Executive interview: Richard Wazacz, CEO, Travelex

The data-savvy chief executive is rebuilding Travelex as an omnichannel, digital business after the company foundered during the pandemic

Richard Wazacz is a tech-savvy chief executive. With a strong background in digital businesses, he took up the challenge of leading foreign exchange specialist Travelex in June 2022 as the company looked to transform and grow in the post-Covid age.

As CEO of a data-rich finance business, Wazacz is interested in how technology can help organisations embrace new opportunities. To prove this point, Computer Weekly spoke with Wazacz at the recent Mesh-AI Data & AI Symposium in London, where he talked about how to build a successful enterprise data culture.

“I love technology,” he says. “I’m a chemical engineer by background. I worked as an engineer in the oil and gas industry for a while. I like to know how things work. I’m excited about technology and how it can help solve customer and business problems.”

Wazacz has put his interest in technology into practice over the past two years. Like many other CEOs, he describes himself as an entrepreneur. He inherited a company that was emerging from a challenging period – in 2020, Travelex entered administration after the Covid-19 pandemic and a significant cyber attack caused major losses. Now Wazacz is leading Travelex into new business areas and he is ensuring the company uses data as part of that transformation.

“I think of myself more as someone who likes solving problems and running a company,” he says. “Technology is crucial to that process. I like to think I’m tech-savvy and helping companies become better at being tech-savvy. I think embracing digital and data is a much more realistic way of transforming a company.”

Focusing on data

Wazacz has a track record of innovation, strategy and operations across multiple sectors. He was previously CEO of commercial real estate debt company BrickVest. Before that role, he spent six years at Octopus Energy, where he launched new fintech businesses. Wazacz has also held senior leadership positions at Lloyds Banking Group and Prudential.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked in tech companies,” he says. “As a business, you can only do a few things well. If you pretend to be a tech company, no one who understands technology will take you credibly. So, what do I want Travelex to be? I think we can be a tech-savvy company that uses technology effectively.”

I’m excited about technology and how it can help solve customer and business problems
Richard Wazacz, Travelex

Wazacz explains how this focus on forging the right corporate identity is central to his role. Travelex entered administration during the coronavirus pandemic and Wazacz was appointed CEO following a debt restructuring initiative. Rather than rebuild the pre-pandemic business, he’s launched new data-led services that are helping to boost customer experience.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “The opportunity is huge. I took the job because I believe customers need help with travel money. The brand and the distribution of this business are immense. Travelex is used by tens of millions of people every year. We estimate a billion eyeballs see our brand every year. The opportunity to distribute products that can solve customers’ travel money and problems, and eventually other travel issues, is exciting.”

Wazacz wants Travelex to focus on its core business objectives, such as running shops, moving cash around the globe and developing customer insight. As CEO, he’s leading that approach. The challenges and opportunities he finds in the role mean it’s tough to beat.

“I’m much happier working in this environment than in a big corporation,” he says. “I love the role. It’s genuinely one of the best jobs I’ve had. I’ve enjoyed proving that our brand and distribution are our crown jewels – and we’ve done that by promoting our card.”

Going digital

Wazacz says about 1% of Travelex’s sales at Heathrow Airport were made through cards when he joined the business. Today, that figure often hits 20% daily. The key to this growth has been the company’s decision to launch digital services, including a mobile app and pre-paid cards. The physical cards can be topped up and used anywhere in the world.

“Initially, our people were selling a card in 15 minutes, which took too long,” he says. “Now, they can sell a card in under five minutes. And there’s a roadmap to make it even faster. So that’s proven to me that the omnichannel approach works and it’s also proven the power of the brand and our distribution. That change has been a big success.”

“The shock the businesses went through during the pandemic makes cultural change a bit easier because we had a burning platform. For me, change is about how we use data to improve the business, making us quicker, faster and more competitive”

Richard Wazacz, Travelex

Wazacz says his team continues to look for ways to grow the pre-paid card business. The company continues to look at how it can work with new airports and business partners. He says the card is popular because it’s attached to a digital wallet and gives customers flexibility and security, unlike physical cash.

“If you lose the card, you can block it and we’ll send you a new one,” he says. “The card is on your phone with Apple and Google Pay, so you have a digital version. It’s accepted wherever anyone uses MasterCard. You can track how much you’re spending and budget effectively. And the card is flexible. When you return after travelling, you can change the money you don’t use into another currency.”

Wazacz says Mesh-AI has supported Travelex’s move to digital services. His IT team recommended the consultancy because its experts were able to demonstrate how Travelex could make the most of its data in a self-sufficient manner. The partnership has been key to helping Wazacz and his colleagues hone customer service.

“Mesh-AI helped us start building simple use cases. Now we’re looking at how our customers use the card. That work is feeding into a new CRM [customer relationship management] platform that we’re implementing. That platform will let us do more campaigns to encourage and incentivise our customers to use the card more effectively,” he says, before re-emphasising the role of data.

“The shock the businesses went through during the pandemic makes cultural change a bit easier because we had a burning platform. For me, change is about how we use data to improve the business, making us quicker, faster and more competitive.”

Embracing transformation

As well as external assistance from companies like Mesh-AI, Wazacz says his company has strong internal technology resources. The IT team maintains legacy operations and the engineering capability focuses on new digital opportunities. The company is building a tech capability aligned to products. The aim is to deliver fresh experiences to customers.

“I want Travelex to have more relationships than transactions during the next two years,” he says. “I would love us to understand our customers even better. We’ve started to understand other problems they’ve got.”

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Wazacz says his team has started to think about how the company can use its app to support new features, whether those developments are centred on helping people use mobile roaming cost-effectively or helping them get the travel insurance they need. He says the objective is to deliver services that appeal to customers in a convenient form.

“So for omnichannel, do you want to do everything with us online or on your phone? Do you like the fact you can talk to someone at the airport or would you like a hybrid approach? Some people get to the airport and want to go to a kiosk and self-serve. Other people want to talk to someone and get help. I think having a spread of options is what we need to offer,” he says.

“Having that range of services lets us be more flexible about where we position our operations. So, we can work in smaller airports where you only offer one or two of those options, or bigger airports where you offer new options we’ve not even thought of yet. Being omnichannel increases our reach and ability to help partners and customers in different ways.”

While Wazacz is keen to continue Travelex’s digital transformation, he reiterates how he sees the company as a tech-savvy user of technology rather than a pioneer of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI). “I won’t be an early adopter unless it creates a competitive differentiation,” he says.

“If I can sell cards faster, then I might invest in more innovative technology because I’ve got a cutting edge. But when we think about providing customer service more efficiently, let other people take the risk and discover how to use AI. Being tech-savvy is about using existing technology sensibly and focusing on proprietary technology where it makes a difference.”

Building teams

As an experienced business leader, Wazacz has had the opportunity during his career to lead people across a range of companies and sectors.

He says being around many talented professionals has allowed him to develop his skills: “I’ve worked with some great people – alongside them, for them, and they’ve worked for me. And I steal bits from all of them. That’s my leadership style.”

Wazacz loves building and being part of great teams. Most of all, he likes getting people together and then taking a step back so they have the space to deliver the results. “I spend a lot of time thinking about my teams, how they get on, where their strengths are, how they complement each other and evolve as teams,” he says.

“And you get these times in your career, for a short period, where you have a perfect team. But then something happens – the agenda changes and you need to change the shape of your team. Someone leaves or they get promoted. But I love the challenge of change. And I love fostering a great team.”

Wazacz advises other digital and business leaders to give their people an opportunity to create and learn: “Let your people make mistakes. Let them play, let them explore. But hold them to account and show how they’re solving a specific problem. Successful leadership is all about balance. Create a great environment but also keep the scope narrow and focused.”

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