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Behind the brand: Caxton, the pioneering payment and foreign exchange firm

The stories you don't know about some of the world's best and little-known brands

Payments fintech Caxton was one of five early players. Photo: Caxton
Payments fintech Caxton was one of five early players. Photo: Caxton

Nearly 20 years ago, one of Caxton’s first customers — still with the payment platform today — was attempting to buy a plot of land in France. Caxton had duly wired the money to the right account but the French bank had lost the cash.

“He was getting more irate with us, so I hopped on a plane with a letter of credit and met him and his solicitor,” recalls Rupert Lee-Browne, Caxton’s founder and CEO. “It was important that he completed on the property and we had the power to do something about it.”

While he wouldn’t encourage his current staff to fly with cheques, Lee-Browne’s decision to travel, he says, sums up how Caxton treats its customers today, a business which now turns over £1bn of customer funds and deals with tens of millions of transactions annually.

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The payments and foreign exchange market was dominated by banks before Caxton came onto the scene. However a gap in legislation, which allowed non-banks to sell foreign currency, saw Caxton become one of five competitors in the early days, compared to the thousands in today’s global space.

“We saw a niche and took advantage of it,” says Lee-Browne. “Back then consumers had to go into a bank branch to buy currency, sending it was painful and you never knew if it would get there. It was an obvious service that was right for change.”

Lee-Browne admits it was a tough task to raise money for such a new concept. More so when he couldn’t find a bank to deal with Caxton, which it needed as a payment facilitator alongside a trading line to buy currency.

20-year-old fintech Caxton was founded by Rupert Lee-Browne with £25000 capital. Photo: Caxton
20-year-old fintech Caxton was founded by Rupert Lee-Browne with £25,000 capital. Photo: Caxton

Lee-Browne says he knocked on the doors of 42 banks and was close to calling it quits. “If the 43rd went the same way then it told me something that it wouldn’t be possible,” he recalls.

That bank ultimately opened the door for Caxton and Lee-Browne was able to start out with £25,000 capital in 2002, along with a telephone, borrowed fax machine, a slow laptop and an ad on Google. Twenty minutes later the phone rang.

“The old Churchill mantra of never giving up was on my mind at that time,” he admits. “If you look at the last 10 years, there is a production line that enables businesses to start up. You have every help under the sun that your investors will give you. Back then we were experimenting on everything but it was obvious there was a demand.”

Around 15 years ago, he would field calls from customers requesting travel cash. Lee-Browne was hesitant on the idea but the concept of the first prepaid travel card was formed.

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"It’s hard to believe now, but there was no mechanism for buying currency online and sending it automatically. People had to send us cheques or a bank transfer," he says. Again, Caxton pioneered a platform to buy and send currency. Meanwhile in the business space, they also produced an expense management card for clients.

When it comes to his thoughts on the rise of the challenger banks, Lee-Browne answers his own question. “What’s the point of a Caxton, a smaller player in a market where the Revoluts, Monzos and Starlings can dominate the market?” he says.

“What challengers like Revolut have done is extraordinary. But they chose a model that I wasn’t interested in following. That was to raise a lot of money from investors, don’t worry about profit, it’s growth at all costs and real money comes when a sale or exit happens.

Caxton has grown to nearly 100 employees, with a full suite payments business and own patented API. Photo: Caxton
Caxton has grown to nearly 100 employees, with a full suite payments business and own patented API. Photo: Caxton

“The answer from my perspective is customer choice, who want different things. What we have is a growing customer base and the desire to fix things when things go wrong. We go to extraordinary lengths in customer service, which isn’t possible if you are a large organisation.”

Meanwhile Caxton, named after a street near Shepherd's Bush where Lee-Browne lived as a student, has grown to a nearly 100-strong workforce and the founder meets every new starter.

“I talk about their journey as much as ours. We are one part of their journey but if we can help them along in the whole of their journey in life, whether they are working for us or not.”

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The pandemic also saw a shift with Caxton’s workforce, from 8-5 to a hybrid business, saving 37,000 man hours annually on commutes which the business gives back to the team.

“The whole thing about office life doesn’t suit all. We have a great team now which probably we wouldn't have because of the flexible, hybrid nature of what we do," says Lee-Browne. "We just measure things in a different way and that comes full circle to wanting Caxton to be one part of the journey for our colleagues.

“As a leader I need to be excited to get up in the morning. After 20 years of doing this, enabling people on their journey is a massive one — it’s a good feeling.”

Behind the brand: Caxton CEO and founder on…

How to be a leader

I was taking people along with me, or even trying to push them. That level of energy I was putting into the business was infectious. As the business matured, a different type of leadership was required. It’s about developing the individuals so they are making decisions that are inline with the overall values of the business. If you can achieve that, it's a phenomenal piece of leadership.

Customer service

It was all about making life easier for our customers, getting what they want, with good value and that they trust you. It’s very easy to develop a business where everything is cheap and free but the question is whether you will be in business next year.

How to innovate

Payroll isn't the most exciting thing in the world but there has been a specific problem with the actual payment. Talking to CFOs, we wanted to find out what they disliked about foreign currency and sending it. Fundamentally they wanted one platform to do all payments. International payments is one thing, but if you are running a finance team you want one login, one platform to do everything, including payroll.

Payroll is still BACS driven, there is no flexibility and so we developed an automated payment solution for payroll bureaus and companies. It’s looking at the pain points for customers and we are in a position to piece together solutions.

Watch: Caxton ATM fees cost Brits $77 million in summer 2023

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