NorthRow Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary

In the last decade, NorthRow has undergone a huge transformation, from being a one-person company to a respected and trusted RegTech firm with international clients spanning multiple industries. To mark the occasion I sat down with Adrian Black, NorthRow’s CEO, to ask 10 hard-hitting questions on the challenges of being a CEO, NorthRow’s growth and what the future holds. Here’s what he had to say.

Posted on September 10, 2020
Written by Rebecca Angus

1. What made you think, when setting up Contego as a one-man band, that you could attract investment for your ideas?

When starting the business as Contego, subsequently renamed to NorthRow in early 2018, full-body scanners were being introduced to UK airports. I remember the fear and anxiety associated with bootstrapping the business in the first year with the commitments growing and the investment required to turn a prototype into a working system. “The relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources” became a driving mantra.

I didn’t expect to be in this position today. I certainly hoped that my concept for the business would work out but there were so many hurdles to overcome and so few startups make it. To “expect” would have implied arrogance or naivety, or both.

2. What has been most surprising about your journey?

I am very grateful that I have been able to attract a great team who share and have built upon the strong set of values that drive how we work – a business is nothing without a strong team and no job is fun if your teammates are not great.

3. Why did you think you were the right person to lead a growth company to drive solutions to combat online fraud?  

Working with the Met Police as part of Operation Sterling gave me the idea for the business and I’m pleased, and proud, to say that we are still working with the police.

Joining Innovate Finance as a founding member was very valuable to us. That led to me joining the Open Banking Working Group in 2015 to represent the UK FinTech & RegTech community. We are now very proud to be a key supplier to Open Banking in the UK and to have played our part in securing that ecosystem.

4. Do you think that your vision has been delivered and what is there still to achieve?

NorthRow’s vision is to become the partner of choice for digital transformation projects for client onboarding, remediation and ongoing monitoring either working directly with clients or with our growing network of software and consultancy partners. We have made great progress within the UK property, FinTech, and the wider financial services industry, however, we would like to further develop into new domestic markets outside of the UK. Helping to address the range of challenges thrown up by an ever-changing regulatory and business environment remain core to the business.

5. Are the efforts across government, the regulators and regulated entities joined up and effective enough to combat the progression of economic crime? 

Compliance is there for a reason: financial crime and the organised criminal gangs behind much of it, are cancers on people, businesses, economies and societies. We need internationally consistent legislation and better enforcement, with the investment in financial crime law enforcement that seems sadly lacking.
Governments must work together to constantly remove the weakest links, whether that’s jurisdictions that assist shell companies to hide bad actors, improving cross-border cooperation or stronger sanctions. Progress is too slow for my liking. But that’s where RegTech can help, we are weapons in the arms race between law enforcement and regulators and criminals who feed off others. Our job is to help combat financial crime as well as easing the compliance burden on our clients as much as we can.

6. What is the next big challenge for MLROs and Compliance Officers?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation projects within the compliance function. We are now forced to operate in a new world, with “new norms”, and new risks and threats as a result of this pandemic. Criminals are getting more sophisticated and the current environment is proving an extremely advantageous breeding ground for criminal scams and laundering opportunities associated with this crisis. The biggest challenges for MLROs will be to deliver effective and efficient digital transformation projects that deter increasing levels of financial crime without sacrificing the client experience.

7. Do you think the gap between AML legislation and the bad actors is widening or reducing?

Preventing money laundering seems like a never-ending battle. Fraud and economic crime rates remain at record highs, criminals are becoming more sophisticated and impacting more companies in more diverse ways than ever before. The rising cost of compliance also eats away at a company’s bottom line and can be a huge resource strain. Understandably, many firms will question compliance and regulation based on this cost as, ultimately, it only hinders those that want to comply. Surely the criminals will always avoid measures put in place to achieve regulatory compliance?

However, there is a moral debate to consider. If we were to relax regulation, organised crime would be able to funnel its illicit funds more easily through the financial system which would have devastating economic, security, and social consequences. It provides the fuel for drug dealers, terrorists, illegal arms dealers, corrupt public officials, human traffickers and others to operate and expand their criminal enterprises. Organised crime and systematic fraud matter, as lives, can be destroyed by financial crime. The effect on society, individuals and economies require a level of regulation.

We need to continue to monitor identities – the combination of characteristics that identifies either an individual or a business – or we run the risk of anarchy and a fraudulent society. There needs to be a balance between ‘relaxed’ regulation, where the business is less constrained and the criminal may take advantage, or tighter supervision, which protects consumers and works negatively for bad actors.

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8. What other CEOs do you look up to and who has inspired you to have the work ethic that you do?  

I guess my work ethic came from my father who ran a small business to support our family. As a child, I felt he worked too hard at times but now I understand why he felt he had to and how hard it is to get the balance right. There is no escape from relentless hard work as a founder CEO though.

There are countless founders and CEOs I can draw inspiration from and for a number of reasons I would single out Reed Hoffman.

In literature, there is one book I refer people to more than any other “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz – it’s packed full of words of wisdom gleaned from often bitter experience and it should be required reading for the start-up community. It’s brilliant.

9. How do you describe your corporate purpose and how do you help your employees share your vision for the company?

Being able to attract a great team who share and have built upon the strong set of values that drive how we work – a business is nothing without a strong team. We like to instil a set of core values below to help ensure all employees share the same vision of the business.

Freedom to respectfully challenge anything and freedom to innovate

Show integrity – do the right thing ethically – always

Take responsibility for your individual results and for those of your team

Support each other, our clients, our partners – do for them what you would want them to do for us

Transparency where possible and honesty always – no exceptions  

Internal communication is critical and it’s never good enough – we always have to keep working on that. Quarterly company meetings and weekly stand-ups with open Q&A sessions are really important – the whole team must know they can ask anything about our vision, strategy and plans knowing that they will get honest and transparent answers.

Finally, listening is key. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas that help refine the delivery of our vision. You have to listen and the team need to know they will be heard even though we can’t act on everything. In fact, one of NorthRow’s biggest strengths is that we have a great value-sharing team who continue to grow the business and take our customers where they need to be.

10. What is on the horizon for the development of NorthRow?

The regulatory pressure on the global market to prevent money laundering and fraud will continue to rise. With every new Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Directive firms will need to have effective and proactive client onboarding, monitoring and remediations procedures to reduce their risk of non-compliance. Compliance is no-longer simple but an opportunity to create business value. NorthRow’s future lies in being the partner of choice for compliance and client onboarding digital transformation projects, either working directly with clients or with our growing network of software and consultancy partners. Helping to address the range of challenges thrown up by an ever-changing regulatory and business environment remain core to the business.

Over the next 10 years, NorthRow’s focus will be to scale internationally. We have travelled a long way from a one-man idea, through to start-up phase and into a high-growth scale-up. Continuing to scale is what matters now, and we will maintain the strong year-on-year growth we have seen over the last decade.

In summary

In the last 10 years, NorthRow have gained many valued and supportive clients and we would like to use our 10th anniversary as an opportunity to say a huge “Thank You” to all our clients for choosing NorthRow as your technology partner.

2020 has been an unprecedented year for us, along with many other companies, from public health, working practices and economic perspectives. While it’s not a time for big celebrations, we do feel it’s important to reflect on the past, whilst focusing clearly on a future filled with opportunities, as well as challenges.