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Paymenttools: more than a payment service provider. An interview with the management team

In this interview, our two managing directors reveal why we are more than just a payment service provider and how we want to rethink payments.

by Maik Klotz, 2022-01-18
8 min

Although there are already plenty of payment service providers, when you hear that an international retail group like the REWE Group is moving into the payment market, you sit up and listen. In the interview the two managing directors of Paymenttools, Jens Kohnen and Salah Zayakh, provide insights into the 2021 start-up, explain how they came up with the idea for it and talk about what the future holds.

Jens Kohnen is a business administration graduate who quickly strayed from the not particularly interesting theoretical path to embark on a journey through the world of payments. For many years Jens was a management consultant, helping major corporates such as banks to gain a better understanding of payment transactions. He also helped them to design those transactions, to develop new business models and, more importantly, to build and optimise payment concepts. In recent years he has played an instrumental role in setting up a number of spin-offs and new ventures. Today, he manages the business of Paymenttools with Salah. Jens is a mountain biking enthusiast.

Salah Zayakh has degrees in mathematics and IT, and a love of strategy, technology and entrepreneurship. He combined REWE digital expertise with the REWE Group’s finance department know-how, which is what motivated him to create the Paymenttools start-up at the beginning of 2021. Prior to that he held various roles at companies in different industries, where he developed strategies, organisational structures and digital products, including e-discovery, e-commerce, fulfilment and big data platforms. He enjoys sailing in his spare time, and he’ll rarely refuse a game of chess.

Last year Paymenttools was established as a REWE Group subsidiary. How did you come up with the idea?

Salah: Diamonds are formed by intense pressure and good ideas are formed under extreme conditions. That’s pretty much what happened with Paymenttools. You could say that the foundations for Paymenttools were laid at high sea under the most adverse of conditions – in the midst of a storm. Perhaps we were in port in calmer waters and the weather was better, but everything else is true. 

Some colleagues and I were on a sailing trip, taking part in a regatta on a 50-foot boat at Flensburger Förde between Germany and Denmark, in October 2019. Living together at close quarters the crew of experts from various disciplines were able to share inspiration and ideas on revolutionising payments in the REWE Group.

It wasn’t the first time we’d considered similar ideas at the REWE Group but after the regatta, in 2020, we brought together a small and motivated team of volunteers to rethink the strategy and pad it out with details.

There are three reasons why it made sense to start up Paymenttools.

  • Expertise: We’ve been processing cashless POS payment transactions in our own network and systems since 2012. In recent years the REWE Group has set up successful new companies such as fulfillmenttools and commercetools, and we’ve already established a robust start-up culture in the organisation.

  • Ecosystem: The REWE Group operates 15,000 stores in various sectors across 22 European countries, where it cultivates very close relationships with its customers. Thanks to a vast global partner network, the REWE Group is part of a large-scale ecosystem that processed over a billion transactions in Germany alone in the year 2020.

  • Marktreife: Our high customer contact frequency gives us a precise knowledge of our customers’ behaviour – and not just their payment behaviour. We can honestly say that, today, we aren’t just payment market experts, we’re one of its architects. Cashless payments will continue to grow, which is why now is the right time to take the next logical strategic step.

If you consider all three together – expertise, ecosystem and market maturity – it’s obvious why we founded Paymenttools. We have the opportunity to reinvent payments from the retailer’s perspective yet remain focused on our customers. The fact that we’ve been able to win internal and external customers for Paymenttools in our very first year shows that we’re on the right track.

What segment does Paymenttools operate in and what are your future plans?

Jens: The name is a pretty good clue that we operate in the payment transactions segment. We want to offer our customers a one-stop-shop payment service with Paymenttools. Starting with the operation of networks and modern pay terminals at the stores through digital e-commerce payment solutions, we want to cater to all aspects of the payment transactions market. We believe that the customer experience and the payment options that are available to customers will change significantly over coming years, and we want be an active contributor to these developments. We’re also working on a new payment solution, a Payment Operating System, with the help of REWE Group customers and colleagues. It will serve as the central payment hub for retailers.

We don’t believe in limits and we’re convinced that seamless payment transactions across all channels, from the POS at the store to the e-commerce online check-out, are the way forward. Our omnichannel approach will make it possible to process transactions in all channels via one single payment platform. That will allow us to cater to all existing and future business models and to optimise both the transaction costs and the technical integration.

Summing up, I’d say that we’re a technology company ‘for all things payment’ with a Payment Operating System that unites all commonly used payment methods for all channels. But that isn’t the end of the road for us. We’re just getting started. We’re excited about cryptocurrency developments, and about how we can use consumer insights to develop payment transactions that deliver value to our customers. In other words, there’s no lack of ideas! 

Yet another payment service provider? Why does the sector need Paymenttools?

Jens: When Salah first told me about the idea I asked myself the same question. Why do we need another payment service provider? The market has been pretty saturated for a good many years and it’s very competitive right now. A lot of capital is being pumped into the market, new start-ups are attempting to revolutionise it and existing players are regrouping. So it’s a challenge.

But, when you take a look behind the scenes, you see that it makes a lot of sense: Through our parent company the REWE Group we have first-hand experience of where existing retail payment solutions work – or don’t work. Let’s take the example of a delivery service or quick commerce (Flink, 10-minute deliveries in the city via app): These companies currently use e-commerce solutions, although their transactions are face-to-face. The same applies to new concepts such as self-checkouts or checkout-free stores. I think the payment industry is currently undergoing a significant change that is associated with a great deal of potential for innovation. 

So it’s about more than just payments. How does Paymenttools differ from other payment service providers?

Salah: Primarily in terms of our DNA. We know what the retail and tourism industries need and we have a profound connection with our customers. How often do people visit their bank? How often do we take out insurance? How often do we buy a new car? On the other hand, we eat several times a day and our customers visit our stores daily. In 2021 alone we recorded a billion customer contacts. That’s unprecedented in the payment transactions sector. And, as a network operator we have many years of market experience. Our platform is contemporary, cloud-native, microservice-based and API-first. Our network is organised in accordance with the principles of technology first, product driven and, above all, customer centricity.

Jens: I definitely agree. We have a very retailer-oriented payment mindset. As a cooperative society with many different retail models we have food retail experience and customers who visit our supermarkets on a regular basis. And in the tourism segment, where there are different business models, we are experiencing many new innovations first hand and know exactly what the payment challenges are. These challenges are our primary motivation. One last thing: when we talk about retail, we’re also referring to e-commerce.

What special challenges have you encountered up to now?

Salah: One of the main challenges we face is sourcing talented individuals to join our team. The technology labour market was already hit by shortages before the pandemic arrived, and then it got worse. Our ‘Paymenttools’ brand is also still young, so it isn’t very well known in the market. And the switch from office to remote working is still a challenge for us. We’re tackling all these challenges by putting people first and doing everything we can to ensure satisfied customers, employees and partners

Jens: We’re a start-up, so our name isn’t widely known and the people who do know us tend to place us as the REWE Group’s internal payment services provider. However, we have managed to build a lot of trust over the past few months and we’ve gained our first external customers. Now we want to repay them for that confidence.

2021 is over. What are your positive and perhaps not-so-positive take-aways for this year? What’s on the agenda for 2022?

Jens: Last year, as a new start-up, we grew our team to almost 50 people despite the pandemic. Obviously, COVID-19 hasn’t made collaboration easy, but on the whole we’re satisfied with the way our company and our products have developed. We’re also embracing the work models that were introduced during the pandemic as an opportunity because we believe that distributed teams will continue to be necessary in the future. Looking back over the past year that strategy worked very well, and we’re confident that we can continue on the same path this year.

Salah: Starting up a company is tough. In a pandemic it’s even tougher. But, as I said at the outset, diamonds are formed under intense pressure. We’ve got ambitious plans for 2022. We’re expanding our top team of experts and optimising our processes. We’ll be delivering an excellent service to our partners and customers to increase their satisfaction and build our market reputation. We want to drive the development of digital, contactless payment processes with cards, smartphones and wearables across all channels. 

When people think about payments they often associate them with a complicated process of long queues, searching in purses and wallets for small change, entering incredibly long credit card numbers and addresses, or coming up with the hundredth secure password. And then there’s always the annoying question at the end: “Do you have a bonus card?” We want to eliminate this stress for consumers. In other words, “We want to remove the pain from paying”.

Maik Klotz is a consultant, speaker and author specializing in banking, payment, digital identity, e-commerce and retail. He was profiled by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in the industry's "Influencer" series and moderates and speaks at many industry events. Maik is co-founder of Payment & Banking and is responsible for marketing and corporate communications at Paymenttools.

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