Nasir Zubairi, CEO of the Luxembourg House of Financial Technology (LHoFT), and EBRC discuss the opportunities and challenges to make Luxembourg an efficient international FinTech hub.
Nasir, you've been in Luxembourg for several months now. What made the biggest impression on you when you discovered this country?
The first time I came to Luxembourg was in 2015. I was invited to speak at the ICT Spring. Back then, what I saw of the country was mainly my hotel and the conference centre. But at that time, I already picked up on the attitude of the people I had the opportunity to meet and which, in my opinion, is quite unique. I immediately understood how Luxembourg could be a great place to develop a business, because incredible things can be done here. Simply because the local players, instead of just wanting to grow their own business, want to and are able to collaborate and do something great for the whole country. I've never seen something like that anywhere else. This undoubtedly explains how a country of 500'000 inhabitants managed to become the second biggest investment fund centre in the world in just 20 years. It also explains why, in so many areas, Luxembourg has achieved remarkable results. This would not possible without the people supporting these businesses and even the entire national economy.
In which way can this community help make Luxembourg into a FinTech hub that matters?
To achieve this, we have to be able to rely on a committed community. It is the people here, all working towards the same goals, who allow us to do incredible things. I am always impressed by the ease of bringing these players together at a table, and by the commitment and availability of the CEOs at the heart of our joint actions. I lived in the biggest financial centres of the world, in London, New York, Tokyo and Singapore, but I have never felt a spirit of community similar to the one that prevails in Luxembourg. There is a real desire to do great things together. In London or New York, people work for their own interests, not for the United Kingdom or the New York financial centre as a whole. There is a great openness among the business leaders here, and great humility, little ego, and a real willingness to learn in order to move forward. This readiness to learn in a changing world is crucial for the success of what we seek to accomplish.
Luxembourg had a reputation for being relatively conservative. How did things evolve in this regard?
Everything changes. Historically, financial services around the world have grown by recruiting the brightest minds on the planet. Banks recruited the best students from the most prestigious universities. This is no longer the case. These brilliant minds are now turning to Google, PayPal or Amazon. Banks are no longer attractive. And they took more time than others to adapt, because of a strong culture within them. Banking players think they know what they have to do and how to do it ... They think they know everything. But they are mistaken. We have to be humble, ask questions, even question ourselves and, above all, be ready to learn. I personally am 42 years old and I still learn something new every day. It is with this readiness to learn that Luxembourg will be able to make progress, innovate, and do great things by mobilising all of its players.
When you took office, your speech emphasised the importance of fighting the fear of change. In the face of the risks and opportunities associated with the digital transformation of the economy that we are witnessing, are finance players becoming more open?
I think there is still some fear. But over the past year, the mind-set of leaders has changed dramatically. Last summer, one particular idea was recurring regularly in the speeches of those working in the management and distribution of funds. Many said they don't carry a lot of weight, being in Luxembourg, because this financial centre is only seen as an operational one, and the decisions are being made elsewhere in the world. I think that this kind of speech was an excuse to cover up this fear of change. But things did change since then. The projects that have been initiated are the best proof for how Luxembourg-based teams are making themselves heard through group initiatives. An incredible community is revealing itself in Luxembourg. I am face to face with it each and every day. It speaks its mind with enthusiasm, regarding the initiatives implemented by the government, like the LHoFT itself, including on social networks. I think, given the tokens of support I receive, that I have never been so popular in my entire life (laughs).
What goals should be pursued in financial services by capitalising on this community?
The main objective is to create a real international FinTech centre here in Luxembourg. The goal is certainly not to be the biggest, or number one. Because basically, it is not worth that much to be first. Of course, if you happen to be the first, so much the better. But the main idea is to implement projects, to allow new services to launch from Luxembourg. The focus is on doing, rather than talking. And in this area, Luxembourg is a place where everything is possible. Incredible things are already happening.
Can you give us an example?
With the current push to put the blockchain to use in the investment fund industry, we now have solutions that are already operational and that have been created in Luxembourg. The FundsDLT platform, which provides a more efficient and cost-effective way to invest in investment funds, is a good example. Transactions have been made thanks to this platform based on blockchain technology. It's a first. Others around the world have tried to do similar things, probably with more resources and by mobilising armies of consultants, without success. The fact is that in Luxembourg we have done it in a pragmatic and effective way. We did it calmly, but effectively. We must be proud of this, and able to value it. LHoFT has to play its role at this level and be the mouthpiece of these initiatives. I think that, in general, Luxembourg does not sufficiently emphasise its exceptional achievements in this area. Around the world, it is not yet common knowledge that Luxembourg is the leader in the field of satellites with SES. And few people know that the RTL media group originates in Luxembourg. We do incredible things here. We have to make that known.
What do you see as the great opportunities for Luxembourg?
Its ability to do great things has to enable the country to attract other players and invite them to take advantage of this exceptional environment. This attractiveness is real. We see it through the Brexit lens, which is a huge opportunity for Luxembourg. According to KPMG research that looks at the various announcements of London players who have chosen to open a new EU hub or augment an existing one to ensure access to the single market, Luxembourg has received the largest number of votes. 21 players showed their preference for Luxembourg, 14 favoured Dublin, 8 Germany and 4 France. People are choosing Luxembourg! And this trend will continue. In the longer term, Brexit also holds another opportunity for Luxembourg. International start-ups in the US, Asia and the Middle East are targeting the European market, one of the most attractive in the world. Now, with Brexit, London no longer belongs to the European Union. It's as simple as that. And Luxembourg can play its hand to attract these innovative players.
What are the relevant strengths of Luxembourg?
In Luxembourg, you can do business in English. You do not have to practice Dutch, German or French to be understood by the regulator, or to draw up contracts. Here, everything can be done in English, just like in Dublin, for that matter. This may appear like a small detail compared to infrastructure issues and the need for good connectivity, but in reality, it is crucial. People know that there are great skills, high-quality infrastructure, here and elsewhere. But being able to easily get on with day to day business in English is an important differentiating element.
We talked about the importance of attracting start-ups. The other big challenge lies in the transformation of the existing financial players. How do you approach that?
Even in large firms, the culture is changing. Just look at how they develop innovative projects now. In the case of LHoFT, we can count on 13 partners, major institutions that are committed and on our side. This shows that there is a real desire to change. And this is also reflected in the collaboration with start-ups, and in the in-house development of innovative projects. At this level, Luxembourg may be yet lagging behind other financial centres. But things are changing quickly. The will to change is now there. And Luxembourg, a very agile country, can transform itself faster than others, even if there are still some barriers to get rid of.
Significant regulatory barriers are falling, particularly regarding the location of the financial data of the players established in Luxembourg. What are your views on these reforms?
They show that things here can move very quickly. I see these measures as very positive. Start-ups are an essential part of the FinTech ecosystem that we want to develop in Luxembourg. However, all start-ups use cloud services. The regulations which were in force in the past forced them to use systems hosted in Luxembourg. In the negotiations to convince these companies to join Luxembourg, that was an important limiting factor. So I see these reforms as a very positive example of change for Luxembourg. And many supporting PSF players, such as EBRC, whose business will also be influenced by these transformations, adopt the right attitude towards these changes. Beyond the risks, they see the opportunities. They have chosen to adapt their strategy, to move forward in order to build this FinTech hub.
In this environment, what are the advantages of Luxembourg's IT service providers?
They are numerous. The license as a supporting PSF (Professional of the Financial Sector) for example is an important asset. For start-ups, it is a guarantee of credibility when they need to convince financial players. A bank, as a business, needs guarantees when it chooses to carry out transformation projects involving start-ups. A financial institution has to ensure that its partner can support it over time, that it is sufficiently robust. By developing partnerships with supporting PSFs, which have specific requirements in terms of technological standards and due diligence processes, it is easier to reassure a financial institution. There is no equivalent to Luxembourg's supporting PSF status elsewhere in Europe. This is in any case one of the means available to start-ups to ensure their credibility.
What do you think about Luxembourg's IT infrastructure?
It is exceptional. Luxembourg is the only country to have seven Tier IV Data Centres, three of which belong to EBRC. London has just one, like Frankfurt, while Paris has none. It was on the basis of this infrastructure and a unique pragmatism that Luxembourg was able to become one of the most important financial centres in the world. And it has also become a centre of excellence in the field of data hosting. I have discovered that gaming players such as Valve, who are even more dependent on technology than financial services, have also chosen Luxembourg to serve the European market, and I am very impressed. Gaming companies can connect 30 million users simultaneously while guaranteeing a high-quality experience through Luxembourg’s infrastructure. This is, in my opinion, a marketing argument that must be put forward to highlight this technological expertise. But this expertise, of course, can also be used to convince financial service providers. However, I think that while technology is necessary and has to rely on high-quality infrastructure, technology alone is not the main issue in financial services. Technology is secondary, and comes after marketing. Today, with the various players that are now involved, like EBRC, one of the main challenges remains to better sell Luxembourg. On that front, I think we can do better.
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