Credit card company Capital One is trying to tap into the Britain's booming fintech scene, amid what its international CEO calls an "amazing historical moment" that is seeing not just the reinvention of finance but also society.
The 25-year-old company is moving into a new office in the new White Collar Factory on top of London's so-called "Silicon Roundabout" that will be home to 200 new engineering and design staff. The credit card provider also recently launched its "Growth Labs" initiative, an accelerator programme for early-stage start-up and high-growth companies.
"We’ve got to confront — even as companies as new and growth-focused as we are, 25 years post-founding and 20 years post-IPO — just how dramatically and radically the digital revolution is changing the world," Chris Newkirk tells Business Insider. Newkirk is head of international at Capital One, charged with overseeing the company's UK and Canadian businesses.
When it started up in the US in 1994, Capital One pioneered the use of data to target offers at customers and offer credit to people who were traditionally turned down.
But there's a new wave of innovators: financial technology companies, better known as fintech. From peer-to-peer lending to neobanks to crowdfunding, finance models, and delivery methods are being reinvented by online challengers.
Newkirk says: "Here we are 25 years on and the pace of technology change and the data explosion, they’re exponentially faster than they were in the days of our founding. We have to continue to reinvent ourselves to win with our customers, to help them succeed financially, to help remove all the friction that stands in the way of their success."
Capital One launched in the UK in 1996 and has just over 3 million customers here today. Newkirk says it can't take them for granted.
"That’s what brings our business to the White Collar Factory," he says. "It’s a fantastic anchoring location for us to rapidly grow our software engineering and our design, our data scientists, and our product management team."
He adds: "It’s only a part of our strategy but I think Growth Labs is going to potentially be an important part of that. It is chiefly aimed at how can we better connect into the rather remarkable fintech ecosystem that’s developing in London, the UK and more broadly."
'We have plenty of reverence for the amazing historical moment we’re in'
Newkirk sees the rise of fintech, which has exploded in the wake of the financial crisis, as part of a wider cultural change centred around technology.
"We have plenty of reverence for the amazing historical moment that we’re in," he says. "A revolution that’s as profound for humankind, much less business, as harnessing fire 250,000 years ago, or the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago, the industrial revolution, the invention of modern medicine — I think we’re in the middle of one of these great transformations of society and consequently business."
Newkirk's language may sound over the top but he's not alone in describing our era in such grand terms. The World Economic Forum believes we are approaching the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" — an age of robots and artificial intelligence. The third was the information revolution, which we are in the midst of.
Despite Newkirk's wide-eyed wonder at the world, he's a realist when it comes to assessing the changes of fintech startup.
"I think the odds of against any individual startups success are obviously massive," he says when I ask if he sees marketplace lenders like RateSetter — which lets people lend directly to consumers — as a threat to Capital One's credit card business.
But he adds: "But what I will say is the innovators, the fintechs, taken collectively will move the industry to a much better place for consumers. That’s what really matters."
'I think fintech is a uniquely challenging space'
So why should startups work with Capital One and give away their secret sauce to help its reinvention? It's a two-way street, says Newkirk.
"I think fintech is a uniquely challenging space given several challenges around regulation or balance sheet management, things that quite frankly we’re expert in," he says. "I’m really looking forward to the combination of all of the things we’re able to do really well with the creativity and ideation of startups. That’s something we can tap into with our Growth Labs experiment."
Capital One is hardly the only one to pursue this tactic. Barclays and Santander both have their own fintech accelerators, meant to help them keep their fingers on the pulse.
A former Capital One exec I spoke to ahead of the interview suggested the international businesses has been somewhat unloved for years as the parent US company tried to transform itself into a full bank from 2005 onwards.
Newkirk rejects this, but it's clear that the Nottingham-based business is ramping up its operations from whatever level it was at before.
Newkirk says: "If I could snap my fingers and fill the seats that we have in London and Nottingham in engineering, design, data science and product science that would be game-changing for us."
'I’ve personally never had more fun in my business career'
In terms of transforming the business, Newkirk points to Capital One's new QuickCheck tool, which lets people check their eligibility for a Capital One credit product without making a mark on their credit rating.
"That really meets the need, previously unmet in the market, to let people know, with certainty, what product they could get from us without leaving a mark on their credit check. That’s an example of the sort of innovation that we have done."
He adds: "I think we’ve got a pretty compelling backlog of additional things we can do to bring to bear to help our credit card customers succeed." He won't be drawn on details but says there will be "sort of nudges or actionable notifications or experiences to help people make better choices around their lending and their financial management."
Capital One is also embracing the open philosophy of tech companies, offering up its credit underwriting services to third parties as a sort of gun for hire. A startup can build in Capital One's credit checking to its app or service using its new API.
Newkirk says: "We’re exposing our underwriting capability, which I think is the best in the market, as an API so we can offer underwriting as a service to turn ourselves a bit more into a platform company.
"I point to some of the innovation that some of the tech giants are capable of doing — Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook — as truly the beacon for what it’s like to focus on enabling amazing engineering and design come together."
Newkirk closes our conversation on an optimistic note, saying: "I’ve personally never had more fun in my business career. I think it’s a really interesting time to be in business."