Protocol | Fintech

Western Union is about to turn 170. It still thinks it can win the fintech wave.

"We're not just a digital-only player or a retail-only player."

Western Union is about to turn 170. It still thinks it can win the fintech wave.

Western Union CFO Raj Agrawal

Western Union

Western Union is not one of the stars of the fintech revolution, but it is a trailblazer in financial technology.

A decade after it was formed in 1851, the company set up the first transcontinental telegraph cable. That made it possible to send telegrams and wire funds across the country and soon the world, creating a network of retail money transfer outlets in more than 200 countries.

Along the way, the company embedded itself in American popular culture, from singing telegrams to candy-grams to an improbable cameo in "Back to the Future II," when a Western Union man hand-delivered a 70-year-old letter to Marty McFly.

As it gets ready to mark its 170th anniversary, Western Union is one of the oldest players riding the fintech wave. But don't call it low tech or think of it as slow-moving around Chief Financial Officer Raj Agrawal. He said the company is speeding things up, whether that's expanding their digital business into more countries or testing out blockchain technology.

The Denver-based company still has more than 550,000 agent locations for money transfers in almost every country in the globe. But at a time when fintech startups are disrupting the way people move money, Western Union is focused increasingly on its digital business,, which now reaches 75 countries.

The company has taken hits from the pandemic. It posted a year-over-year dip in revenue in 2020 when global remittances took a plunge. But Western Union, which has a market cap of about $10 billion, has been viewed favorably on Wall Street: Its stock is up about 14% year-to-date.

In an interview with Protocol, Agrawal talked about Western Union's game plan in the fast-changing fintech market and why he thinks the company has key advantages over its much younger — if less profitable — rivals.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Western Union is one of the early fintech companies, though it's probably known as a low-tech fintech company. How are you adapting to the fintech trend?

First of all, I have not actually heard the words "low-tech fintech" [laughs].

I just made it up.

My goal then is for you to never say that again [laughs].

That's the misconception of Western Union. In our original core traditional business, we're very high-tech. We move money in minutes around the world. It doesn't happen with a stagecoach. It doesn't happen because we're carrying bags of cash around the world.

We really are transferring information. That's the way we move money around the world and we actually do it better than traditional channels that have been available to move money. It's the technology that allows us to settle in 130 currencies globally. It's a really good competitive moat that we have that we've continued to build upon over the many years. We allow customers to transact with us in any way they want. They can go to a retail location, or they can go to our online site.

There has been an explosion in technologies related to payments and cross-border payments. What has been the most surprising to you?

What I see in the market, then is that there are many companies who are operating, it seems, forever at a loss. They're not sustainable business models. I'm not sure what their endgame is. We are aware of the competition that exists all around the world, but we believe that we have a better offering for consumers on a global basis.

Fintech is changing the way money moves overseas, especially in Asia and Africa. What is the future of Western Union's retail system?

We are absolutely evolving with the market needs. Everywhere in the world we can send money from a retail location. We're agnostic as to how consumers want to use us. If there's a need that you have one day to send money because you happen to be shopping at a Safeway, we want you to be able to do that. However, if the next time you want to send money you're going to use our app, no problem. We're not just a digital-only player and we're not just a retail-only player. We're omnichannel.

What fintech trends are most exciting for you?

The biggest thing for us is our almost 9 million consumers on How do we extend the service offerings to them so we go even further beyond the remittance market? We're looking at launching a pilot later this year which is going to allow consumers to have more banking service offerings from Western Union. We're launching this pilot in a handful of markets in Europe.

So you're considering expanding into banking?

We already have a bank in Austria. We're going to be leveraging the bank and the bank license to provide more financial services to consumers. It could be a credit card. It could be a debit card. We obviously want the account relationship with the consumer.

We're going after a migrant customer who is using our services. They are comfortable with the Western Union brand. They're moving money to their loved ones already and we want to extend the relationship with them.

How do you view the rise of cryptocurrency?

There has been a lot of talk about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. We haven't currently found a great use case for those things, but we're always evaluating new technologies. We settle in 130 currencies today with consumers all around the world. So for us, if there was a real demand for cryptocurrency from a consumer standpoint to start, we would absolutely be able to offer that. [But] it's not likely that consumers want to transact in cryptocurrency for a $200 or $300 transaction. It's just not what they're looking for. It's not even in their thoughts when they're thinking about sending money to their loved ones. That's sort of obvious.

We evaluated blockchain technology and we have done some specific testing there. We want to see if we get better foreign exchange rates. Can we save time? Is it more transparent for the consumer or for us? Can we move money around the world easier? The answer to all those thus far has been: no, no, no, no and no.

What is the fintech trend that worries you most?

The thing that we always think about is: Why can't we move faster? We have some great plans for the next three years. I would love for us to accomplish them in the next 12 months. We would love to have in 200 countries in the next 12 months. I don't want to wait three years to get there. The market as you know it is moving at a very fast pace, and we just want to keep doing everything we can to remove the internal roadblocks to being able to move fast.

Crypto crackdowns and fintech super apps

Plus, the Coinbase/Robinhood competition heats up.

Photo: Dmitry Demidko /Unsplash

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: Ben Pimentel joins the show to discuss China's aggressive moves against the crypto industry, Robinhood and Coinbase's battle for crypto supremacy, and PayPal's new financial super app. Then Tomio Geron explains what's going on at Binance, and why the largest crypto exchange in the world is under so much regulatory scrutiny.

For more on the topics discussed in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Keep Reading Show less
A technology company reimagining global capital markets and economies.

Theranos 'valued PR' over patients, an ex-employee says

Adam Rosendorff said he felt pressured to vouch for tests he did not have confidence in. His testimony appeared to tie Holmes more closely to the lab's failures.

Elizabeth Holmes leaves the San Jose courthouse where her fraud trial is underway.

Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Former Theranos lab director Adam Rosendorff testified Friday that he repeatedly raised the alarm about bad blood tests to then-CEO Elizabeth Holmes, ultimately concluding that the company valued press and funding more than the patients.

"I was very enthusiastic working at Theranos in the beginning. Over time, I came to realize that the company really valued PR and fundraising above patient care, and I became very disillusioned," Rosendorff said on the witness stand inside the San Jose courtroom where Holmes' trial on fraud charges began this month.

Keep Reading Show less
Biz Carson

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

Protocol | China

Can NFTs happen in a crypto-less China? Amazingly, yes.

Using clever workarounds, Chinese NFT players are managing to weather a regulatory ban on cryptocurrency.

No matter what workarounds Chinese NFT marketplaces choose, the result is that most NFT transactions in China feel detached from cryptocurrency.

Image: Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/Getty Images

The NFT craze has come to China, but you can hardly see any trace of crypto in it.

In the past two months, Chinese social media and gaming giant Tencent has built an NFT purchase and collection app, ecommerce platform Alibaba sold 50 NFT mooncakes in a stunt to promote a metaverse product and half a dozen startups are competing to be the winner of the localized non-fungible token trading market in China.

Keep Reading Show less
Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Protocol | China

A Chinese ‘game companion’ platform’s phantom shutdown

Bixin said it would shutter its game companion business to keep regulators happy. It looks a lot like business as usual.

China's game companions are becoming even more vulnerable as a result of regulatory scrutiny.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

In a clear response to regulatory scrutiny, Bixin, China's leading online marketplace for game companions, or peiwan, announced on Sept. 10 that it would "permanently shutter" its controversial peiwan business. But its internal announcement shared with Protocol seems to contradict its public declarations.

This past summer, Chinese authorities issued a slew of regulations aimed at addressing what Beijing considers toxic subcultures and practices that harm the country's minors. Bixin, an app developed by Shanghai Yitan Network Technology Company with 6 million registered game companions, also received its own share of regulatory pressure. Yitan was founded in 2014 and is backed by IDG Capital.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at

Latest Stories