John Pace, chief business development officer at acquiring.com, outlines how digital payment methods are slowly but surely gaining over cash.

You have decades of experience in the payments business here in Malta. What changes have you experienced throughout these years?

My first role within the cards business was to roll out what at the time we called ‘manual imprinters’ which were basically plastic machines with a moving roll which used to take an imprint of the card. Subsequently, point of sale (POS) terminals were introduced in Malta in 1992. The first models were on dial-up lines and used to store transactions within them which, at times, would prove costly to the merchant in case it developed a fault before the transactions were uploaded.

From there, we moved on to POS terminals that connected through ethernet, then to single-message systems whereby authorisations were immediately transferred to our servers. This allowed for the quick processing of transactions and merchants were being paid faster for their transactions. Technology was quickly dictating how electronic transactions should be processed. This remains the case today – for instance, when we have seen the move to chip-and-pin cards and contactless payments not only using cards but also from smartphones and wearables. We have truly come a long way.

Trust Payments, the sister company of acquiring.com, has recently announced double-digit growth. How has the company achieved this?

The company started its life as Secure Trading Ltd in the UK 20 years ago when it launched its first payment gateway. Twelve years down the line, in 2012, the group applied for and was granted a financial institution licence from the MFSA under a locally-established company, Secure Trading Financial Services Ltd.

In the same year, it became principal member of Visa and Mastercard. This enabled us to offer both the merchant account as well as payment gateway facilities to merchants without the need for them to having to contract with two different parties to get the same service.

In eight years, the local company has grown and expanded at a fast pace and today, branded under the trade name of acquiring.com, we boast a professional and experienced team of 80 employees working from Class A offices in Birkirkara – although, of course, currently they find themselves working from home.

Our team is mostly made up of Maltese employees but we also have a very strong and wide representation of skilled international employees who have gained an excellent understanding of the local market. The group was recently renamed Trust Payments and now delivers true omnichannel payment processing, combining the previously branded Secure Trading gateway service with the in-house pan-European acquiring institution branded acquiring.com. 

In 2019, the management team instigated a major turnaround programme for the group, creating a new cloud-based payments platform, launched a US-based dedicated payment platform as well as expanded the product range into point of sale.

While competition in the market is strong, we have created a unique suite of services, backed by a dedicated technology team that enabled us to be first movers with an advantage in key verticals. In the past year, we have invested very aggressively in our technology base, automation and our people.

What have you introduced to date in the Maltese market?

We have been operating in Malta for eight years and initially focused solely on e-commerce merchants and online payments. A year ago, we introduced the first colour touch-screen POS terminals in Malta which are very popular with merchants due to their versatility and speed of transaction execution.

We also offer e-commerce solutions to merchants not only in Malta but across Europe and we are an established one-stop shop for any merchant that wants to accept electronic payments.

Since launching, the demand for our POS services has been very high. This is mostly due to the reliability of our systems backed by our aftersales support which we offer merchants through our superb account management team. The role of this team is to manage the relationship with the merchant throughout the business relationship; not just until the moment they sign up. Merchants also come to us as we have a suite of ancillary services making us a one-stop omnichannel services provider for their business needs.

Our personal service is another highlight. Our employees really understand the market and are here to assist our customers with any question they may have. Our sales managers always make it a point to meet with prospective merchants to ensure they understand their needs and give advice on the best options available that can help support business growth.

Over the past year, we have done quite well and are pleased to see that much of our business here has come from referrals – that is to say happy customers who, in turn, refer other clients to us. For us, this is very meaningful as it indicates people are satisfied with what we offer to them.

What do you think the state of the payments market is in Malta? Where do opportunities lie and what gaps have you aimed to fill?

A survey in March 2020 by the Maltese Central Bank showed that cash is still the preferred payment method for the Maltese, probably since we know it is accepted everywhere, as well as a matter of habit. The same survey reported that 30 per cent of the Maltese population do not use a debit card and 50 per cent do not use a credit card.

However, since March, a lot has changed. Many consumers in Malta are avoiding handling cash now, as they see it as unhygienic. Maltese businesses, even the more traditional ones, have been quick to adapt and offer more ways to pay by card or digitally – such as pay-by-link which is when a business can send the client a link to make their payment by e-mail, on Facebook private messenger, by WhatsApp or SMS. Even though shops are reopening, we predict continued high demand from locals for such contactless options and we may start to see digital payments overtake cash for the first time.

We also see increased demand for different types of ways to pay, especially for tourists. Last year, we welcomed around 650,000 tourists from the UK – the biggest source-market of tourists to Malta. If we take the UK market as an example, as a society they strongly prefer card payments over cash.

As a company, we believe fintech is dead and we are progressing to focus on fincomm or the financial community

As the tourist season starts warming up again, we will see an influx of tourists requesting to pay using cards or other cashless options. We will see more of the less frequently used cards such as Amex – or even more unusual payments like Apple Pay or other digital wallets. Our services can help merchants of any size to accept all major credit cards, whether they are a small family-owned café or a hotel chain.

Maltese retailers today cannot afford not to accept cards and they need to be ready to accept all these methods that tourists are accustomed to using at home or in other countries they travel to, in the process growing their own businesses and helping to boost the national economy.

There have been a few payments companies hitting the news headlines for the wrong reasons lately, such as Germany’s Wirecard. How is this affecting the confidence of your customers?

I think many financial services companies are missing a trick. Fintech did not live up to its promise. While we have moved banking services along in many positive ways through technology, customers are losing their trust in algorithms and AI and want to deal with real people.

As a company, we believe fintech is dead and we are progressing to focus on fincomm or the financial community. The personal touch is extremely important. That’s why we offer dedicated locally-based account managers who really understand the market, with the back-up of an experienced 24/7 support team.

Our technology is extremely simple to use and robust; in fact, we have 99.9 per cent up-time. We are also transparent; we do not have any hidden fees and, unlike many other providers globally, we do not hold the merchants’ money as collateral or in an e-wallet which then they need to transfer at a cost but release all proceeds direct to any bank account of their choice straight away.

Finally, we are not a fintech that is going to up and disappear with our merchants’ money. We have been around for 20 years already and we intend to be here for a lot longer!

How do you see the capabilities of acquiring.com evolving in the coming years?

As with the past, technology is the key to the future. The company has just received a substantial injection of capital and much of this is going towards innovation.

Recently, we launched our Partner Portal which gives our business partners full access to our services via a smart dashboard which includes an online application which is automatically processed once it’s submitted.

Over the past two months, we have worked earnestly to include Amex and DCC (Dynamic Currency Conversion) on our terminals and will be launching these two products to local merchants over the next few weeks.

Although a lot has been achieved in the past, the road ahead is still a long one as we can see from the new, almost daily developments that are announced in the payments ecosystem.

However, technology on its own is not enough. We also intend to continue investing in our people – as we always have done in the past 20 years. We have an open culture and support all those individuals who show a keen interest in their work.

Most of the managers with the company today had initially joined the company as clerks or officers but, thanks to their dedication and motivation, were promoted to their current grades in a relatively short time.  

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