Ant Financial’s global expansion plan bounces back with WorldFirst buyout

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(Image credit: Monito)

Alibaba affiliate and Alipay parent Ant Financial’s acquisition of London-based payments and currency exchange company WorldFirst marks Ant Financial’s first big move in the UK. It also signals a rebound in the company’s international expansion plans, overcoming regulatory obstacles in its path.

“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” Ant Financial said in a statement shared with TechNode, adding that the tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s existing technology solutions.

Ant Financial expects to further expand its customer base through the acquisition of the UK payments firm, especially in the area of cross border e-commerce.

Ant Financial did not disclose the size of the acquisition, however, British broadcaster Sky News reported in December that the acquisition was likely worth about $700 million.

Under the terms, WorldFirst will remain independent. The company’s CEO, Jonathan Quin, said in a memo announcing the deal that all of the company’s current customer and account information would remain unchanged after the deal.

WorldFirst, founded in 2004, has years of experience working with Chinese businesses that trade globally. The company has been taking steps to become one of the first foreign companies to be granted a license to operate in China’s fintech sector.

A large part of WorldFirst’s business is helping businesses receive payments in their local currencies and online sellers manage cross-border payments in international marketplaces. WorldFirst provides cross-border payment services for Alibaba-backed e-commerce platform Lazada and is a processor for Amazon’s third-party sellers.

The competition is heating up in the remittance space especially in Asia with larger companies moving in. WorldFirst had recently seen decline in growth due to competition, according to industry publication PYMNTS. The tie-up with Ant Financial will certainly give thrust as the company expand its footprint in the region.

Alibaba’s aspiration to expand Ant Financial’s global footprint amid fierce competition in China from rival Tencent’s WeChat Pay encountered a major setback in the US last year. Ant Financial was forced to walk away from a $1.2 billion deal to acquire MoneyGram, a US money transfer business, over US national security concerns.

The companies decided to terminate the deal after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, rejected its proposals to mitigate concerns regarding the safety of sensitive data that could potentially be used to identify US citizens.

Zennon Kapron, director at Shanghai-based financial industry market research firm Kapronasia, told TechNode that the attempted acquisition of MoneyGram showed Ant Financial that there were a lot of regulatory considerations for the company in the US.

The US market is a huge but it is also very challenging and extremely competitive, while the European market is relatively easy to navigate, Kapron said. The payment giant is quite likely focusing more on the relatively lenient European market.

Moreover, Europe is still very entrenched in traditional forms of payments such as credit cards and checks, Kapron added.

On top of the regulations around payment services there is also heightened sensitivity around China amid the ongoing technology war, Kapron noted. However, “with the war chest that Alibaba and Ant Financial have built up over the years, investments like this aren’t really surprising. And with their aspirations to expand, it makes a lot of sense,” said Kapron.

A few months ahead of Ant Financial’s takeover, WorldFirst shutdown its US operations. James Hull, a China-based private investor, told TechNode that WorldFirst’s decision to discontinue operations in the US “could have been a requirement to get the acquisition done because of CFIUS or to completely avoid CFIUS approval process.”

Johan Uddman, a fintech consulting partner at Shanghai-based think tank Den Digitala Draken, said the Ant Financial’s WorldFirst buyout aligns with its recent strategy to acquire, partner, and invest in companies that already have established market share, products, and infrastructure.

“Strategic moves like acquiring WorldFirst, will give [Ant Financial] access to the European market,” said Uddman.