We talked to Tomasz Borowski, cofounder and CEO at Flow about transforming the business of unsecured consumer finance through AI technologies and ethical practices in Asia. Here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Tomasz Borowski: In essence, this year is all about rapidly evolving circumstances, and everyone cautiously adjusting to them. Thankfully, the pandemic situation in Singapore is relatively well-controlled, so my family and I are doing well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Flow.
Tomasz Borowski: I started my career in GE Capital in my home country, Poland, and then in Ukraine as COO/Deputy CEO in a bank before starting Flow. Growing non-performing loans (NPLs) are the natural consequence of a boom in consumer lending. Especially after the 2008 financial crisis, issues plagued by growing NPL triggered the dire need for professional CMS (Credit Management Services) companies, which were able to help lenders improve the quality of their loan portfolios.
The idea came to my mind in 2015 when I got back in touch with my friends and cofounders of Flow – Grygorii Krasnov and Peter Barcak. We looked closer at Southeast Asia, where we saw a very brutal, inefficient, and people-driven Collection market – a clear indication of the very early stage of CMS business. I remember how the market in Central and East Europe evolved into a professional, ethical, and highly efficient business: the pattern is the same all over the world. I decided to utilize my 13+ years’ experience in risk management and operations and accelerate the transformation of the collection market in this part of the world.
The issue is similar around the world: there is always a group of borrowers that do not repay their debts. There might be different reasons for delinquency, different methods of collecting the money, or different local regulations, but the problem and the cure are always the same: improve risk management on the lender side and financial literacy of borrowers on the Clients side. We are happy to educate the borrowers and explain to them the importance of fulfilling their financial obligations as well as their rights as consumers.
How does Flow innovate?
Tomasz Borowski: In Asia, debt collection has a negative connotation. Even if a few countries have evolved beyond the brute-force method, the industry is highly field collection focused, manual, and inefficient. This sharply contrasts with a bulk of the debt collection in the western world, which has evolved to be more ethical, tech-driven, and personalized.
This is where we intend to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the players in the Asian market. Our experience of debt collection in Eastern Europe has shown us what works and what doesn’t. Our focus will continue to be on ethical treatment of borrowers, responsible collections, automation of collection operations for higher efficiency and scalability, and developing AI models in our platform to have personalized arguments for individual borrowers to drive better recovery.
Our platform allows us to minimize human impact on collection process execution. Collection strategies based on incorporated rules (logical expressions) re-distribute all cases in the portfolio among different collection actions. The predictive autodialler and CRM system enable automatic calling along with complete information about the borrower, his debts, and history of interactions, promises, and payments on the operator’s interface to let him/her instantly be ready for the conversation. The dynamic call script makes suggestions for further questions and phrases to the borrower based on previous answers. The system also has dynamic Voice Text conversion, Automatic Speech Recognition covering 100% of conversations.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Tomasz Borowski: Having a countercyclical business model, the pandemic would be providing our company’s growth quite strong tailwinds. But going back to the beginning of this crisis, the human toll it took along with the fear we had for employee health safety and operational nightmares we had to deal with was definitely one of the hardest periods in our history. I believe every department played its part to ensure the continual smooth functioning of the business – from reaching out proactively to partners to keep them abreast of the ever-changing situation to operators working from home.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Tomasz Borowski: At the start of lockdown in our operating countries, we were less persistent on the recovery rate and more focused on helping our borrowers, identifying the cases which could eventually make the payment, and provided the most optimal payment solutions until they are physically able to make the payments. We also reduced the intensity of contacting the borrowers and had to abide by the added regulations due to the pandemic.
With teams in different countries is extremely challenging for any business – especially across the Asian region, given the distinct cultures and values each country’s nationals have. I personally feel having the base level of checks and balances to ensure a certain amount of control and evaluation metrics are achievable from the centre, but at the same time, it is equally important to ensure a large enough sandbox is provided that doesn’t stifle the creativity and drive of an individual.
How do you project yourself and Flow in the future?
Tomasz Borowski: The foundation for our collection services and NPL portfolio purchasing business is our proprietary collections platform. It allows us to minimize human impact on collection process execution. We will focus on building it better for more efficient recovery.
While our focus will be on our core markets, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, we shall venture into other markets opportunistically in the short to medium term. In the past, we have received reverse enquiries to set up operations in Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Also, in an interesting turn of events, Covid has forced many lenders to rethink their collection plans. Given the physical distancing rules in place pretty much across every country, one can hope the field collection mode of recoveries will go the way of dinosaurs.
In Flow, we believe this is just the initial innings wherein the stress that lenders will suffer on their balance sheet will be spiking higher. Hence, they will look for avenues to clean up the bad debt by selling these NPL’s to players in the market – especially ethical ones to ensure they don’t destroy their brand reputation. Our company is well-positioned for the massive deleveraging of debt portfolios and have started addressing this with stakeholders in the markets.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Tomasz Borowski: Most of our competition are traditional smaller debt collection agencies. Some of the larger, more contemporary players in the space are MBA and Collectors.
We currently have operations in three markets, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, where we have partnerships with 40-50 banks, multi-finance companies, and selected ethical lenders. Many of these relationships are in place in the past 3 years, and many are tier 1 institutions and large players in the market. At Flow, our focus on ethical treatment of borrowers, emphasis on data insights, AI-driven automation, and champion challenger collection strategies gives us a distinct advantage. It helps to mitigate many of the financial literacy and collection-related challenges facing Indonesia and other Asian countries.
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