Making a whole lot of Wonga: Critics are unhappy as profits soar, but the lender's founder insists it merely provides a service for the digital generation
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Wednesday 04 September 2013
Whatever your view of Wonga, it is hard not to be impressed at the way its terrier-like founder, Errol Damelin, shrugs off the critics.
Controversy dogs the firm, be it over its use of cuddly puppets to sell potentially dangerous loans, its sponsorship of football clubs followed by thousands of youngsters, or that famous 5,800 per cent annual interest rate.
Within minutes of its announcement of £62.5m profits yesterday (£84.5m before tax), the Unite union issued a statement condemning what it called Wonga's "vulture capitalism". "The union is angry," the Unite statement raged, "that much of the so-called economic recovery and boost in consumer spending is being fuelled by payday lenders that prey on the financially vulnerable."
Calls erupted for a government investigation, and legislation of the industry, due to what critics perceive as Wonga's blatant profiteering from the misery of the poor.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy demanded that Wonga and its ilk be reined in by Parliament, with caps to their interest rates: "Those... profits show the consequences of the Government's failure to act."
Despite the witch-burning heat that follows whatever Wonga does, Mr Damelin, who is also its chief executive, cut a cool figure at the presentation of the firm's financial results. Dressed in jeans and an open-neck shirt, the wiry South African looked every bit the Silicon Valley tycoon, not the terror of the council estates that his enemies seek to portray him as.
As a dot.com entrepreneur is how he would like to be seen, of course. Repeatedly, he stresses that his is a fast-growing digital business, "disrupting" the lazy world of financial services.
Wonga's growth rate does show all the characteristics of a dot.com star. It has gone from nothing to revenues of £309.3m in six years; has grown its staff count by 250 in the last year alone to more than 650; and last year lent £1.2bn to about one million customers. It is backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
We should, he says, "think of Wonga like we think of Amazon, Facebook, Netflix". "This is not about people on breadlines being desperate and us being a lender of last resort," he says.
"This is about the young person walking down Oxford Street wanting to get a quick loan on the way to work. They're the digital generation, the Facebook generation, who wouldn't contemplate queuing up at the bank and waiting three weeks for a loan. They use iTunes because they want to hear a track now rather than go to the shop to buy a CD, they use Netflix because they don't want to wait until a TV broadcaster tells them when to watch a movie."
For Mr Damelin, then, his business is successful because its young customers like its speed and smartphone convenience, and do not want to get into credit-card debt.
That convenience, however, is just what his critics argue is so dangerous. Approvals are so quick, the website so slick, that it is easy for naive young customers to lose sight of what the deal actually is – a very high-interest financial transaction generating huge profits for the lender.
Again, Mr Damelin hastens to object. Wonga makes only 5p on every £1 it advances, he claims. Hardly a profiteering business model.
That depends, of course, on whether you think £62m is a lot of profit. Or whether Mr Damelin's £757,000 is a big salary, not to mention the estimated £30m value of his shares, if and when Wonga floats on the stock market.
The arguments will rage on, but Mr Damelin is not flustered. "It's fine," he says. "It's democracy."
'I'm happy for church to take on high-risk customers'
Wonga's most famous critic is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Justin Welby famously declared he would "compete [Wonga] out of business" by launching a Church-backed group of credit unions.
Will the Archbishop's lender really prove to be a Wongakiller? Unlikely, says Mr Damelin. The Church, he says, will mostly be picking up the two out of three customers Wonga rejects.
In other words, he jokes, he's happy to let the Church take on customers who are too high-risk even for Wonga.
He adds: "This is a difficult business: we have 650 people we have hired from the best companies in the world – Amazon, Google, Facebook –with masters degrees and PhDs. We have invested tens of millions of pounds in IT and data. Let me just say it will be difficult for a small operation to do that."
Who would you bet on, God or Wonga?
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