Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought toyou by Charles D’Haussy.
With 20 years of wealth management and insurance under his belt, Mark Wales certainly knows the industry. After working at ING, Cap Gemini and Deloitte, he co-founded one of the earliest fintechs in Hong Kong, Galileo Partners.
It is now a leading blockchain-based company in Asia’s insurance industry, having recently raised a $2 million Series A round led by Nasdaq-listed Greenlight Reinsurance.
We agree to meet for breakfast at the Cupping Room in Sheung Wan, as it’s one of his go-to coffee venues near his office. Sheung Wan is a district where many entrepreneurs get their start, including me. I’m hoping that we find enough room for Mark to demo the latest upgrades to Galileo – the last time I saw it was 2016, making it among the first complex, live demos on Ethereum Quorum that I experienced.
Wales has beaten me to the café, and is already sipping an orange juice. He’s in startup gear: black jeans, light blue shirt, Apple watch. The salt and pepper in his hair says more about his experience in technology than it might about any lost nights during last year’s crypto-market bust.
He orders a flat white and a croissant, while I stick to a simple English Breakfast tea.
Galileo is a B2B technology company building a platform to connect all participants in the insurance business. The idea is to both streamline reconciliations and create a single source of truth in the life of a policy transaction.
How did it start? While at Deloitte, a colleague pitched him the idea of a peer-to-peer network for insurance. He quit three months later to join his co-founder, Annette King. But very quickly, they realized that regulation in Hong Kong would not support a P2P business model. The partners pivoted to a B2B model.
“We cover the full insurance business lifecycle,” Wales says. “It’s a more complex industry than people think.” There are a handful of other blockchain-based startups in the insurance space, including PolicyPal in Singapore and Blocksure in the U.K.
Streamlining operations is one thing. But what’s so important about a single source of truth? “Better U.X. [user experience], and massive savings for the company,” Wales says.
Working with insurance companies must be a struggle, I suggest. They aren’t exactly known for their speed and flexibility. I ask him whether he can tell when a project might end up going nowhere?
Wales has been here before: “The industry breaks down into two categories,” he says. “The first are the people who say, ‘We knew this was coming,’ and they need to catch up. The second are those who say, ‘I don’t need this, I don’t see the value.’ What they’re really saying is that they don’t want to upset their brokers or agents, who might think blockchain is out to replace them.”
But even with insurers that understand they need to upgrade their business models, it’s not easy: “Insurtech has probably the longest sales cycle in the fintech industry.”
Wales is optimistic, though, because he sees even the naysayers coming around, particularly in Southeast Asia, where the market’s growth prospects are big.
There’s increasing competition but the winners will be those that can add new business at scale – which insurers today can’t do, because of their systems architecture. Galileo is selling primarily to second-tier insurers that have a shot at winning at scale against tier-1 competitors still laboring under outmoded tech.
“Blockchain is simply more efficient, simpler, and cheaper,” Wales says. He has grown more animated. Clearly he gets excited by technology.
Is he focusing more on Southeast Asia because of competition in North Asia from giant Chinese fintech companies? After all, these “techfins” are promoting B2B technology and platforms to insurance companies and banks.
“Nah, I’m not that worried about them,” Wales says. “Clients might not be comfortable running their business on a competitor’s platform.”
I steer the conversation back to Wales as a person. I tell him I understand he used to be a competitive runner.
Wales says he stopped running three years ago due to a hamstring injury. “But I remain competitive,” he says. “More competitive than people imagine.” What is it about competition that matters to him? “It’s simple: I don’t like to lose.”
What’s winning, though? What does that mean?
“Second place is the first one to lose,” he replies.
When he looks at the insurance landscape, what’s winning now?
Wales says he’s pleasantly surprised by the industry’s new willingness to try many new products. “Some of these products, like those with dynamic pricing, are really clever,” he says. I ask him for some examples from the incumbents, but he defaults to another startup: “Sherpa in the U.K., providing insurance for the gig economy.”
Given his blockchain focus, does he own cryptocurrencies? “Not at the moment,” he says. “I got in way too early.” He says the public’s mindset of “crypto craziness” is blinding people to what’s really happening in the city’s blockchain scene. “People do need to know about the better tech stories out there.”
But consumers, whether they know it or not, are getting integrated into blockchain platforms by the businesses serving them. Maybe, soon, for their insurance needs, too.
The Cupping Room
- 299 Queen’s Road Central, Sheung Wan
- Orange juice, HK$48
- English Breakfast tea, HK$45
- Flat white, HK$40
- Croissant, HK$20
- Total: HK$153 (US$19.62)
- Paid via Octopus card
Block Kong Breakfast: Henri Arslanian, PwC
“I secretly dream that we discover who Satoshi Nakamoto is while he or she is still alive.”
Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy.
“I’ll be on holiday that week, so it should work.”
That’s what it takes to block some of Henri Arslanian’s time – him not working.
We agree to meet in Stanley, the village-town on the beautiful southern coast of Hong Kong Island, near his home. Classified Café is a high-end chain, and its Stanley branch is empty, as the nearby beach is the greater attraction that day.
No matter: Arslanian, a natural leader, fills the room. On his day off, he is nonetheless wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of his employer, Big Four accountancy PwC.
He also allows me to select which of his languages we should use today: English, Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish or Armenian, his mother tongue.
I decide on French, mine Parisian, his flavored with the tastes of Montreal.
First order of business: ordering breakfast. Arslanian relates how he has recently shed a few pounds, while sweet-talking the waitress into ordering something not on the menu, a special muesli with extra yoghurt and fruit. A man after my own heart, breakfast-wise. Make that two, s’il vous plait!
Arslanian is a worldwide figure now and has probably done more than any other individual to put Hong Kong’s fintech and crypto scene on the map. He now boasts 500,000 followers on LinkedIn, who follow his weekly sixty-second video reports on the latest news.
I ask him for tips on how others can acquire such a following.
“The first fifty thousand is the hardest to get,” he says, but it’s not clear that I can match him without becoming, eh bien, Henri Arslanian. [Charles’s 17,000+ ain’t too shabby. –Ed.]
He’s also the chairman of the Fintech Association of Hong Kong, as well as an educator, writer, and of course full-time partner at PwC. His energy and resilience are commendable. What inspires such a work ethic?
Arslanian credits his Armenian heritage. Much of his family was wiped out by the Armenian genocide perpetrated a century ago. The survivors are migrants scattered across five countries. Henri’s branch settled in Canada, where his parents instilled values of education and grit.
But the leadership qualities seem innate: he was already leading an 80-strong Boy Scout troop at the age of 10. He achieved a string of academic accolades, attended law school, and got an early offer from a leading firm. He was disappointed with actual lawyers, though, whom he felt lacked the imagination to think big. Looking to try abroad, he was hooked by a French documentary called “The Rise of the Chinese Dragon”.
Arslanian recalls telling his parents he had decided against attending the London School of Economics. “Forget the U.K., I’m off to China,” he told them. A few weeks later he was in Beijing to study Mandarin, which led him to enrol at Tsinghua University for a degree in Chinese law.
But turning that into a vocation proved tricky, and Arslanian found himself back in Montreal, finishing his formal law training in Canada but itching for a route back to Asia. A good fencer in high school, Arslanian was discovered by the Canadian Olympic Committee, which needed former athletes who spoke Chinese and could navigate Beijing…for the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008.
He juggled everything and ended up invited to walk with the Canadian athletes during the closing ceremony as a thank-you for his help.
Full legal credentials in hand, Arslanian landed a legal job at a local firm, servicing hedge fund clients, before joining UBS. There he discovered the disconnect between banks and the emerging world of fintech.
He developed a personal fascination with Bitcoin, which led to an immersion in crypto-currencies, although not on behalf of his employer. Arslanian’s gateway was reading a news story about Gatecoin, a now-defunct crypto broker founded in Hong Kong by Aurelien Menant. Arslanian asked to meet the founder for a coffee, and soon found himself booking Menant for speaking gigs.
The Mt. Gox scandal then erupted. “I thought that Bitcoin would never recover,” Arslanian recalls. But he was hooked on fintech and the future of finance.
By 2014 he was organizing private fintech dinners for likeminded souls. Attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, he got the idea of turning the dinner community into one based on a WhatsApp group (called “Fintech Afficionados” – Arslanian is not one to turn away a good cigar).
These personal efforts at rallying a community around fintech and crypto became institutionalized when he joined PwC as its fintech lead in 2016. The next year he successfully lobbied the firm to also establish a formal crypto practice, making it the first Big Four house to advise on a Hong Kong initial coin offering (ICO). The team is now global.
“I tell clients, we are not blockchain experts. You should run away away from anyone who tells you they’re an expert. But we’ll take care of the boring stuff around crypto, like accounting, tax, regulations and governance.”
Backed with the buzz of being the first Big Four to accept a payment in bitcoin, Arslanian was named by the firm its 2017 “Game Changer”.
He says now: “The impact of a Big Four entering is big because it brings legitimacy to the blockchain industry.”
His push seems to have been vindicated on business terms, with PwC now counting some of the world’s biggest banks and Big Tech companies as new sources of advisory work.
What’s next? Arslanian says the the entry of central banks generates buzz, but the most exciting development in 2020 will be M&A, as banks, exchanges and big-tech companies decide how to enter the emerging market for digital assets. They will be acquiring or combining capabilities in custody, facilitation, trading, and compliance, among others.
And Hong Kong will be a hotbed of such activity, says Arslanian. “The city is well known for its grassroots entrepreneurship, and that is exactly how the blockchain industry grew.”
Yet I suggest that the industry can feel very stop-start here. A step forward and then a half-step back.
“Hong Kong has never been good at marketing,” Arslanian says. “Many people don’t even know of all the blockchain activity here, and this is why media and P.R. is essential.”
Indeed, the story of the Arslanian family over the past century is a reminder that we are lucky to live in this part of the world. Blockchain and digital assets mean different things in different places, but the use cases emerging, from Hong Kong to the region’s emerging markets, are promising.
I ask Arslanian a final question about his dream for the industry.
“I secretly dream that we discover who Satoshi Nakamoto is while he or she is still alive,” Arslanian says. “It’s definitely a Nobel Prize winner. But,” he cautions as we make our exit, “the Nobel committee does not award the prize posthumously.”
- Carmel Road, Stanley
- 3x black coffees
- 2 orange juices
- 1x granola
- 1x extra fruits
- 1x extra yogurt
- Total: HKD374
Block Kong Breakfast: Chapman, Madden & Lo, BC Group
“We were all convinced this technology was the future.”
Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy.
As I make my way to Star Street in the busy but gritty neighborhood of Wan Chai, I feel privileged. Three of the busiest crypto entrepreneurs in Hong Kong have synced their agenda to have breakfast with me.
I arrive at Oolaa Petite, in one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods, a mini village of restaurants and cafes situated halfway between Wan Chai’s notorious red-light streets (themselves now full of hipster co-working spaces) and the corporate institutions of Admiralty.
Dave Chapman, Hugh Madden and Ken Lo are not surprised to meet me: they are very surprised to be at the same table together, however. Their travel schedules mean the three co-founders of BC Group are rarely in the same place at the same time.
After some chitchat, we order.
Wow. A “Full English”, four-egg omelets, even a steak!…These fellows will be fueled for the day.
I go for a smoothie. Don’t judge me.
The business these three have created is now a Hong Kong-listed company. But the trio has been at the heart of the local digital-assets industry since its early days.
BC Group is best known for its subsidiary brand OSL, an over-the-counter digital assets brokerage for institutional clients. But it also runs an exchange (ANXOne), a technology vending business, and insured custody. Its roughly 150 employees working in offices throughout the region, including mainland China, Singapore, the Philippines – and Mexico, making this now a truly Pacific-spanning operation.
The story begins in 2013, when Ken Lo was head of compliance at BT Global Services (aka British Telecom). In his spare time, he traded bitcoin via LocalBitcoins, a peer-to-peer marketplace.
“It was a fun way to meet likeminded bitcoiners,” he says.
That’s where he met Hugh Madden, then a forex I.T. architect at HSBC. Their initial contact was a dispute over the pricing of a trade. But instead of fighting, they got along and kept in touch.
At the time Madden was working alongside Chapman, who ran a chunk of HSBC’s technology group focused on client onboarding.
All three of them were tired of corporate life and were looking for new opportunities. They ended up combing forces.
“From risk perspective, our venture didn’t necessarily make perfect sense,” Madden says. “But we were all convinced this technology was the future.”
Perhaps because “Chapman, Madden & Lo” sounds too much like a 1970s prog-rock or jazz-fusion band, they decided to call their first venture “Asia NexGen”, or ANX.
ANX launched that year as a retail-oriented crypto exchange. In January 2014, it distributed red envelopes of “lucky money”, a longstanding Chinese New Year’s tradition, with vouchers for HK$10 worth of bitcoin (or US$1.2, when bitcoin traded close to US$1,000 – those vouchers would be worth about HK$80 today, not bad!).
They followed up the next month by launching the first bitcoin ATM in Asia, which they called the “liberty teller”.
Their feat was overshadowed by the collapse of Mt. Gox, a Tokyo-based crypto exchange that went bust the same week. Even so, the trio regarded the ATM as a success, with people queuing. The ATMs enabled self-KYC and converted cash into bitcoin.
This led to a bit of strutting. “We were the O.G.,” says Chapman, who notes the ATM was quickly followed by not just an Asia-first, but a world-first, with the issuance of a crypto debt card that summer.
I do not know what “O.G.” is, however.
Again, do not judge me.
[“Original Gangster”, name of an Ice-T album from 1991, denoting someone with old-school authenticity. Word. –Ed.]
It was Madden, the business’s main tech lead, who pushed the trio towards the institutional market. He realized the technology they had built could be sold on a white-label basis to other exchanges or brokers. ANX was also beginning to aggregate liquidity with likeminded players in other markets. And institutional business promised higher margins.
More importantly was diversification, a strategy that proved itself in the 2018 “crypto winter”. (This is slang I know.) Offering both markets and products to retail and institutions allowed ANX to keep its head above water while many other crypto players drowned.
Even before that, however, the trio was looking at all sorts of ways to grow the crypto ecosystem. Among their projects was a foundation, OAX, created in the middle of the ICO boom in 2016. This non-profit group was funded via Hong Kong’s first token sale.
The project – I know this very well – aims to offer exchanges and the broader community a trustless decentralized exchange (DEX) with Layer 2 capabilities allowing high performance, with up to 1,000 transactions per second.
Ha, now who is the O.G.? I am so crypto gangster I almost forget to finish my smoothie.
It was Chapman who led a revamp of the entire wholesale business by launching Octagon Strategy in 2016, an OTC trading desk for institutional and wealthy clients. With legitimate formal banking arrangements in place – no mean feat for a crypto business – and minimum trading ticket sizes of US$100,000, Octagon blasted off. Riding the crypto boom of 2017, by December that year the business facilitated turnover in crypto equivalent to US$1.5 billion.
Using the capital and the momentum from that success, the founders and their strategic investment partners acquired a controlling stake in a main board-listed business on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, BC Technology Group (aka BC Group). BC Group now offers institutional brokerage and exchange services. Its flagship brokerage business is known as OSL, a division now led by Wayne Trench, a former head of electronic trading at Morgan Stanley.
Since then other big players in Hong Kong’s cryptosphere, including Huobi and OKEx, have also found their way to becoming listed entities.
Despite the 2018 downturn, BC Group has continued to add new hires, if not in a straight line. With about 150 employees, it is no longer a hip startup. It is on its way to becoming a small or medium-sized company. Is this hard?
“Now that the company is established, it’s easier to attract talent and compete with deep-pocketed banks,” Lo says. “Having blockchain experience in your resume has become attractive.”
Much of that hiring is going to helping BC Group bring institutional standards and regulatory legitimacy to the young crypto industry. Speaking with the founders, I see an exciting dash to M&A, consolidation, and new business ventures. The game is on and the bases are loaded…
I am out of smoothie but my guests are still keen to chat.
The two hot acronyms right now are FATF and STO. I know this one! The Financial Action Task Force – or, if I may, Groupe d’action financière, or GAF, a far more eloquent acronym but your French accent must be très bon – is an intergovernmental organization to combat money laundering and terrorism financing.
FATF is considering a “travel rule” to be implemented by its 37 member countries. Madden is very engaged with this, as it means the beginning of harmonizing a regulatory framework for digital assets.
“Japan turnover rose 480% the same year as regulation there began,” he says. “Regulations are catalysts.”
Chapman adds: “STO [securities token offerings] and regulated digital assets are next. We’re getting ready to operate under regulations around this new asset class.”
The trio has notched impressive accomplishments in a short period of time. But the founders remain humble and committed to the local crypto community. They are active participants in groups like the Fintech Association of Hong Kong, where Madden is co-chair of the blockchain committee, and the Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong.
“Industry engagement through associations is incredibly hard,” Madden says. “You can’t hire to get it. It has to be done by senior members of the company.”
We conclude with a turn back to the ordinary: Madden coaches a rugby team, Chapman is training for a triathlon, and Ken will spend the weekend relaxing. It is a satisfactory ending for pioneers in an industry that is meant, ultimately, to become part of our normal lives.
- 9 Star Street, Wan Chai
- Latte x2
- English Breakfast x1
- Fluffy 4-Egg Omelet x2
- Steak & Sweet Mash x1
- Avocado x1
- Sausage x1
- Bacon x1
- Healthy Smoothies 😉 x1
- Black Coffee x1
- Total HK$1,011 (US$129.62)
- Paid by credit card
Block Kong Breakfast: Angie Lau, Forkast.News
“The best teams are about talent, not about quotas.”
Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy.
I would have lost an Ether if I had bet on where my Block Kong Breakfast with a former Bloomberg T.V. anchor would take place.
On my way to Gage Street, I was dreaming of a hipster cafe, with an infinite choice of soymilk latte, avocados on toast, and chia-seed yogurt.
Instead, Angie Lau suggested Lan Fong Yuen. It is a true taste of the city’s canteens, offering classic beverages and typical “everyday” food. It’s been around since 1952, and the main entrance is still hidden between a teashop and vegetable stand.
When I enter Lan Fong Yuen, the manager seems to know why I am here. He guides me directly to the table where Lau is already sitting.
Lau is a Hong Kong native but moved to Canada when she was two years old. After studying journalism in Toronto, she started her career at CBS News and came back in Hong Kong in 2011 as one of Bloomberg’s global anchors.
More recently she is part of a wave of high-profile people in Hong Kong business and finance moving into the blockchain industry. It wasn’t a direct leap from Bloomberg, however: after 20 years as a journalist, she first joined the Li Ka-shing Foundation. Then she co-founded her own business, Forkast.News, with the aim of connecting the techies in blockchain with the general public.
Was she crazy leaving behind the fame and prestige of being a Bloomberg anchor to jump onto the entrepreneurial rollercoaster – sugar-topped with a blockchain focus?
I am now well acquainted with Yuenyeung tea, having been introduced to it by another Block Kong interviewee, and I find I have developed a taste for this tea-milk-coffee confection.
We order two French toasts and two Yeunyeung teas. There is nothing particularly French about this toast, which is another local Cantonese creation, but delicious nonetheless.
Lau says the move is not so crazy today, but would not have made sense a few years ago, when being a T.V. anchor was indeed a big deal. Not so long ago, traditional media was respected and credible.
The constant erosion of resources for newsrooms meant reporters had to prioritize pumping out lots of stories. “Journalists get less and less time to understand more and more things,” Lau says. As a result, the media has become just another bystander and is no longer central to the conversation.
She hopes to use specialization to create something different. Her journey to the industry began when she was asked to moderate a panel on blockchain. Lau told the organizer she wasn’t familiar with the topic. “The said that was okay,” she says. “So I spent the next 48 hours doing a deep dive.”
She’s still diving, hoping with Forkast to bring more knowledgeable journalism to an industry where media is either too techie, or too superficial.
Along the way, the concept of the “media platform” needs rethinking. “The content is the platform, not the tech,” Lau says. One thing that has surprised her is that the audience is willing to go on long journeys with her. The general wisdom in media these days is that everything has to be snappy: if it can’t be stated in 140 characters, then it’s not worth saying. But Lau says the long-form videos and podcasts, of up to 30 minutes, are the most-consumed content on Forkast.
I order my second Yeunyeung, although Lau declines to join me. I ask her about conflicts of interest, how she handles interviewing people who also own a lot of the same cryptocurrency they’re working on . “I’ve been trained and live by our journalism ethics code,” she says. “What people really ask for is trust.”
What does she make of businesspeople, often very successful ones, entering the blockchain industry? She reckons it will eventually help reform the traditional world. “People coming from the traditional space to blockchain know the system well enough to renovate it” using the new technology.
One big difference, though, is the informality of a nascent industry: “I don’t see people with titles. I love that. In blockchain, you don’t speak to titles; you speak to people.”
I am starting to feel like I’m a T.V. show. Maybe it’s Lau, or maybe it’s this second Yuenyeung. I ask her about women in blockchain. She says 25% of her audience is female. The challenge for women in tech is not new, but she has encountered plenty of women building businesses in blockchain. “The best teams are about talent, not about quotas,” she says.
We’re about to go and I remember to ask why she chose to have breakfast at Lan Fong Yuen. Some years ago she conducted an interview here with Mark Mobius, the legendary emerging-markets investor. Mobius made such settings the routine of his visits to cities around the world: hit the street, go shopping, and eat locally. It tells you a lot about the local economy.
What it tells me is that Hong Kong remains very much a cash-based place. As I’m settling the bill, I notice the cashier has patiently laid chains of coins from all her spare change. Lau, who has an instinct for pictures, tells me to take a photo.
Lan Fong Yuen
- 2 Gage Street, Central
- French toast, x2
- Yuenyeung tea, x3
- Total: HK$124
- Paid with cash