Georgia ‘FinTech’ moves to top of job creation push

Trillions of dollars flow across payments systems managed by Georgia companies every year.

Making a payment is an easily forgotten but necessary act — starting with the swipe of a plastic card or maybe the tap of a smartphone app — that makes Georgia a champion in the world of financial technology and a vital cog of capitalism. And leaders in Georgia want to keep it that way.

In recent years, the payments and financial technology industries have moved from relative afterthoughts to an industry at the forefront of state and local business recruiting and retention efforts. It complements other key Georgia industries, such as cyber security, telecommunications and health care information technology.

The state is working to craft university curricula to help mold the next generation of the “FinTech” workforce to help develop new technologies and services as payments move to mobile devices.

“We have become an innovation center in the United States,” said Chris Carr, Georgia’s economic development chief.

About 70 percent of the debit, credit and gift card transactions in the U.S. each year are processed by companies with major Georgia operations. It’s an industry that helps directly employ more than 40,000 people in the Peach State, according to the American Transaction Processors Coalition.

It’s also an industry with high-paying jobs other states would like to steal and a Georgia cluster that faces competition from Silicon Valley and other technology hubs, economic recruiters say.

In September, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the American Transaction Processors Coalition formed a FinTech task force to create more high-tech jobs, attract talent and recruit companies.

In June, a trade mission to Brazil featured a visit by Gov. Nathan Deal to Cielo, a South American payment processor that the state is trying to convince to expand its U.S. operations in Georgia. The firm’s U.S. subsidiary, Merchant e-Solutions, is based in California and has only a small sales team in the Atlanta area.

Georgia leaders want to woo a new innovation center and more — and perhaps even the seat of its U.S. operations — to Atlanta.

Financial technology also played a headlining role in the Governor’s High Demand Careers Initiative, a program to help adapt the state’s education system to meet the demands of industry. The payments coalition, state and local leaders also have been working with the Georgia Board of Regents to develop FinTech curricula to help cultivate software development talent at the state’s colleges.

How consumers pay today — by and large with a piece of plastic — is likely to change in the years ahead as smartphones become more sophisticated and ingrained in society, and consumers do more of their buying online. That’s not to mention the potential of virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

H. West Richards, executive director of the American Transaction Processors Coalition, said trade missions and the push to create new technology curricula is all part of his organization’s strategy to keep what it has dubbed as “Transaction Alley” as the financial technology capital of the world.

Expansion

In a reflection of the industry’s growing clout, Carr said one of the first economic development meetings he had when he started in his role two years ago was with the then-newly formed transaction processors coalition. Richards and his team and several key transaction processors launched the coalition in 2013 and have been drivers of the industry’s rising stature.

Carr previously served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Isakson this year became co-chairman of the newly formed Senate Payments Innovation Caucus.

“We have one of the best kept secrets in the world and none of us want us to be a secret anymore,” Carr said.

Georgia has been a payments and banking hub for decades and the state is home to some of the largest financial technology firms in the world, including First Data, Global Payments and TSYS. NCR is a dominant ATM, cash register and travel kiosk maker.

Among the headline-grabbing recruitment efforts of the past year are Worldpay US’s expansion of its Atlanta hub and NCR’s planned move from Gwinnett County to a new Midtown Atlanta campus. On Wednesday, gift and prepaid debit card powerhouse InComm announced it would add 275 jobs in metro Atlanta.

InComm is a pioneer in the gift card world and started in Atlanta in 1992 as an early provider of prepaid long distance telephone cards. The company’s business has evolved and it now counts Apple and Best Buy among its more than 500 merchant clients and employs 1,800 worldwide.

InComm’s headquarters in the American Cancer Society building downtown is just a few miles south of NCR’s future headquarters and not far from Worldpay’s U.S. hub in Atlantic Station. Worldpay recently started a FinTech incubator program at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center.

“What we are doing right now is we are collaborating in a very special way,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said.

Hala Moddelmog, the CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the new FinTech task force is modeled after one created to promote Atlanta as a leader in mobile communications, based off the strength of companies such as AT&T’s Atlanta-based mobility division.

“We almost always catch people off guard that almost three quarters of all transactions with credit, debit and gift cards go through this region,” she said at a FinTech panel Wednesday.

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