The interview

Making a mark

Jean-Luc Robert  has been an entrepreneur all his working life. In 2004, he acquired Kyriba, then a struggling firm with 10 employees. Today, this Bridgepoint-backed business is the global leader in active liquidity management, with more than 2,200 customers and 800 staff. But Robert’s interests spread far beyond finance. 

If I wasn’t with Kyriba, I would be writing novels or biographies, or running a publishing business

Jean-Luc Robert was just 27 when he started his first company. Having graduated from the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, taken a law degree and secured a fast-track job in a global consultancy firm, he had already achieved a  considerable amount. But he wanted more.  

 

“I was keen to branch out on my own, so I formed my own financial consultancy, Eurosept Associés. We soon developed an expertise around banks moving into insurance and helped Crédit Agricole to create its insurance arm,” he says. 

 

“It was a difficult exercise at the time, but I worked on the strategy with top management. We located some software in Canada that suited their needs and we were able to take the business to market very quickly, which was critical because timing was of the essence.”

This was the 1980s, when bancassurance – where banks sell insurance products to clients – was catching on across Europe. Eurosept Associés became known as a leading specialist in the sector, it expanded fast and, in 1994, Robert achieved his first exit, selling the business to US information technology group EDS, now part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. 

We have defined a new category – active liquidity management. We help our clients to see their liquidity. We protect it, we optimise it and we help clients to move it

Itchy feet

By then, Robert was already onto his next venture, European Engineering Software. “I bought some software assets out from a larger group and used them to create EES, offering asset management software to banks and financial institutions throughout Europe. It was a tough time and there were some issues in the original business, so I restructured the company, grew it and sold it to [former Fortune 500 company] SunGard in 1999,” he says. 

 

At the time, Robert was living in Paris, but his wife had grown up in the US and wanted to move closer to her family. The couple relocated to San Diego and Robert, having successfully sold two companies, took some time off. But he was still young and highly driven, and he soon grew bored with a life of leisure. “I started looking round for something to do and in 2004, I found Kyriba,” he says. 

Fortress in France

The name Kyriba is derived from Kiribati, the Pacific island that is the first land mass to see sunlight each day. When Robert acquired the business, however, there was very little light around it. Owned by a German bank and based in Paris, it was close to bankruptcy. “The company wasn’t working for various reasons, so I restarted it,” says Robert.

 

The business may have been at a low ebb, but Robert was extremely ambitious for it from the outset. “It sounds presumptuous, but my goal from the beginning was to develop a global brand and become a global leader in our space,” he explains. “The first two companies that I built up were European in focus, but I wanted to create something more significant. I knew it would be challenging, I knew it would take time, but that was what I wanted to do.”

As a Paris-based business, Kyriba had a bias towards France in the early days. Robert knew that he would need to crack the US market to establish a global footprint, but he was keen to strengthen the firm in its home market first. “I wanted to build a fortress in France and move from there. I was still living in San Diego, but I commuted to Paris, spending several weeks at a time in each city,” he says.

 

Kyriba had been established as a cash management business, but Robert was convinced that, over time, financial institutions, alternative asset managers and corporates would choose to outsource functions related to liquidity and cash – such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll and foreign exchange – more broadly. His hunch proved correct.

It sounds presumptuous, but my goal from the beginning was to develop a global brand and become a global leader in our space. The first two companies that I built up were European in focus, but I wanted to create something more significant

Kyriba headquarters, San Diego. Photo courtesy of Irvine Company

A beeline for the US

The company acquired hundreds of customers in France and Robert then turned his attentions to the US. “It was a change for me, but I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “So instead of spreading into other European countries, we moved directly to the US. We signed our first customer in 2011, saw significant traction over the next few years, and by 2016 we had become recognised as the lead player in our field.” 

 

Today, Kyriba has more than 2,200 customers worldwide and it has 800 employees spread across North America, Paris, London, Frankfurt and Asia. There is also an offshore centre in Minsk, Belarus. 

 

“We have defined a new category – active liquidity management. We help our clients to see their liquidity so they know where it is. We protect it in areas such as foreign exchange, compliance and fraud. We optimise it through working capital solutions and we help clients to move their liquidity with our payment systems, which are very strong and a great point in our favour,” says Robert. “We are a link between our clients’ accounting systems and the banking sector, and we connect with around 600 banks every day.” 

 

Fragmented competition

The group has a significant number of customers in the insurance, private equity and alternative asset management sectors, but it has also developed a strong franchise in the corporate sector, spanning a wide range of industries from retail to manufacturing to technology.

 

“The liquidity market is worth around $20 billion, so it is a huge category and we want to be the dominant player,” Robert says. “Our aim is to own this category on a global basis. We do have competition, but it is fragmented. We are the only company to group all the different functionalities under one roof and we operate a software-as-a-service model, too, which is another differentiator.” 

I am passionate about my work. I believe that Kyriba can make a mark on the world. Work/life balance doesn’t really come into it when you feel that way

The company continues to develop in its core markets of France and the US, but it is also growing fast in Northern Europe and Asia. Today, Robert splits his time across the business, spending around a month in France, a month in San Diego and a month on the road on a revolving basis. 

Different worlds

“You need to get used to different environments quickly, but it is also a privilege to be able to live in different places and experience different worlds. It is not too punishing from a health perspective and it’s also more efficient to spent longer in each location. Besides, I am passionate about my work. I believe that Kyriba can make a mark on the world. Work/life balance doesn’t really come into it when you feel that way,” says Robert. 

 

“I believe that you are much more likely to succeed if you enjoy what you do. You have to have an alignment between your personal values and ethics and your work. And I do. For me, making Kyriba successful, developing a liquidity network and a brand – that’s exciting and it makes me motivated,” he adds. 

Name: Jean-Luc Robert

Family: Married with three grown-up children

Education: .cole Sup.rieure de Commerce de Paris, Universit. de Paris II – Assas

Home: San Diego and Paris

First job: Aged 16, I spent six weeks as an intern aboard Le Clemenceau, a French aircraft carrier, doing trial runs for a new jet fighter, Le Rafale.
I subsequently chose not to pursue a military career!

Finest achievement: My family, closely followed by my partnership with Bridgepoint

Interests: Literature, travel, tennis

Car: A new Tesla – “It’s difficult to drive anything else in California!”

Strong partnerships

Having grown the company almost from scratch, Robert reached a stage where he needed to choose between going public or finding a private equity investor and continuing to build the business. He chose the private equity route and, in the spring of 2019, Bridgepoint became the majority shareholder. 

“We selected Bridgepoint because of their reputation, but also because they had a twin culture, split between Europe and the US, which was essential for us. They were a natural fit and it has worked very well. They were the right choice,” says Robert.

 

Looking ahead, Robert is, if anything, more ambitious than ever.

 

“We have a unique opportunity. We have created a brand and a reputation as the leader in active liquidity management. We are technically advanced and very strong in research and development. We invest substantially in the business so our solutions are in the vanguard of our space. And we have very strong partnerships with our clients,” he says. 

 

“Moving along the liquidity road is a journey and we can get clients on board at every stage – from Excel spreadsheets all the way through to our most sophisticated solutions. But we have very little churn – our first clients are still with us. So we are seen as the lead solution today and I am determined that we will be seen as the lead solution tomorrow.”

 

Like every business, Kyriba has been and will be affected by Covid-19. But the nature of the company provides an element of resilience. 

 

“Liquidity is essential for all companies. It is everywhere, but most businesses don’t take enough care of it. Businesses need to focus on how to transform liquidity into cash, particularly when times are tough. We help clients to operate in a more difficult environment, especially when people have to work remotely and can no longer travel,” Robert says. 

 

“Our systems make liquidity visible and give clients the ability to access to cash from that liquidity. In an economic downturn, that is more important than ever. People need to keep control of cash and payments, and they need to manage liquidity more actively.”

Businesses need to focus on how to transform liquidity into cash, particularly when times are tough. We help clients to operate in a more difficult environment

Literary passion

Robert is completely dedicated to his work and to growing Kyriba substantially over the next few years, but he has another passion, too: literature. “I am an avid reader. I love novels – French, German, US, Chinese, Japanese and Latin American novels. Reading books from around the world is a really good way to understand other cultures and civilisations,” he says. 

 

Having studied Greek at school, he has recently turned to classical literature, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, reading these epic works in English, French and the original Greek. 

 

“If I wasn’t with Kyriba, I would be writing novels or biographies, or running a publishing business,” he says. “You see a lot of younger writers, but people can start writing later in life and if I had more time, I would. It’s fascinating. When I move into an advisory role, that’s what I’d like to do. In fact, I’ve written a couple of books already, but they need work.” n

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