UK Fintech Focus 2023: Expert takes
Emerging markets, career progression and hiring the best team according to Alexandru Dorobantu, Delivery Hero
In some ways, Alexandru Dorobantu’s path into payments mirrors that of the industry itself. Stumbling into his first job, he admits to not feeling inspired by what lay ahead. “I had just completed a computer science degree. I knew nothing about payments. Nobody I knew worked in it. I just presumed it would be a bit irrelevant and boring.”
Today, nothing could be further from that presumption. As Senior Director Global Payments at Delivery Hero, his team is the linchpin of a food delivery service operating in 70+ countries and serving up to 2.2 billion people. As he clocks up a decade in the profession, Alexandru has learned what other businesses also now realize; just how important payments are. “It inspires me every day,” he says.
Discovering a passion for payments
While Alexandru did not start out his career wanting to work in payments, it did not take him long to find his calling. With a computer science degree, Alexandru’s path seemed sealed as a programmer. However, his first job with Smart2Pay was in Product.
“I initially found payments quite uninspiring," he says. "In university, we were learning about Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, but payments was just about translating some API calls into other API calls. It didn't feel exciting or an area where you could forge a career."
That was nearly the end of Alexandru's path in payments. Yet a frank conversation with Smart2Pay's CTO stopped that from happening. "I told Stefan (the CTO) I wasn't excited about payments," says Alex. "His response changed my life. He spoke so passionately about why he loves payments, about the complexity, the high pace of change and about the impact, how payments is the key for commerce, globalization, and future business growth. I don't know what it was exactly, but through his passion I found my passion for payments."
Alexandru's work style was well recognized by his seniors at Smart2Pay. After an event, while drinking some beers in a bar, Stefan congratulated him for finding a problem and taking proactive action, noting that not many people do that. It was then when Alexandru discovered the secret for success in his career.
This recognition was not the only memorable moment at Smart2Pay for Alexandru. Jamie, the company's CEO, noticed him talking shamelessly with all sorts of senior people and "promoted" him to business development. “Alex, you can’t work in this dark room with the engineers. You need to be out there talking to the people!” - Alexandru remembers Jamie telling him. Despite not being a good salesman, Alexandru got exposure to all aspects of the PSP business, including product, tech, commercials, finance, support, and strategy.
This experience was the school Alexandru never even dreamed of, and it gives him an edge even today in his job.
The return of the wandering son
Alexandru joined Foodpanda in 2016 and shortly after they were acquired by DeliveryHero. The Foodpanda payments team of three, including Alex, worked on putting the basis of what is today a DeliveryHero-wide global fintech department, employing hundreds of people.
After a two year stint as a payments head for a German ecommerce company and an unsuccessful job transition into a travel startup during the pandemic—“I was fired before even starting”, he jokes—Alex returned to Delivery Hero in 2020. “One of my proudest moments was to have my old Delivery Hero colleagues, Orkhan and Emre, wanting to work with me again”
Delivery Hero is now, he says, a very different company to the one he left in 2018. “We’re operating in different economic times, with different priorities and perspectives. We are a mature company now.”
For starters, his team is bigger. Much bigger. He left when there were only 10 people in payments. Today Delivery Hero employs many more payment professionals at its head office in Berlin and around the world. And that means more capability. Alexandru leads a team which is responsible for the global payments partnerships, acceptance rate & cost per order. His relatively small team of senior payment experts lead company-wide payments projects which move key metrics on customer UX, business growth and cost efficiency.
He sees his payment role as an enabler for the business: “you can have the best app in the world, and the best restaurant selection, and the best delivery people, but if the customer can’t pay for his order, then you just have them!”
That said, Alexandru does talk about the subtle shift taking place in ecommerce, from payments as a business enabler to a business function in its own right. “You have big businesses sitting on millions of transactions…soon enough they’re going to want to make money by owning more of that payment process.”
But don’t take that as Alexandru advocating for brands to go it alone. He says the most important aspect of his job will always be choosing the right payments partner. “We will want to evolve and try new things. That’s why you need a partner that understands the unique aspects of your business, the economic conditions in your markets, and that you trust to give direction. Because having a bad partner will set you back years.”
Searching for the global
The challenges at Delivery Hero are quite complex because of the strong presence in emerging markets. Alexandru explains that, in traditional ecommerce markets like the US or Western Europe processing payments is pretty straightforward due to the many solid payment products out there. “The challenge is to enable efficient payments around the world locally, but in a global setup. You need local acquiring connections, you need local payment methods, you need local schemes and local know-how.”
He expects that the next five to ten years will see the major PSPs answer the call from merchants to make it easier to navigate each market from a single platform. “The successful PSPs will be the ones that are reaching out beyond the traditional markets and building relationships with local schemes, acquirers and regulators in countries with growth opportunities. Right now there are very few payment companies that offer truly global coverage, if any.”
The technical challenge is not really the issue, he explains. “I can send an email to Pakistan now and it reaches there in two seconds. I should be able to do the same with $10. It’s basically the same process of sending bytes. The issue is the complex legal & compliance frameworks around payments and cross-border payments that is magnified by the number of new payment methods that keep popping up.”
Firstly, there are the inherent cultural differences between countries, and then the absence of uniform regulation. The interoperability of banking systems and inconsistent standards adds more complexity. (“Imagine a single global authentication system”, he dreams.)
Then you have the trend for businesses to build their own payment wallets—he points out Rappi and Grab as two competitors doing just that. “Now imagine if TikTok built a payment app. Suddenly it’s not hard to imagine a world where the traditional card payments that we’ve grown up with just don’t exist anymore.”
Alexandru has been in payments long enough to know that brands’ ambitions and customer preferences are not the only dynamics at play. “Every new payment method comes with a whole list of questions for merchants: What data are we sharing? What is the fee structure? Who ‘owns’ the customer? Will they refuse access to some merchants?”
Such unpredictability may be anxiety inducing for some, but Alexandru is used to change. With Delivery Hero having made multiple corporate acquisitions since its launch in 2011, a major part of Alexandru’s job is working out what to do with the payments systems that are inherited. “Obviously, these companies are performing well, and are often set up to deal with ‘their’ markets better than us. So it’s about understanding where we can add value each time, be it with our technology, contacts or expertise.”
With operations in 70+ countries, conflicting priorities are inevitable, he says. As a rule, he optimizes for the highest return on investment. But that is not simply a case of focussing on the big revenue markets. “I’m always looking at where we have the most potential for growth,” he says.
Leading by caring
Alexandru is keenly aware that he must personally evolve as his profession does.
One of the challenges he’s facing is reconciling his unremarkable upbringing & his mediocre dreams with his current situation. “I could never dream of being here when I was a kid!”.
Growing out of insecurity and constant impostor syndrome, he says he “stopped trying to be the smartest in the room. Now I try to be the most helpful.” Though he admits, trying to be helpful instead of smart is not always coming naturally, yet.
Alex has a distinct leadership style focused on openness, trust and caring. “I’ve found that people are most productive when they are engaged, motivated and capable of doing their work. The fact is, people care about themselves most (which is normal), so I spend a large part of my time thinking about how to put my team in a position to succeed, personally and as a team. Much effort goes into understanding & aligning the interests of the people with the interests of the company.”
He talks about authenticity & vulnerability and how this is essential to building trust within the team. “In the end, we’re all people and as different as we are, we’re still quite similar.” He loves to joke, laugh and make fun. “When I laugh, people feel permission to laugh. This makes the work environment and collaboration better - we’re all just people and we need to work as a team!”
He doesn’t like the trope of always hiring people smarter than you; not because it’s wrong, but because it’s difficult. “It's very hard to figure out if somebody's smart or not in an interview. Instead, I look for people who I like, who have values I care about. Since we’re anyway going to spend most of our time together, we might as well enjoy it..”
If that sounds trite, Alexandru has the proof it isn’t. Happiness is a big factor in productivity, he cites. It also makes career progression easier, when “you are part of a group of people where everyone is investing in everyone else’s success.” Most of his friends are colleagues, present and past. A good night out for Alex means talking about Payments with his friends
You get the impression that caring comes naturally to Alexandru. Composure, however, is something he has had to grow into. “Caring too much is also not helpful. I remember several times when I started crying at work because my projects were not getting the attention/resources needed, or times where I was disrespectful to people for work reasons.”
He is equally disarming in dealing with conflicts. “If there's an elephant in the room, I'll open with that. Most times, after the awkward moment of surprise, you see the relief in people. It’s like giving them permission to have their say. And once everything is out in the open, you can move forward.”
Where ‘forward’ will take Alexandru over his next decade in payments is to be seen. One thing seems certain though. He will be right at the center of the profession. It is too deep in his DNA to imagine anything else. Quite a change from the young graduate who thought payments would be boring!
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