[INTERVIEW] Japanese Banker Thinks Big for His Microfinance Business
By Rie Ishiguro
Tokyo, May 25 (Jiji Press)--Microfinance International Corp., a U.S. financial institution offering cut-cost, easily accessible remittance services for poor migrant workers in the country, is poised to move to a new level this year, according to its Japanese founder, Atsumasa Tochisako.
"We have solidified our foundation and are ready to expand," Tochisako, now chief executive of MFIC, said in a recent interview with Jiji Press. "I waited for many years to establish this company to pursue my goal of eradicating poverty through financial services."
Tochisako, a former banker, founded MFIC in June 2003 to provide remittance services for Hispanic immigrant workers in the United States.
Such immigrants had long been neglected by banks and credit companies because most of them lack credit histories in the United States. In fact, over half of such workers do not have bank accounts.
Many migrant workers instead depend on a limited number of money transfer companies, such as Western Union Co., which charge high commissions and in many cases offer their services via drug and liquor stores that act as agents. This means that users cannot receive professional financial services.
"I find that many financial services in the United States are actually not customer-oriented. Maybe this is because of the complexity of the society," Tochisako suggests.
"We would like to show the U.S. banking sector how financial services for immigrants should be," he stresses.
As an indication of its customer-friendly nature, the Washington-based company's Alante Financial retail outlets do not have bullet-proof glass installed at their counters, unlike other U.S. banks.
On commissions, to transfer 1,000 dollars to Guatemala, for example, costs 10 dollars, much lower than the 40 dollars charged by Western Union.
Alante, meaning "progress" in Spanish, also extends unsecured loans to migrant workers who regularly transfer money to their home countries, regarding the transfers as verification of stable income.
By borrowing and repaying money several times at Alante, users are able to create credit histories and gain access to mortgages and other large-lot loans at other financial institutions.
In addition, MFIC makes sure that transferred money immediately becomes accessible at small financial institutions in Latin American countries. Such local microfinance firms, in turn, are able to increase their cash flow as well as their number of customers and extend more loans to local clients.
The concept of microfinance, or microcredit, won public recognition only in recent years, thanks chiefly to 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus' efforts to lend to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans in Bangladesh, through his Grameen Bank.
Tochisako was motivated to start his own business by the shock of seeing poverty-stricken households in Mexico when he was sent to the country by Bank of Tokyo, now Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, to study when he was 26 years old.
He spent a total of 12 years in Latin American countries as a banker.
Tochisako stressed that even though he started the microfinance business for idealistic reasons, he aims to make profits as well. His company expects to post a pretax profit of 799,000 dollars this year and is looking to boost the figure to 16.7 million dollars by 2009.
The size of the remittance market, despite its longstanding neglect by financial institutions, is not negligible. According to the World Bank, an estimated 300 billion dollars of remittances was transferred to developing countries last year.
Of the total, 45 billion dollars was sent to Latin America by Hispanics in the United States.
This year has already proved fruitful for MFIC in terms of its own financing.
In February, the company clinched a deal with the World Bank group to receive a direct investment worth 2 million dollars. This was followed by a syndicate loan deal amounting to 15 million dollars with a group led by Deutsche Bank.
Tochisako revealed that the company has received investments from 100 individuals, of whom 90 are Japanese.
MFIC is slated to reach out to far larger populations of underserved migrants. Next month, it plans to increase the number of countries covered by its remittance service network to 85 from 10 at present, based on a new tie-up with UAE Exchange, a major money transfer service firm headquartered in the United Arab Emirates.
Tochisako indicated his intention to start catering to Asian immigrants in the United States from such countries as Vietnam and South Korea.
In the next five years, the company plans to increase its number of outlets to 100 from nine at present. It intends to go public in fiscal 2011.
"With passion, one can make things happen," Tochisako smiled.