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Leveraging fintech during the COVID crisis

IbyIMD+Published 5 May 2021 in Finance • 5 min read

PayPal’s regional boss Aaron Wong draws comfort from fellow MBAs in tough times

Aaron Wong had just started as chief executive of PayPal in Singapore when COVID-19 struck. Within weeks, the 45-year-old IMD MBA ’06 found himself confronted with the task of transitioning employees to a fully remote working arrangement in a seamless manner and foreign travel trickling to a halt-all amid a surge in ecommerce as consumers bought ever more online.

“We were constantly having to move our operations around as it was affected by country lockdowns,” recalls the genial Malaysian graduate. “I had quite a lot on my plate, to say the least. Our teams were working from home and dealing with rather unusual circumstances. At the same time, we saw an increase in online transactions as countries moved into lockdowns and public activity was restricted.”

To cap it all was the constant risk of fraud. Few know it, but every PayPal transaction is backed by layers of anti-fraud protection. With business soaring, the need for security rocketed.

“We saw some interesting developments. With the lockdowns, travel stopped. We saw the rise of a new customer segment which we called the ‘Silver Tech’ generation. These were consumers in the age group 50-70 years who were using digital for the first time. The need to focus on customer education was hence critical as they experimented with QR codes, etc.”

“I knew finance, but I didn’t have a background in fintech, ”says Wong, who graduated in Banking and Finance at the University of South Australia before continuing to qualify as a Certified Practising Accountant. “‘Don’t worry, you’ll learn’, said my boss – equally unaware of the massive turbulence the pandemic would bring.”

A different background

Until joining PayPal in early 2019, Wong had spent his entire career in traditional finance. He started at auto components and services group Johnson Controls in the US and Germany, before moving for more than a decade to GE, where he was employed across Asia, culminating as group Chief Financial Officer for Asean. “I’ve lived in 10 cities around the world and speak five languages, ”he says.

“I told my PayPal recruiter: ‘I’m finance-trained, not fintech’. But I was reassured it was a corporate job, with a primarily supervisory function and line specialists for the operational and technical sides.”

Singapore is, in fact, a nerve center for the global payments group. While a handful of big markets, such as Europe, are controlled from regional hubs, the city state is responsible for not just Asia, but also dozens of smaller markets that don’t slot into the regional structure.

“PayPal operates in about 200 markets, and Singapore being the international headquarters made me quite nervous. ‘I’m going to sit in Singapore and manage the world!”

Making the most of your network

When the crisis hit, Wong had to react fast: “We effectively had to shut the office for an entire year. People were working from home, getting very stressed and missing the traditional human contact of office life. I’ve always had a very people–centric management style. I believe firmly in being a ‘servant leader’. So I thought: What can I do? especially considering I was fresh in the job and barely knew some of my teams.”

“I started inviting colleagues to dinner at home on Friday nights, with my wife kindly cooking. The more relaxed atmosphere encouraged people to discuss their problems – and helped me to gain awareness of our challenges. Being people-centric has been absolutely essential.”

That mentality may have come from his background. Wong’s father was a schoolteacher, and he himself is passionate about volunteering and lifelong learning. “I was regional head of GE Volunteers, and I now head APAC Community Impact here at PayPal. My emphasis is on education, and I even do some teaching and mentoring myself (including mentoring a current IMD MBA student).”

Lifelong learning is a central part of PayPal’s employee-centric culture, which seeks to be supportive of its staff and collaborate in their career development. And democratizing learning is a key theme for Wong personally.

But who helped the boss himself during the crisis? “Our MBA class was relatively small, with just 90 students, and we’ve stayed in touch via WhatsApp groups. My group was heaven. You’d feel you were not alone dealing with the crisis and all the issues. The others had just the same problems. So we would exchange ideas and compare notes. It was a huge help.”

“Even 15 years after graduation, it’s still a very closely knit group. The seven of us who’re based in Singapore also meet regularly.”

Normality returning

With Singapore having mastered the pandemic relatively well and life inching back to normal, Wong has more time now for the future. “Fintech and Asia are very exciting,” he reflects. Regional markets still have immense scope to expand ecommerce further. And new technology shows no sign of easing up: “We see installment products and the rise of crypto as the two emerging segments in fintech.”

“The advent of new technology is very exciting, especially for the potential it offers for fraud protection. Cross-country checks can be done in just seconds. The technology allows us to do so many new things.”

Does he ever regret moving out of conventional finance into fintech? “No, not at all.”


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