Passion for others yields money services for the masa
As far as he can remember, Xavier Marzan had always “wanted to build things and make a difference.”
Could growing up on Mapagbigay (generous or giving sort of person) Street in a Quezon City suburb have rubbed off on the young boy, imbuing him with a caring nature? Could witnessing his mother lose her eyesight that he learned to be a caregiver at the age of eight have developed a heightened sensitivity to other’s needs? Could an Ateneo education, espousing the famous Ignatian maxim, “a man for others,” have ignited in him the desire to contribute to enriching the economy?
For Marzan, work and personal goals have never melded so seamlessly as they do now at TrueMoney Philippines which he energetically heads as CEO, twinned with his position as country managing director of Ascend Money, a subsidiary of conglomerates True Corporation and the C.P. Group of Thailand.
Committed to providing the “underserved and unbanked” – the masa (masses) – with financial services, TrueMoney is a platform that has been designed to be easily accessible, familiar and welcoming. A TrueMoney “partner-agent” could be your neighborhood sari-sari store tindera (provision shop owner), your botika (pharmacy) clerk, your manikurista (manicurist) and even your pan de sal (breakfast rolls) baker.
The sector that TrueMoney focuses on makes up about 70 percent of the local population, reaching even higher to around 90 percent in developing nations such as Myanmar and Laos.
“We view ourselves as more of an infrastructure provider, filling in where there are no or hardly any bank branches,” says Marzan. “For example, we recently visited Santa Rosa, Laguna, which is fairly urban, and chanced upon a community of 16,000 people – a group of subdivisions and a resettlement village. And there was only one bank branch. With that, you couldn’t even say you had served the needs of the general public.
“According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas [Central Bank of the Philippines], about 40 percent of different areas in the country are in a similar situation. In more developed countries, the ratio is one branch to 5,000 people, and in Africa, the ratio is one branch to 500 people – that’s the ratio we want; the kind of presence on the ground to serve the population that we are going for.”
A newbie on the Philippine “fintech” (financial services) scene, TrueMoney hit the ground running when it launched operations in September 2016. Says Marzan, who reports that he was employee number 1: “We’ve been working hard at differentiating ourselves from the competition, whose push, since some years ago, has been a purely digital user experience: very app-based, very smartphone centric, very very digital.
“But when you are talking about money, the situation is completely different from providing a messaging service like viber. When somebody is need of a loan or paying an electricity bill, there is money involved, and so you have to engender trust. It can’t be done on Facetime but face-to-face.
“You have to develop a relationship with your customers, which can’t be done in a purely mobile phone environment.”
Hence the reason for TrueMoney’s intense campaign early on to build up its distribution network composed of partner-agents. Marzan explains: “We wanted to establish that personal presence in the community in order to educate them and bring them along on the client journey.
“Also, nobody knew the TrueMoney brand at all, so our first objective was to create a large distribution network. We had to grow to scale immediately.”
The hard work paid off. Within six months of launching, TrueMoney signed up an estimated 5,000 partner-agents or branches in eight of the 17 official Philippine regions such as Metro Manila, Calabarzon (Calamba-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon), Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Davao. That number of agents will soon double, Marzan says, beaming widely.
Equipped with a POS terminal that runs on 2G technology, a True-Money agent offers services such as domestic cash remittances, bills payment and mobile phone load among others. More will be added in the future.
Marzan describes the user experience as “very simple that any frontliner or clerk can understand it after being given some instructions and being walked through it.” The company invests heavily in educating the partners, given the significant role they play in marketing activities.
Aling Nely, who owns a sari-sari store on Scout Torillo in Quezon City, recounts on the company’s Facebook page that most of her regulars were ecstatic such conveniences had reached their neighborhood. “It saves them from wasting time, commuting to a government office and having to line up. For me, it means extra income.”
Taking on popular TV host Boy Abunda as endorser has also greatly benefited the brand. Abunda, who was not born to privilege and steadfastly worked his way up in the entertainment industry, is well liked by the public for his respectful and trustworthy mien. Which is precisely what TrueMoney seeks to project to its clientele who is handing over their valued savings to the company.
Adds Marzan: “Of course, the vision down the road is for a more, if not, purely cashless society, but right now, our economy is still 99 percent based on cash.”
The offices of TrueMoney in the Ortigas enclave is an exuberant hive of activity, featuring the now familiar open-plan layout, opted for by progressive companies across Metro Manila and replicated in other TrueMoney centers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Taupe-colored walls are studded with catchy inspirational quotes such as “Some people dream of success, while others wake up and work hard…It always seems impossible until it’s done (Nelson Mandela)… The only way to do great work is to LOVE what you do.” A corner with trestle tables is designated the pantry-canteen, although employees are allowed to dine at their desks.
Heck, they can even work from home – just as long as they achieve results, says their boss Marzan, who, with his an unmistakable Tintin-style quaff, could easily be mistaken for one of his millennial colleagues. His open-door policy goes a step further, he reveals. “I literally don’t have a door, only a desk.”
The management culture is just as breezy and extremely collaborative. The 120 employees, who share the Ortigas workspace, are encouraged to approach anyone, whom they think can help them solve a problem that seems insurmountable And that includes Marzan himself, who stresses: “My mandate to everyone is to call, viber or email for help. They don’t have to go through a supervisor.
“And I don’t think there is any problem that cannot be solved.”
In fact, if Marzan sees that a younger colleague has difficulty finding his or her way out of an intellectual maze, he wades in and works out the problem. “That way they’ll know immediately how it should be done.”
Solving problems has always fascinated Marzan, the offspring of a lawyer-father and banker-mother.
Daunting challenges faced Marzan’s family when he was eight years old. His mother suffered a detached retina, which worsened from wrongly prescribed eyeglasses, necessitating 10 operations, including one in the Netherlands, which then boasted the most advanced optical treatments. By the time, Marzan reached high school, his mother was “practically blind.” Mrs. Marzan eventually lost the sight of both eyes, prompting her husband, son and daughter to drastically adapt their home and lifestyle to her new condition.
“She had to retire from the bank, of course,” Marzan recalls. “It was obviously very, very difficult for all of us. At a young age, I already knew how to take care of my mom.”
Mrs. Marzan relearned to do things, coming through with flying colors. Her son says: “She remains one of the most inspiring persons in my life. She learned braille and read books; she learned how to play the piano. Today, she lives like any normal person. She goes out a lot pero may kasama [with a companion].
“My mother expanded her mind and abilities even more, something that might not have happened had she stayed in the bank.”
Marzan majored in management engineering at the Ateneo and after graduation went into consulting work for Accenture, which needed his skills for problem-solving. In early 2000, he formed with some partners a tech/outsourcing startup, but which, unfortunately, collapsed in tandem with the dot.com bubble bust in the US.
He migrated to the US to join his wife, landing a position as director of corporate strategy and development at AOL Time Warner in New York, handling M&A (mergers and acquisitions) projects dealing with digital media and e-commerce.
Eventually, Marzan and his wife decided to return home “because we had two young boys whom we wanted to grow up here…you may complain a lot [about the country], but at the end of the day, your heart is still in the Philippines.” Both his sons, Alex, 10 and Lucas, 7, are thriving, confides the doting dad, who ensures his business trips last exactly up until the weekend so he can attend his older son’s soccer practice or matches, or they can head for the beach. “We all love the beach and trying out new resorts.”
The balikbayan re-entered the local job market as head of Globe Telecom’s head of strategy and corporate development for consumer business and until recently, was CEO and COO of G-Xchange, Inc., the company’s mobile payments and commerce subsidiary.
Why is Marzan so attracted to startups? “I like the unknown,” says this corporate adventurer. But as with everything he does, it’s got to make a difference in the world.
May his tribe increase!