Investing in a digital future: Travelex’s game-changing transformation

Investing in a digital future: Travelex’s game-changing transformation

Hans van der Waal, Global Head of IT, Travelex, discusses the company’s Digital Transformation journey – specifically the opportunities and challenges it is facing in its move away from legacy systems – and how it is focused on becoming a more digital-first company.

Travelex is the world’s leading foreign exchange company, with more than 1,100 stores and 900 ATMs in over 20 counties. In addition to its retail operations, the company also provides wholesale banknotes to around 200 financial institutions and Central Banks worldwide, representing approximately 25% of global market share.

The digital infrastructure underpinning Travelex’s global operations – from automated AML checks and frontline retail transaction systems to data storage, live exchange rates and remittance services – are vast. Yet until a few years ago, much of this infrastructure was based on outdated legacy systems.

Today, Travelex is embarking upon an ambitious Digital Transformation programme as it shifts away from a primarily bricks-and-mortar business towards a more digital-first company. This programme is transforming both backend operational systems, including a comprehensive migration to AWS and O365, as well as frontline retail services and products for customers, including new consumer ATM, card and app offerings. As a result, Travelex is becoming a more functional, stable, innovative and exciting business, both for its 5,000+ staff and millions of customers.

Hans van der Waal, Global Head of IT, Travelex, discusses the digital infrastructure which underpins the company’s global operations, as well as offering further insight into its Digital Transformation journey.

Can you explain your role at the company and what this looks like day-to-day?

I am the Global IT Director and a member of the Executive Committee at Travelex.

IT is full stack – ranging from strategy, architecture and design, data and security to engineering, hosting, service management and EUC. My role covers a whole range of responsibilities such as – thinking about the direction of the company from a tech perspective, ‘keeping the lights on’ – ensuring the engines are running in the background and looking after tech risk management and security aspects.

Day to day, I probably spend 25% of my time on strategy execution: what is coming next, are we prepared for different scenarios, and what are our strengths and weaknesses. The other 75% is focused on people and process – delivery of change, budgets, planning, issues and incidents, comms, talent management.

As a global representative, what specific trends are you noticing worldwide and how do these differ?

The key trend we are seeing is on the staffing side, which is a positive effect of globalisation. Today our team can work anywhere, with anyone and good coding skills are no longer limited to locations like London, Amsterdam or Berlin. We are finding these skills in Eastern Europe, East Asia, India, Africa and South America too.

Hiring staff is still competitive, but we are fortunate in that we have a very strong brand. Ultimately it is our brand that makes our business, which is the sum of its parts including the tech. Our brand means we are able to attract top talent.

As the world’s leading foreign exchange company, what are some of your business goals and how does technology help to achieve these?

Post-pandemic, one of our key business goals has been to financially recover and retain our margins. Part of our recovery has focused on speed to market and adaptability, the ability to deliver projects quickly and flexibly, and the need to be agile and adapt to circumstances around us.

Being faster and better able to adapt is an area that my team and I can make a real difference to, and is where we spend most of our time now.

What does your Business Continuity plan look like and how integral is this to ensuring smooth and seamless operations?

Travelex’s Business Continuity Management (BCM) reflects the group’s continuing commitment to the implementation of resilient business processes, technologies and backup solutions aligned to global policy and standard.

We also build resilience into our tech stack, so if something goes down, we can respond. The type of Disaster Recovery response is based on the risk and criticality of the asset, so that if something does go down, for example, we can instantly switch to another location to keep the business running. If something is less critical, we can spin up a Disaster Recovery environment which enables us to address the issue within the required timeframe.

If, hypothetically, we were to lose a working location, or for whatever reason people can’t reach an office, we have Business Continuity locations that staff can travel to. Plus, many staff can now work remotely which is a major benefit.  

Can you tell us more about the digital infrastructure which underpins Travelex’s global operations?

Currently, we have a hybrid setup. Traditionally, we’ve operated own-brand, self-managed data centres with a self-managed network, with most of the applications running on a client server-type of architecture.

For the last five or six years, Travelex has been undertaking a modernisation and transformation journey that is moving us towards the cloud. Most of our enterprise applications are now cloud hosted, on our well architected cloud landing zone (IaaS). We also utilise Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) when developing cloud native services with embedded security and SRE features – as well as SaaS where we subscribe to and integrate with third party solutions.

We are constantly driving modernisation programmes to reduce our traditional network system and to increase our engagement with the cloud, thereby developing new ways of operating. As part of this, we are actively working on a data centre exit strategy from China, Australia and the UK and looking to switch to cloud-based data centres and third-party networks.

Can you outline some of the challenges and opportunities the company is facing in its Digital Transformation journey away from legacy systems?

The main challenge – as is the case for any business looking to transform – is transforming while the business is running. It’s not just keeping the lights on, but consistently being able to adjust to what the market, customer and regulator need.

This is why we are shifting away from our legacy environment, but at the same time we need to keep this legacy environment operational and aligned to the business while we move to new solutions. This is a challenge both in terms of speed of delivery but also cost.

Another challenge is keeping our internal stakeholders aligned to what we’re doing. With things moving quickly, I need to explain and ensure transparency with my colleagues on the executive committee and the organisation as a whole – what is happening and why we are doing what we are doing.

In terms of opportunities, our transformation journey is going to really help us with our cost base. Through transformation we can be much more transparent on what a product is costing, or what a certain business function is costing – and this makes strategic decision-making much easier.

Another opportunity related to transformation is that we are able to easily connect to third party solutions, because we now have a much more flexible API-based integration layer. If we see that our compliance and risk platform, for example, ought to be replaced then it’s now fairly easily to move to a different platform. We can make the changes at the perimeter, the integration layer. Years ago, that may have taken five or six years to implement.

The way our colleagues work has also benefitted the business. Thanks to transformation, people can work from anywhere and collaborate much more easily. For an international company like Travelex which has thousands of colleagues all over the world, the ability to collaborate in a more efficient way has been a game-changer.

How do you expect your Digital Transformation journey will determine you as a more functional, stable, innovative and exciting business and how will this impact your customers?

Stability is absolutely key to us. Our cloud platform and the server-oriented architecture supported by (container) orchestration technology, is offering much more scalability and optionality to tune processing, storage and connectivity workloads with the business needs. It also provides us more than ever before the ability to deploy software changes in runtime, without impacting the operation of the business.  

On the data side, transformation means we are able to move away from anonymous transactions towards a more consistent relationship with our customers. This means customers don’t have to start from scratch every time they come into our store and undertake a new transaction, which is far from the optimal customer experience. Any way that Digital Transformation can directly benefit the frontend of the business, thereby helping our customers, is a real focus for us.

How would you describe your strategy for innovation and your philosophy for success?

We are really encouraging our colleagues globally (not just in IT) to innovate, be entrepreneurial, suggest ideas and try new things. If it works, there is opportunity to scale up. If not, we move onto the next idea. And if an idea does work, it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘big’ overnight; you don’t need large projects and large programmes to develop something completely new.

Often companies invest a lot into a project only to find a year later that it didn’t work, so we are encouraging the development of lots of small new initiatives and to gradually scale up those that are successful.

What has collaboration with key stakeholders looked like for Travelex – including governments, regulators, banks, AWS and other partners?

Any transformation project means aligning with partners and it’s important that every partner is transparent with one another.

In terms of AWS and other key providers, there has been really strong collaboration. With AWS, we got the sense it really cares about us as a company – it doesn’t just care for our business, but it cares about the brand, which was a real breath of fresh air. We’ve been able to utilise its expertise and support and it has been encouraging us to make this transformation successful.

In terms of regulators, the key collaboration has been at local level. Travelex at a local level is made up of separate legal entities, each with their own statutory directors and requirements, and those directors and managers liaise with their local regulators.

How do you expect things to take shape over the rest of the year and what does the future hold for Travelex?

For Travelex, we want to continue to improve on our financial recovery, which is certainly moving in the right direction. Currently cash is the main driver of our income, but we are constantly investing in new digital solutions. Furthermore, we are also taking products that are growing and doing well and exporting them to new markets: our pre-paid Travelex Money Card will be launching in Japan and the Netherlands, for example. We are also looking at the expansion of our global footprint into new countries, not just for retail but also for our wholesale (B2B) operations.

I’m really excited about the future. Having been in the business for four years now, I can see a real shift towards future-proofing the business and agile ways of working. For a tech person, this is really exciting to be a part of. But for all of our colleagues, including my peers, it is an exciting time for the business and we are all really invested in our future and proud of who we are and what we have achieved so far.

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