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Block Kong Breakfast: Henri Arslanian, PwC

“I secretly dream that we discover who Satoshi Nakamoto is while he or she is still alive.”

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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.

Stanley temple

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”.

Henri Arslanian

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.

Lots of yogurt!

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”.

More coffee

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.”

Classified

  • Carmel Road, Stanley 
  • 3x black coffees
  • 2 orange juices
  • 1x granola
  • 1x extra fruits
  • 1x extra yogurt
  • Total: HKD374

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Block Kong Breakfast: Henri Arslanian, PwC