CIO interview: Hans van der Waal, director of global IT, Travelex
Travelex has weathered a storm that saw it sink into administration, before emerging to solidify its digital foundations for the future
In 2020, foreign exchange company Travelex entered administration, after the Covid-19 pandemic and a major attack by cyber criminals caused major losses. Today, it’s plotting its future, with digital technology at the core.
A combination of declining demand as the travel sector slowed during Covid-19 restrictions and the downtime and losses that resulted after the Sodinokibi cyber crime group ransomware attack put the company on the brink.
Now, with new investors, Travelex and its 350 IT professionals are on a digital transformation journey, which includes reforming its operations through cloud computing and customer-facing apps. At the same time, the company is adapting its physical presence, which it sees as vital to fit future demand.
The foreign exchange sector as a whole has seen dramatic digital transformation, with the arrival of app-based services offered by fintech startups.
Travelex has a legacy of more than 1,000 stores, a similar number of ATMs and more than 5,000 staff, as well as technology for automated anti money laundering checks, frontline retail transaction systems, data storage systems, and software to provide live exchange rates and remittance services.
Hans van der Waal, Travelex’s global IT director, who joined in March 2019, tells Computer Weekly that when he arrived there were some digital transformation projects in place which were “not entirely successful”.
He says projects lacked a compelling story, or what he described as a “North Star” signalling the company’s end goal. “This is something I started to work on when I joined,” says Van der Waal. “They weren’t doing bad things before, but it was just not communicated very well.”
In fact, the company was already planning to invest in digital and online products before the difficulties it faced in 2020.
“Since we emerged from the problems, with the support of our new shareholders and the decline of the Covid-19 pandemic, we restarted all this work,” says Van der Waal.
Critically, he says that Travelex does not want to completely “replace itself” with a digital alternative, but sees digital projects as an extension to its current presence. “We regard our presence in some of the airports and other locations as our prime assets, and the way we support customers online is an extension of this physical presence,” adds Van der Waal.
Read more about the Travelex attack
- Travelex switches off computer systems and resorts to cash-only currency sales after malware attack.
- With Travelex’s IT still in disarray and banks and travellers left without access to funds more than a week after it was hit by a ransomware attack, we ask what others can learn from its plight.
- The key lesson to take from the Travelex breach is that an effective response to a breach is a critical business function and no longer the sole province of the IT department.
But the company’s legacy tech systems did need to be replaced to support its increasingly digital future. “Legacy systems had challenges around risks and costs of maintenance and support,” says Van der Waal.
These systems included those providing data storage, point of sale functionality and fault detection. He says the business had also acquired systems over the years as it took over firms in different regions, resulting in becoming less agile and making it more difficult to do “something new”.
After a pause in much of the work during 2019, work resumed on the transformation in 2021. This included moving systems into the public cloud. “We had a self-hosted datacentre model in the past, but now we have shifted the entire estate to the cloud,” says Van der Waal.
Travelex’s enterprise systems now sit in the AWS cloud while end user computing harnesses Microsoft Office 365. The project to move to the cloud took about a year to complete, and included moving about 600 servers and about 150 applications.
On the customer side, Travelex is focused on mobile, with an app that supports its prepaid card business. Cards are loaded directly from the customer’s bank account with up to 10 different currencies. There are also online services such as click and collect, which includes the ability to order cash and collect it in stores or at ATMs.
Significant cash demand remains
Although the use of cash is declining, Travelex still sees significant demand, according to Van der Waal. “In certain markets, you see a gradual decline in the use of physical foreign exchange services with the move to mobile wallets, but this is not going super fast. “Cash is definitely not dead in the next few years,” he says. “Travellers are still looking for the convenience of having some cash in their pockets.”
But Travelex is also investing in streamlining the experience for customers looking for cash, with the development of new kiosks, which Van der Waal says “are somewhere between a branch and an ATM where a customer can make an order on-screen and pick it up at the counter”.
The physical presence is still valued by Travelex, which acquired more branches as competitors left markets when the pandemic decimated business.
Van der Waal says the company now has a solid foundation to build digital services, with infrastructure as a service established. It has also built a fully cloud-native and serverless integration layer where it integrates to third-party services through application programming interfaces.
“The foundations are there and in partnership with the business to develop digital propositions that support our presence in countries,” he says. “The transformation means we are more agile and can do this in a much faster way.”
Van der Waal believes this puts the company’s tech development teams on a similar footing to small cloud-native competitors.
One current project is seeing the company use the data mesh principles to build a cloud-based data platform on AWS offering data to different domains of the business. This is a bit like doing agile development over data rather than functionality for the customer. “We now have end users that can build their own queries and develop their own insights rather than having to go to IT for reports all the time,” he says.