28 (123) 2017
Download PDF-version


Market needs, market niches

Header picture 6

Michael Dembinski talks to one of the most successful of the new wave of Polish entrepreneurs in the UK, Paweł Mes, founder and owner of money transfer company OneMoneyMail, which trades as Sami Swoi.

You've started up a business back in 2005, grown it from a micro- to a small- to a medium-sized enterprise; you currently have over a quarter of a million customers and employ 70 people. Were you planning to become an entrepreneur when you first moved to Britain?

I came to the UK during my gap year in university to study business English at West London University; at that stage I knew I wanted to focus on business rather than studying. While there, I identified a market need. Large numbers of Poles had moved to the UK to work after Poland joined the EU. Many of them were sending money back home to their families. The existing players on the money transfer market did not see serving Poles as their mission, only as additional business. At that time, they were not offering anything like a competitive product to Poles. Either they charged up to 15% on the moneys transferred, in fees and exchange-rate spreads, or else they took up to two weeks to effect the transfer, earning interest on the money deposited. I could see a market need.

What came first – the IT solution to safely transfer monies, or the marketing, the network of outlets?

I realised I could not go for scale until I'd got the IT platform right. At the same time, I needed to understand the needs of my potential customers. It was not just about price – my goal was to ensure that the money reached its recipients, to ensure that the complaint rate would be less than 1% – now it's 0.2% on our most popular products – having the procedures in place and a special team to handle complaints, to ensure that our customer loyalty would be built on trust. I wanted our customers to become ambassadors for the brand.

How have you grown since starting up?

At first, scaling up was about outlets – Polish shops around the UK, which would act as agents for us. Since then, we have over 200 physical outlets, but we've really expanded by going multichannel. You can send money to Poland with us over the internet, over the telephone, through physical branches – either our own, or agents, over Skype, or through our B2B channels. I'm aiming for sustainable growth of around 10% to 15% a year; we have been growing at up to 30%.

Brexit is obviously going to be an issue for OneMoneyMail/Sami Swoi; we can expect far fewer Poles migrating to the UK, and many of those who are currently in the UK returning to Poland or moving to other countries. What's your strategy for maintaining growth after Brexit?

At present we have a 20% market share in the UK->Poland money transfer channel. The first 20% is always the hardest! Our focus post-Brexit will be on fighting to get a far larger share of what will probably be a shrinking market. Poles in the UK deserve to have their own financial institution whose mission is to serve them reliably, to respond quickly to their needs; larger corporate institutions see Poles as just one of many customer groups. We're considering other financial service products – if we maintain a good brand and continue to deliver a quality service, we'll be able to develop something of which we can be proud. We certainly will not become aggressive to win new customers, offering 'honeymoon' deals which soon become disadvantageous to them. We may partners with banks to offer new services – the key thing is to know how many customers you'll need to launch a new product successfully. 900,000 Poles in the UK is a huge market for us, it's not so big for the banks. Different areas offer different business opportunities.

Are you considering using blockchain technology?

Blockchain is a tool with which fintech businesses can make products more competitive, more useful for customers. It will certainly lead to more competition to the established banks from newcomers challenging them on specific parts of their business, of which money transfer is one.

You went through a difficult period back in 2012-13, when the UK banks pulled the plugs on many money transfer operations that held their accounts with them. How did you survive?

This was the time when the banks were de-risking in the wake of the financial crisis, they were reforming themselves and were cracking down on money laundering. Around 90% to 95% of all UK-based money transfer companies went out of business at that time. We survived for three reasons – we are single-channel,UK to Poland, it's not a country associated with drug trafficking, corruption, terrorism or money-laundering. Secondly, we have always had structured external audits of our business. Thirdly, we have a good track record, good volumes. It pays to be honest, to be passionate about delivering a quality service to our customers, to do good for the community. As a result, when times were tough, a lot of people helped us.

I want to turn now to a subject of interest to many of our members, especially those in B2B advisory services – the medium-sized Polish businesses, owned and managed by their founder. Many entrepreneurs who started their own businesses have grown impressive firms, employing hundreds of people, turning over hundreds of millions of zlotys, often trading abroad. Many are now thinking of retiring, passing their businesses on to the next generation or selling them to strategic investors or private equity funds. What should they be doing to maximise the value of their businesses?

A very interesting subject. Many Polish business owners are reluctant to bring in external advisors, because the return on their investment is questionable. Consultants who are used to working for multinational corporations that employ many thousands of people offer solutions that don't deliver an ROI when scaled down to a medium-sized business. But at the same time, many Polish business owners running a medium-sized business think as they did when it was still a small business. The  owner-manager still has everything in his own head, rather formalising it into a robust structure that can survive on its own.

Yes, Poland is under-consulted, but there's a shortage of consultants who can add value to a medium-sized business. Such consultants need to demonstrate a proven track record of working with mid-sized owner-managed Polish businesses, they should not be learning as they go along.

In many cases, the mid-sized business is too small for a full-blown HR team; the middle managers, the sergeants – who in battle are more decisive than the generals – need to have strong HR skills. If you employ thousands of people, yes, you need a competence matrix and complex pay scales. But it's difficult to map competences when you've got fewer than 250 people. You then need a good manager who understands process – not the big picture, but the details of the small picture. In my business, for example, that would be something like the different cut-off times in each bank – by what time of day does money need to reach a certain bank to be sure to be with the recipient at the other end at the time we promise it.

You're a Pole, running a business in the UK; a significant part of your workforce is either British or migrants from other countries around the world. How do those cross-cultural aspects affect the day-to-day management of your firm?

People should have basic standards of behaviour, which are similar the world over. But the British are specific in their understatement, their coded messages, the meaning that's often hidden between the lines...

“If I were you, I'd do it this way” is how a British manager would often instruct a member of his staff to do something. A Pole would think, “Well, I'm not you, so I won't do it that way.”

Exactly! Poles are more direct; British people would think such directness rude. The thing I've learned is the need to be able to tell people off in a positive way!

More in Interviews:

Effecting introductions and presenting market insights – the BPCC in Britain

Michael Dembinski talks to Michael Clay, the BPCC's vice-chairman UK, about the development of the British-Polish trading relationship since Poland's EU accession –  as seen from the UK.

Raising awareness about Poland – my main priority


Michael Dembinski talks to Arkady Rzegocki, Poland’s ambassador to the UK