Having begun as a telecommunications company, Merchantrade Asia now occupies a highly visible role in the Malaysian money services industry. As Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Zainol Zainuddin explains, the company provides a broad range of services clustered around its central business, such as International Money Transfer, Foreign Currency Exchange, Digital Payments and Wholesale Currency Business. Merchantrade has also made headlines in the digital space having successfully rolled out the country’s first ever digital remittance service and cashless payment offerings, the latest being Merchantrade Money; a multicurrency hybrid wallet offering up to 20 currency payment mode options.
With such a diverse range of services, part of Zainuddin’s role is to strategise, innovate, transform and lead the company’s technology strategies, strengthen in-house technical capabilities and build strategic technology solutions to enhance the customer experience and journey. “I spend quite a bit of time talking to our staff, figuring out technology challenges or solutions, and the types of technology we can use,” he says. “With an IT division as large as ours, there are always risks, especially when there’s a new challenge to overcome, which is completely common. The old school thought is to first look inward then manage tasks which can be detrimental to knowledge sharing. Cultivating an open communication platform is crucial to maintaining and managing people and expectations.”
That openness extends to how Merchantrade Asia builds partnerships and connections, as Zainuddin explains. “We extend our own ecosystem and corridors to strategic partners around the world. As building each corridor and partner takes time, we are aggressively exploring new ways to ensure we keep our corridors expanding fast. Technology wise, we currently connect with our partners via secured open APIs and Distributed Ledger Technology with all the security, speed and reliability that come with it.
Merchantrade firmly advocates digitalisation at its core, from its leadership to its grassroots, and this fuels Zainol’s appetite and impetus for digital transformation. Zainol considers it vital to also listen to voices from his team. “Transformation requires the establishment and communication of goals. Technology transformation can only be successful if the organisation transforms its culture. Above all, ensuring a cultural change along with a technological one should be the message being broadcasted and reinforced regularly. As leaders, we should empower people to decide how work is delivered. We need to keep the rules simple and help remove roadblocks. Let the team prioritise good outcomes for customers. If the team believes in it, we should empower that.”
With such a culture being adopted, Merchantrade has been able to implement a wide array of business and technological improvements. Some of the company’s most crucial systems, its customer facing applications, are developed internally. “Merchantrade owns a software company and most of our applications are built in-house. We have about 120 developers who build the majority of our applications under the Microsoft technology stack. Another interesting technology which we are exploring is Progressive Web App, this allows building an application that is platform agnostic. This approach helps create a consistent experience across all devices while maintaining the performance advantages of each platform and shortens delivery timeline.”
Data collection and analysis has also seen significant progress. “When I joined, we had a traditional data warehouse infrastructure,” says Zainuddin. “Sometimes, it could not provide the information that we needed. Today, we’ve adopted new technologies and architectures utilising data lakes. We’ve partnered with Abyres Enterprise Technologies, to build a big data infrastructure to facilitate data analytics with new levels of insight, which is very exciting. As for data collection, such as testimony profiles, transactional data, online footprint and social media information, there are quite a few methods of collection, whether batch or in real time via NiFi or Sqoop; through Hadoop Core; and through the use of edge components such as Hive and Spark. For analytics and data visualisation, we use Tableau to create visualisations in the form of dashboards and worksheets. We’re also looking to cloud, however there is still quite a challenge in adopting cloud-based applications at the moment, especially for financial services providers as it involves sensitive information.”
Emerging technologies such as AI are also on the horizon. “We have not embarked actively on it just yet. However, we have considered other technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) for certain operational processes which are consistent and repetitive to improve efficiency and data accuracy. It's much easier to implement RPA in workflows. The automation process is able to complete the work much more quickly and produce accurate output. In the long run, it creates higher productivity and value with lower investment. Ultimately, once we have all our information data links up, we’re definitely going into AI or machine learning very quickly.”
As CTO, Zainol’s philosophy is encapsulated by his belief that championing technology, mindset and behavioral change are paramount to attaining a competitive advantage and sustainability. The futures of fintech companies are dependent on their ability to gain customer insight, advanced analytics and digital technology to provide services that facilitate today’s ever evolving digital-savvy customers in managing their finances.
Under his stewardship, the digital future for Merchantrade heralds continued growth. “In terms of goals, we want to expand service offerings to all our customers. Our goal is to always be the financial services provider of choice. Merchantrade should be ingrained in their minds and be a force to be reckoned with for financial services globally.”