your little friend Alexa to play ‘Jazz Shapers’. Sacha Zackariya I mentioned earlier in the ‘90s you were actually involved in flying planes. I have met one other enthusiast in that space, it was Nick Bremont of Bremont Watches and there is something of the lunatic in that kind of person. You mentioned before to me even though you are a very calm and educated guy obviously who has nerves of steel, there’s something about letting go and the liberation of being in a plane and controlling stuff. Have you flown since then or is it in the dim and distant past?

Sacha Zackariya
Actually it now has become the dim and distant past because what I realised after I left the RAF University Squadron, that flying privately, the equipment, the systems that sit behind you as a private pilot are far inferior to what the Royal Air Force actually has and so what I recognised very rapidly was I rather liked the high speed, fully protected systems that the RAF had but wasn’t so keen on what you could go and rent in a Cessna at your local airfield and you know, try and fly away that way.

Elliot Moss
So the rush is now the, as you said, the mergers and acquisitions side of it, buying businesses. You mention there has been about eighteen or so acquisitions. Is that over the last fifteen years or so?

Sacha Zackariya
Yes so we’ve been going about twenty five years but I would say the acquisitions have taken place over the last twenty typically and especially in the last ten.

Elliot Moss
Is it fun buying companies?

Sacha Zackariya
It is. I think there’s a real excitement when either you go into a new territory and you go ‘oh what’s this all about, how do I get my head around that’ or you go into an existing territory and you think ‘okay well if I merge number 2 and number 3 here what do I actually end up with?’ Maybe I get to number 1, maybe I don’t but getting round that is really good.

Elliot Moss
And are you borrowing in this or are you using your own reserves?

Sacha Zackariya
So we typically use a bit of both, a bit of reserves and a bit of debt. Sometimes there is some vendor finance that’s provided in so we look at different techniques in order to get there.

Elliot Moss
And again I imagine you MBA background gives you those tools that you might need where other people may struggle or at least need external experts more than you might do?

Sacha Zackariya
Yeah absolutely. I think one of the interesting things is the shape of things taking place at the moment with Brexit because obviously with that happening we are suddenly going, well where we’ve been regulated, which countries can we go into and one of our concerns is the pool of talented individuals to come and join us, either at a managerial level or quite frankly at a sales consultant level because we are constantly recruiting great people but with the Brexit process we are concerned about our attraction in the UK of good quality people and I am concerned that with the existing plans for education which don’t seem to be very deep quite frankly, that there is a need for new thinking in this area to bring in better skills so that we can expand so that it is possible for companies such as ours which are essentially in a hospitality, retail type environment, yes there’s some financial services associated with it but ultimately it’s about how do you service people and unless we all get replaced by robots, most of us in the hospitality sector are going to be needing good quality well-skilled people and we are not seeing that in the UK, we are having to get that sometimes from abroad and I would love to see either the two existing political parties or, as they talk about in the press now, maybe a potential third way beyond the Liberal party.

Elliot Moss
The third way party that you refer to there I believe the founder is Simon Franks who was a guest on this programme, sitting in that very seat.

Sacha Zackariya
Ah I am honoured.

Elliot Moss
So maybe he or someone else is listening and maybe something important will happen in the area of education, you make a very, very good point. Time for some more music before we come back to Sacha, it’s George Benson with Give Me The Night.

That was George Benson with Give Me The Night. Sacha Zackariya is my Business Shaper today. Almost got it wrong Sacha, how can I do that after saying it so many times. It’s like the more we do it, the worse it gets. CEO and Co-Founder at The Change Group and you are in the travel money business as you said but interesting you just pointed out a simple thing, you are in the hospitality world. Where’s the business going to go? Apart from the challenges that Brexit will bring to talent and to indeed education and might mitigate against talent that is maybe not going to be attracted to this country. Where do you see things moving because technology is playing a bigger and bigger role. I mentioned another business which is doing things which I like doing because I am lazy, I hate queues and I hate cash as well, I quite like cards but that’s just me. For you though, what are you going to be focussing on?

Sacha Zackariya
For us we are very focussed on the international traveller so everything from tax refund services, to ATM provisioning, to yes, pre-paid cards, all kinds of portfolios that go around that so there’s small loans, there’s a whole wide range of services, remittances, international payments. When people travel and do business abroad we really need to enable it. There’s talk of shall we get an extra runway so that our aircraft in the UK can actually get to the places where we want to do business. Do you want to have an environment that supports international business and part of that story is making financial services making trade much easier and that’s what we do, you know when we turn over hundreds of millions of pounds in a particular country in the physical cash, that’s going into the pockets of retailers, of restaurants and so I think it’s a very important symbiotic relationship that exists between our type of service and those around us who are ultimately providing the things that the customer wants. Customers don’t want to change money, customers don’t want a credit card quite frankly. They want to eat, they want to go and party, they want to buy a dress and what we are doing is enabling that to happen.

Elliot Moss
In terms of working with your mum and then your late father who passed away a few years ago, what’s the dynamic like in a family business? And a family business of some size, this is not the mum pop shop at the end of the street, this is a, as we said, thirteen countries I think you said and six hundred people and forty million pound plus turnover. Big stuff, I mean how do you manage conflict?

Sacha Zackariya
So conflict always occurs where there’s a lack of appreciation or a lack of understanding of what’s going on. So I think the way in which we’ve managed it, especially in the last few years since my father passed away is that my mother and I have a very close relationship, we are constantly on the telephone. I was, just before this interview, speaking with her. She is currently in Spain where we are opening up some more operations there. I just came back last night from Sweden where we are opening some more operations there and we are constantly talking and we are constantly finding out how can we support one another and how can the teams around us at the Board level, at the local country level and the myriad of financial service advisors that we have from you know, your own law firm and many others around the world that we work with, how can we then expand and make the most of the business opportunities that exist.

Elliot Moss
But I imagine there is a natural deference towards mum?

Sacha Zackariya
Always of course. Although she would disagree with that sometimes but…

Elliot Moss
Both are the right answers. That’s exactly as I imagined it would be. I want to talk to you about the 3% of your profit that goes to charity. Just tell me a little bit about the Tree Foundation that you set up in 1996 with your sister I believe?

Sacha Zackariya
Yes exactly. So we as a family at various times gave money to a variety of different organisations and but also at a more granular level where my father came from which is Sri Lanka, we would give money to poor communities and we found it was getting inefficient and so what we decided to do was create a charity specifically to focus on less about countries and espouse the same kind of values that we have which is about you know, ‘give a man a fish and eat for a day, give him a fishing rod he’ll eat for a lifetime’ and this whole idea of supporting education and small business so that’s what we do. We put about four, five hundred kids through school, University and make sure that they have that next step in life and so that’s what the Tree Foundation focuses on. We did some other stuff round the Tsunami and some other things that are on a more you know, atrocity level when something happens, we’ve gone in and given some additional assistance but our primary focus is on providing long-term skills development.

Elliot Moss
Thinking about that in the context of your business and the growth and buying companies and as you said, strategic looking at numbers 2 and number 3 in a market and seeing what happens if and so on. Which is the moment when you are at your happiest and your most fulfilled? Of all those different things?

Sacha Zackariya
When am I most fulfilled? That’s a really difficult question. Sometimes I am most fulfilled when I am sitting there driving along, I am listening to Jazz FM…

Elliot Moss
We paid him to say that obviously.

Sacha Zackariya
Of course. Other times I am sitting there when I see someone with a spark of light in them, where they are going, they are giving me an idea or they are providing some insight that I hadn’t thought of and I am thinking ‘wow that’s really impressive’, when I see that development, that growth in them. When I see something happen, a shift that I hadn’t expected and that can be in the middle of an MNA deal, it can be in the middle of an operation that we are running and someone says ‘how about this, what if we do this?’ and it’s going to be better for the customer, it’s going to be better for us. That’s when I am really thinking to myself – that’s a great moment.

Elliot Moss
It’s been really nice talking to you, thank you. You strike me as someone who knows exactly what they are doing. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sacha Zackariya
So there’s this great film back in the early ‘90s called Nikita by Luc Besson and the sound track to it by Eric Serra really inspired me and there’s this one particular piece where Nikita is for the first time in years being able to go out on her own and the doors open and in floods the light and there is this sense of freedom and the music really conveys this and I love saxophone, I love jazz guitar and I think the sense that you get when you travel, that expansiveness that occurs when you go into new places is so wonderful and I think this expansiveness is captured by this song.

Elliot Moss
And here it is just for you. Thank you again.

That was The Free Side by Eric Serra, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Sacha Zackariya. He talked about the difference being service, a key lesson for anyone in a service business. He talked about loving international cultures, critical if you are running an international business and that sense of loving the seat of the pants part of the job which was buying companies and the thrill of setting it up but also understanding that scale brings processes and the processes are really important for ensuring success. All really good stuff. Next week I am joined by Roland Lamb, the Founder and CEO of ROLI and the inventor of the seaboard. A true leader of creative polymathic proportions. Also a new element to Jazz Shapers called the News Sessions – it’s where we take a look at a hot topic of the moment with Mishcon de Reya lawyers and Paddy O’Connell will be your host. The first one next week will be on GDPR and what it means to you and your business. That’s the News Sessions, part of Jazz Shapers next Saturday from 9.00am here on Jazz FM.

Sacha Zackariya

Sacha has a BEng in Engineering from the University of Warwick, a Postgraduate Diploma in Financial Economics from the University of London, as well as an MBA International Business Administration from INSEAD. He speaks four languages: English, French, German and Dutch. At the age of 17, Sacha began an international career working in New York, Paris and London, before winning a scholarship with Motorola, joining Invensys plc and working for Boeing and Airbus. He was initially involved with business development before becoming CEO of the family founded business, ChangeGroup – an international foreign exchange service. Sacha has lived and worked in many of the Group’s countries establishing new operations. He is an active member of the Young President’s Organisation, which aims to create better leaders through education and knowledge sharing between CEOs.

“I studied so much because I liked partying. It’s the only way of describing it. Either that or I was a masochist for extra studies.”

“My mother painstakingly put together the business and then my father and I went alongside her and supported the growth of the business over the twenty five years.”

“Everyone is now talking about Fintech, but twenty five years ago that word didn’t exist. That’s exactly what we were doing – providing an alternative to the banking arrangements that were in countries from Finland to Iceland to Australia to the US.”

“I invested the money that I earned from my day job in engineering and from taking out bank loans and various bits and pieces – you beg, borrow and steal.”

“We are now in thirteen countries. We cover Australia, the US and North America and basically we have about a hundred and ten wholly owned branches.”

“We are fortunate that we’ve got people who have joined us as sales consultants and worked their way all the way through management up to Board Directors. We’ve got great support teams which we are very proud of.”

“It is only when you land in a country you suddenly realise ‘oops I’ve got to deal with these people’ and it’s not good enough to try and speak English. You suddenly realise ‘hey, international business does mean you’ve got to learn these languages’.”

“I love interacting with people around the world. That’s one of the great things about the planet: people, travelling and the opportunities that come about because of low cost airlines.”

“It’s about having the right people – our staff go through a four month training programme in order to get across the values that we espouse which are: inclusivity and respecting difference of nationalities.”

“There’s real excitement when you go into a new territory and I say ‘oh what’s this all about, how do I get my head around that?’”