Western Union, the 172-year-old global money transfer company, once had the kind of scale that startups couldn’t match, but CEO Devin McGranahan knows that’s no longer the case with new competition.
Younger rivals, such as Wise and Remitly Global, have been gaining on Western Union in terms of customer counts, McGranahan acknowledged during a presentation at an investor conference last week.
Indeed, Western Union and Remitly each have about 2.8 million monthly active users, on average, and Wise had about 2 million, the companies have said recently. Both Remitly and Wise were formed in 2011.
“I have a high degree of respect for our competitors,” McGranahan said at the Wolfe Research investor conference on March 14. He noted some of the rivals reported strong fourth-quarter financial results. “They have significantly higher retention than we do,” he said.
All of three of the companies provide worldwide money transfers, including remittances sent by migrant workers earning cash in one country and sending the money to family and friends in another. Still, the companies have different business strategies, with a digitally native approach at the younger businesses, and cater to varied segments of the market.
Rivals make inroads
Startups have been making inroads against Western Union and other legacy providers, such as MoneyGram, partly by improving the customer experience, introducing digital options, reducing the cost of transferring money and building repeat business.
Remitly CEO Matt Oppenheimer told investors at the same conference that his company is attracting customers partly by “driving friction out of our system.” The number of active Remitly customers jumped 48% in the fourth quarter to 4.2 million, pushing up revenue 41% to $191 million, according to a release on results from the Seattle-based company.
For the same period, Wise’s customer count jumped 33% to 5.8 million over the year-ago quarter, with most of the activity by individuals, though 28% for business purposes, according to a January update from the London-based company. Revenue for the quarter climbed 50% to £225.2 million (about US $274.2 million), according to a release.
“We are focused on our mission: to make moving and managing money around the world faster, more affordable and more transparent,” a spokesperson for Wise said by email when asked for a comment about the competitive landscape.
Meanwhile, Denver-based Western Union reported that its fourth-quarter transaction count dropped 12%, compared to the year-earlier quarter, likely contributing to its 15% decline in revenue for the quarter to $1.1 billion.
Western Union struggled last year
It was a “tough” year last year in light of high inflation and global economic uncertainty. McGranahan explained at the Wolfe Fintech Forum. Although Western Union’s business got a boost early on from the COVID-19 pandemic, that was followed by a drop in transactions last year, he said.
Consumer-to-consumer transactions through Western Union slumped 10% last year, compared to 2021, dragging down overall revenue 12% to $4.48 billion, according to the company’s annual filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, the company’s net income rose 13% to $910.6 million last year over 2021.
McGranahan, formerly a top executive at Fiserv before taking the CEO post at Western Union last year after being appointed in late 2021, plans to increase Western Union’s customer retention rate. The Western Union business is “resilient,” largely due to the company’s name, he said. “Ultimately, it’s the strength of the brand.”
Western Union is now back on a growth path, McGranahan and the company’s chief financial officer, Matt Cagwin, told investors at the conference. In particular, they aim to increase consumers’ use of Western Union’s digital tools. The company has begun offering discounted introductory rates to attract new customers and to draw them to more services.
“It appears heavy investments in marketing/pricing are helping to stabilize the digital business; management indicated that the number of new U.S.-outbound digital users rose 30% in the December quarter (versus +26% in the month of September),” William Blair analysts said in a research report last month following the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. “Management is encouraged by the number of customers that are completing subsequent transactions but has not provided specifics for unit economics.”
The analysts also noted that branded digital revenue fell 3% for the quarter, “driven by flat transaction,” compared to declining 8% in the third quarter of last year and 1% in the second quarter. They also noted that the company had stopped reporting figures for digital money transfer revenue that had also been declining earlier in the year, and previously made up about one-fifth of revenue, including for white-label services.
Industry outlook for acquisitions
Western Union will also be open to one-off acquisitions in various markets, depending on available targets’ capabilities, McGranahan said. The company has cash in the wake of the 2021 sale of its business solutions unit for $910 million. He didn’t specify any particular targets.
One transaction that isn’t going to happen though is any kind of combination of industry heavyweights, he said, referencing MoneyGram and Ria. “The regulators just aren’t going to let that happen,” he said.
As far as the ongoing competitive threat from upstarts, McGranahan doesn’t expect those competitors to be able to sustain the growth rate they’ve had in the past.
“Look at what my digital competitors spend for customer acquisition — it is not sustainable to build a $5 billion revenue business doing what they're doing,” the CEO said at the conference, noting that some rivals are still trying to attain profitability. “The power of what we've built over 50 to 70 years, it's super hard to replicate.”