Ant Financial has agreed to buy British payments group WorldFirst in a deal said to be worth around $700m, in the biggest push yet by Jack Ma’s Chinese financial services giant into western markets.
The acquisition — which is Ant Financial’s first major deal in the UK — comes after a thwarted attempt last year to take over MoneyGram International, a US-based cross border payments group, which was blocked on security concerns by Washington. Last month, WorldFirst closed its US arm to avoid similar problems with this deal.
Ant Financial said the move would allow the two companies “to reach a greater number of customers, especially in the fast-growing area of cross border e-commerce”.
In a letter sent to customers on Thursday, WorldFirst chief executive Jonathan Quin said: “We believe that becoming a part of the Ant Financial group and of the wider Alibaba ecosystem will create opportunities for us to grow our existing relationship with you, and in time we will be able to offer even better products and services to you as we maximise the benefits that will come from being a part of a larger group.”
Ant Financial, the fintech affiliate of internet giant Alibaba, is the world’s most valuable technology start-up, and was valued at $150bn in its last funding round in 2018. It is best known for its Alipay mobile payments platform, but also runs businesses including a credit rating system and cloud computing service.
Alipay is already available in a limited number of areas in Europe, but the WorldFirst acquisition will bring a major step-up in the breadth of its operations outside of Asia.
The company’s last attempt to expand in the west failed to win support from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (Cfius) after politicians raised concerns about handing over US citizens’ financial data to a company partly owned by the Chinese government.
However, two people close to the Worldfirst deal said both sides were “confident” that it would not run into any similar regulatory difficulties.
WorldFirst provides international money transfers and currency exchange services for both individuals and businesses, but has been particularly targeting small and medium-sized e-commerce businesses over the past year by offering free accounts in multiple currencies.
Mr Quin said in his letter that combining WorldFirst’s products with Ant Financial’s technology and client network “will advance our shared aims of building the best global platform for international trade”.
Mr Quin, a former Citi banker, will continue as chief executive after the takeover, and the company will remain headquartered and regulated in the UK.
Ant Financial and WorldFirst declined to comment on the value of the deal, but people close to negotiations previously said it would be worth around $700m.
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