Founder of Jack Ma-backed fintech WorldFirst hits back over risk management questions after board exodus

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The founder of Jack Ma-owned London fintech WorldFirst has hit back at reports of a board exodus at the company after a whistleblower told the Standard he had raised questions over risk governance policies by its Chinese management.

Last year, as part of an internal overhaul dubbed the ‘Global Base Line’ project, a string of management, risk, and oversight functions at the firm were shifted from the UK to China.

A host of senior UK leaders have since left the firm, including its CEO, finance director, managing director, head of risk, chief information security officer, and group general counsel and compliance officer. Staff at the fintech’s parent company, Ant Financial, are among those brought in to replace them.

Founder Jonathan Quin is understood to have questioned the project at meetings of the firm’s risk committee.

But Quin told the Standard: “Some people’s roles went from reporting to a local CEO to reporting to China.

“Some people did not want to work for a bigger Chinese business. I don’t think that’s unusual in a post-takeover situation.”

He added: “As part of people reporting into someone else, I wanted to make sure they understood the importance of sanctions regimes and compliance and risk matters but it was in the course of my duties as a director to report that.”

Quin said his questions over a lack of local CEO were “more about motivation in the business … and they did bring someone in.”

It comes amid a period of heightened scrutiny over fintech firms’ risk policies after increased rules around sanctioned individuals and entities.

Last week, London fintech Wise was accused of ‘inappropriate’ controls over sanctions rules by the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation after it was found to have permitted a cash withdrawal from a company account owned or controlled by a person under the government’s Russia sanctions list.

Founded in London in 2004, WorldFirst was acquired by Jack Ma’s Ant Group in 2019 in a deal thought to be worth more than $700 million (£550 million).

The company processes billions of pounds of international payments and reported revenues of £47 million in 2021.

Before Ant acquired WorldFirst, it made a bid to acquire US-based rival MoneyGram as part of Ant’s international expansion plans. But, in 2018, the planned $1.2 billion deal was rejected by the committee on foreign investment in the United States (CFIUS) over national security concerns.

In July, Ant Group was fined around £800 million by the Chinese financial regulator in one of the biggest-ever fines for an internet company after it was accused of violating rules on corporate governance, financial consumer protection, payment and settlement business, as well as anti-money laundering obligations.

But Quin said he was satisfied with WorldFirst’s current risk management practices and was aware of no impropriety.

In a statement, WorldFirst said: “WorldFirst management members are in regular exchange with the regulatory authorities with respect to its business activities and risk management functions.

“We are pleased that our board members have been diligently discharging their duties and obligations and that they will continue to provide the management with valuable strategic guidance and input.”