By Charndré Emma Kippie
Spark ATM Systems is the leading premier automated teller machine deployer in South Africa, and was the recipient of the 2020 Africa Tech Week FinTech Award. Established in 2005, Spark ATM Systems is South Africa’s leading independent ATM deployer, with over 4 000 ATM installations countrywide. Spark is proudly owned by Cardtronics (NASDAQ: CATM), the world’s largest ATM deployer who brings global expertise and unprecedented financial backing to Spark’s operations in South Africa.
In 2005, Marc Sternberg founded Spark ATM Systems, and has since then served as the company’s Managing Director, where he continues to passionately motivate the company towards achieving its goals. Prior to this success, Marc completed his tertiary education at the University of Cape Town, where he completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree, followed by a Post Graduate Diploma in Accounting. He then passed the SAICA Audit Qualifying Examinations and qualified as a CA (SA) in 2001.
Congratulations on your Africa Tech Week 2020 award! This is a great achievement. How has being recognized as a Leader in Fintech affected your business?
2020 was certainly a very challenging year for many businesses in South Africa. The Africa Tech Week Award validated the hard work, commitment and dedication of all our staff in staying the course, not only in 2020 but certainly over the 15 years that we have been in business.
As we celebrate our 15th year in business in 2021, the recognition as a leader in Fintech serves as a motivation to set new goals, strive to achieve more and continue to be innovative and lead in the Fintech industry. It’s business as usual for us at Spark ATM Systems.
We’d love to know more about Spark ATM Systems. What excites you the most about the business?
Knowing that we are making cash available to people across every corner of South Africa is a wonderful feeling. Particularly for those who live in the rural parts of South Africa, we have made accessibility to cash that much easier for so many. I am so encouraged by the caliber of the team members we have continued to hire at Spark ATM. We think of ourselves as a technology company in the banking space and are always looking for tech-smart individuals.
We have a policy at Spark ATM of hiring for attitude and training for skill. This has served us extremely well in driving a super motivated organisation with dedicated attention to detail in every aspect.
In what ways, do you think, Fintech is enhancing the South African economy?
Fintech has been a strong driver of financial inclusion over the last 5 years. South Africa boasts an extremely high smartphone density which has led to innovative banking products and services in the mobile space.
Spark ATM remains at the forefront of innovation and offers cardless cash withdrawals where the mobile phone replaces the card. This has grown to be a significant portion of our transactions which is a trend we see growing.
Which major Fintech trends, in your opinion, will come to the forefront during 2021?
I firmly believe that change is inevitable especially in our industry. The drive for enhanced security features like Biometric Security Systems and Voice Recognition will add a further layer of security and peace of mind when using Fintech products and services, particularly in the ATM industry.
We believe the ATM is fast becoming a relationship building tool for the banks. With capabilities such as two-way video, banks can enhance the service offering of an ATM which could create more foot traffic at ATMs.
ATMs are fast becoming more than just a cash machine. The range of services that an ATM can offer will certainly complement web, mobile, telephone and other banking channels.
We also cannot discount the power of AI. It has the capabilities to deliver a personalized customer experience and manage banking assets and cash more effectively.
How did you get into this industry?
Having done some extensive travelling abroad and upon returning to South Africa, I found myself having to look really hard to find an ATM to withdraw cash, especially outside of banking hours. Internationally, ATMs can be found almost at arms-length which is a huge convenience.
This sparked an opportunity for me to fill a gap in the Fintech industry by making ATMs and cash more readily accessible to South Africans and international visitors.
Installing our first ATM in Cape Town in 2005 was significant in many ways. It gave us a foot in the door which fueled the drive, desire and self-belief that this was possible.
What are your three top tips for ensuring the success of a Fintech business?
Besides having a unique product or service and having done extensive market research and analysis, my three top tips would be:
- Constantly understanding your target markets needs and wants.
The Fintech industry is a constantly evolving one due to the nature and speed of technology evolution. In addition, the needs and wants of consumers also change which means constantly being in touch with what your customers are asking for.
- Innovate and automate.
Due to the fast pace of technological development, the need to be forward thinking, proactive and preemptive is a must. In line with this mindset, where possible, automate as many of the systems and processes you have internally which frees up employee bandwidth to focus on revenue generating projects.
- Hiring strategically
Surrounding yourself with the right people in the right positions delivering maximum output is key to any business. A start-up Fintech business requires one to be a jack of all trades running on a tight budget. However as the business grows and evolves, surrounding yourself with strategic employees allows you to focus on the goals, objectives and big picture thinking of the business.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
As we celebrate our 15th year in business this year, I am proud to look back to see how and where we began the journey and where we are today. The most rewarding part of my job would be being able to make a positive impact on the lives of people of South Africa in making access to ATMs and cash more inclusive.
Inclusivity of ATMs and cash has a positive knock-on effect on so many other areas. We are an enabler and conduit of opportunity and growth for people in South Africa.
What have been some major obstacles in your career and how did you overcome them?
We faced some hurdles with regards to financing the initial order of ATMs. ATMs require capital before any manufacturer will ship to you. Before we could arrange this finance, the banks asked us to pre-sell the first 27 ATMs. This meant explaining to these first site owners that they would be the first customers of Spark ATM. It required bravery on their part and some fancy footwork on our part.
As we close in on 4,500 sites across the country, 90% of these initial 27 sites are still valued customers of ours. This was a big lesson for us and one that we talk about a lot to this day – Every client matters!
What are your goals for the future of Spark ATM Systems?
We want to continue to grow, evolve and play a meaningful role in the lives of the customers we serve. We have built fantastic relationships with some of the big five banks, as well as South Africa’s top retailers, as well as many of the independent stores that serve the millions of South Africans on a daily basis.
We must maintain these relationships as well as foster new relationships so that we can build our customer base and continue to make ATMs and cash inclusive for all. It is our goal that 30% of the country’s ATMs will be owned or managed by Spark ATM within 3 years.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who aspire to work in the Fintech Industry?
It is certainly a very exciting and constantly changing industry as many businesses around the world re-invent, re-toggle and re-define who they are, what they do and how they deliver their products and services to their markets.
Fintech is somewhat defined by the evolution of technology and hence my advice to young entrepreneurs is 3-fold:
- Conduct thorough research of your product and the niche it will potentially fill in the Fintech Industry.
- Adopt a pro-active, forward thinking approach with all that you do. The Fintech industry changes rapidly due to the enhancements in technology.
- Obstacles will be thrown in your way. Approach them as opportunities to learn, develop and grow. Obstacles don’t define you – they teach you to find a way around them.