Net Element CEO Oleg Firer on Entrepreneurship and Diplomacy

Exec-Edge
·13 min read

Net Element CEO Oleg Firer

By Jarrett Banks

Oleg Firer has his hands in many pies. The serial entrepreneur and CEO of Net Element, a technology company specializing in mobile payments, started his first business at the age of 17 and is known as a corporate turn-around specialist. He’s also an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Grenada.

In an interview with Exec Edge, Mr. Firer said the key to his success has been his bets on human capital. The full interview is below:

Exec Edge: Tell us a little bit about your professional journey. How did you become interested in getting involved in both the payments processing and EV spaces?

Growing up in New York, I always had ambitions to become an entrepreneur, even at the early age I have worked various jobs since the age of 11. At the age of 17, becoming the youngest General Manager of an electronics retail chain. After leaving that position, I worked as an executive at the NASDAQ-listed wireless technology company, which presented me with an opportunity to run a spin-off company that was a wireless communication services distributor, seeing the company from inception to becoming a fast growth company was an interesting experience, however in 2002 that came to a stall as the biggest partner of the company, MCI WorldCom went bankrupt. This challenge made me think about new opportunities as electronic payments were emerging and projected to surpass cash payments for the first time. Despite advices from my colleagues not to get involved in the crowded payments industry, I saw an opportunity to create a recurring revenue stream and fill a niche. The niche that I saw for myself is to create a company focused on small to medium size business with taking a consultative approach on helping businesses streamline their payment processes as well as introduce innovative payment solutions traditionally not available to smaller retailers. Shortly after becoming a member service provider for JPMorgan Chase and partnering with First Data Corp, myself and my two partners began marketing our offering from our offices in Brooklyn, NY. Within the few years we were able to demonstrate a substantial growth as well as amass an impressive recurring revenue stream, however as with all growing businesses we needed financing to continue our growth, which presented us with an opportunity to take the company public through a reverse merger with then publicly-traded company. In 2004, shortly after completing a merger with the publicly-traded company we were able to secure the needed financing to continue the growth. During my career with the publicly-traded company, I have served in various roles, as a COO, CEO, President, Chairman and the Director of the company. In 2007, I left the company to join a private equity group in Florida as a Managing Partner, with focus on financial services and technologies. First venture that came out of the private equity group was a merchant cash advance company focused on providing capital to small businesses in the United States. Through use of proprietary technologies, the merchant cash advance company has immediately shown traction and have grown to be one of the leading merchant cash advance companies at the time. As economic tide was turning, I ones again identified payment services as a resilient business to put capital behind and start looking at opportunities that can be synergetic to the merchant cash advance business. In 2008, when capital markets dried out, I identified a payments company in New York that has experienced distress and helped the company to restructure its business and finances as its biggest partner filed for bankruptcy. Based on the success I have experienced with the NYC payments company, from 2008-2010, I have restructured and turned-around more than 5 other payment companies in New York, Illinois and California. Finally, in 2010 together with the leading private capital group in Florida, I have formed Unified Payments, which I have joined as the Executive Chairman. In 2012, Unified Payments’ revenues grew by 23,646% over 3-year period and Inc. Magazine ranked the company as #1 fastest-growing company in 2012. In 2013, after a successful sale of a client portfolio of Unified Payments to a third-party and a successful sale of a technology platform to NASDAQ-listed Net Element, I have joined Net Element as a CEO and Director. Restructuring Net Element, exiting non-core businesses and at the same time growing revenues has been very challenging, however together with the dedicated team of professionals we have taken revenues of Net Element from $0 to $65 million in 2019. In 2020 as we entered into unprecedented times of pandemic, we have seen the resilience of a payments business to begin to fade away as many of the retailers began closing its doors. This presented an opportunity to explore other opportunities, one of these opportunities was to look closer to the electronic vehicle (EV) industry. After extensive diligence, I have identified Mullen Technologies as the company to get behind, due to its disruptive intellectual property and the fact that Mullen is one of the few EV companies that has an experience building and delivering a vehicle as well as understanding manufacturing, distribution and logistics value-chain.

Exec Edge: With the results of the recent election and the emphasis placed on transforming the U.S. into a renewable energy superpower, what is your assessment of the state of the EV space? What will it look like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

According to IAE, Sales of electric vehicles topped 2.1 million globally in 2019, surpassing 2018 already a record year – to boost the stock to 7.2 million electric vehicles. Electric vehicles, which accounted for 2.6% of global car sales and about 1% of global car stock in 2019, registered a 40% year-on-year increase. As technological progress in the electrification of two/three-wheelers, buses, and trucks advances and the market for them grows, electric vehicles are expanding significantly. Ambitious policy announcements have been critical in stimulating the electric-vehicle rollout in major vehicle markets in recent years. In 2019, indications of a continuing shift from direct subsidies to policy approaches that rely more on regulatory and other structural measures – including zero-emission vehicles mandates and fuel economy standards – have set clear, long-term signals to the auto industry and consumers that support the transition in an economically sustainable manner for governments. It is estimated that electric vehicle sales will account for about 3% of global car sales in 2020.

Electric vehicles play a critical role in meeting the environmental goals of the Sustainable Development Scenario to reduce local air pollution and to address climate change. In this scenario, the global electric vehicle stock (excluding two/three-wheelers) grows by 36% annually, reaching 245 million vehicles in 2030 – more than 30 times above today’s level. Other than two/three-wheelers, growth is strongest for the light-duty vehicle segment where electric powertrain technologies are most readily available. In the Stated Policies Scenario, under the assumptions taken, the global electric vehicle stock (excluding two/three-wheelers) reaches nearly 140 million vehicles and accounts for 7% of the global vehicle fleet.

Furthermore, it is my believe that there are signals that recovery measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis will continue on vehicle efficiency in general and electrification in particular coupled with the government policies towards EV and renewable energy.

Electric vehicles are a key technology to reduce air pollution in densely populated areas and a promising option to contribute to energy diversification and greenhouse gas emissions reduction objectives. Electric vehicle benefits include zero tailpipe emissions, better efficiency than internal combustion engine vehicles and large potential for greenhouse gas emissions reductions when coupled with a low-carbon electricity sector. These objectives are major drivers behind countries’ policy support in the development and deployment of electric powertrains for transport. To date, 17 countries have announced 100% zero-emission vehicle targets or the phase-out of internal combustion engine vehicles through 2050. France, in December 2019, was the first country to put this intention into law, with a 2040 timeframe. Most recently, UK announced a ban on sale of fossil fuel cars by 2030.

Policy actions for electric vehicles depend on the status of the electric vehicle market or technology. Setting vehicle and charger standards are prerequisites for wide electric vehicle adoption. In the early stages of deployment, public procurement schemes (e.g. for buses and municipal vehicles) have the double benefit of demonstrating the technology to the public and providing the opportunity for public authorities to lead by example. Importantly, they also allow the industry to produce and deliver bulk orders to foster economies of scale. Emerging economies can scale up their policy efforts for both new vehicles and second-hand imports.

Tax rates that reflect tailpipe CO2 emissions can be conducive to increased electric vehicle uptake. Fiscal incentives at the vehicle purchase, as well as complementary measures (example: road toll rebates and low-emission zones) are pivotal to attract consumers and businesses to choose the electric option. Local governments are key in proposing and implementing measures to enhance the value proposition of electric vehicles. The use of local low- and zero-emission zones can steer car purchase decisions far beyond just those zones and may influence the relative resale value of internal combustion engines and electric powertrains.

The vast majority of car markets offer some form of subsidy or tax reduction for the purchase of an individual or company electric car as well as support schemes for deploying charging infrastructure. Provisions in building codes to encourage charging facilities and the “EV-readiness” of buildings are becoming more common. So too are mandates to build charging infrastructure along road corridors and fuel stations. All these initiatives are the driving force behind EV deployment.

Exec Edge: How would you describe your personal approach to turning around distressed companies?

First and foremost, bet on the human capital, in many cases entrepreneurs that started the company might not have the right team around them or might fit in a role of a CTO or chief sales officer rather than a CEO. Working with the person that started the company and understanding his/her pitfalls and strong points helps me understand the right approach for the turn around. In some rare cases when the entrepreneur is either resistive to change or is unable to face realties, the best way out of distress is liquidation of assets or an exit through acquisition. Even though that every case is different, thinking outside the box always helps me to find the right approach and the solution needed.

Exec Edge: What are the biggest pitfalls you would advise young entrepreneurs to avoid in securing the necessary financing for early-stage ventures?

Plan ahead, when raising capital be conservative in assumptions and leave a cushion. Don’t be afraid to raise more capital than is needed as you can never predict unprecedented changes in the business environment. Lastly, do not get obsessed with holding on to too much equity, surround yourself with the right talent, additional equity can be achieved through milestone incentives.

Exec Edge: Given your recognition in both realms of business and diplomacy, how would you describe your approach to these two different spaces? What is the overlap and what insights have you gained from experience that you value most?

Being a chief executive in business is very similar to being a diplomat. There is an unseen bridge between business and diplomacy. Managing a business in today’s environment requires constant negotiations at the executive levels and diplomatic approach to mid-management. One of my favorite diplomatic approaches to management is an ability to promote and seed an idea or a solution within, where your colleagues begin to believe in it as much as they begin present and solicit this idea or solutions rest of the group.

Most foreign policies today are economic in nature. Business is an indispensable partner of today’s diplomacy. Therefore, it would be in the interest of both to promote the rule of law, transparency, and respect for human rights as well as encourage economic development, to grow and prosper.

The foreign policy and economic policy of countries have always been indivisible. Whether it is access to resources or increased trade, economics has played a role in diplomacy since the beginning of time. It is also clearly visible from the fact that today when the president or the prime minister of any country gets off the plane in a foreign land, they have CEOs of their largest companies with them. The success of their foreign trips is measured not only by the treaties they execute, but by the deals the private companies sign to promote trade and direct investments into their respected countries.

Exec Edge: Given that many may not be so familiar with Grenada, what are your favorite parts about the Caribbean island nation and what would you most like readers to know about it?

Grenada being a tri-state island nation is known on the international scale as an “Island of Spice”. There is so much to do on this friendly island that it would be unjust to just name a few places. Being so, my favorite is the smell of spices and sugar cane, pristine beaches, waterfalls and underwater tourism to name a few. Grenada is surrounded by both the ocean and the sea and its natural shores attract tourists from all over the world.

Exec Edge: Grenada has recently expressed its aspirations to lead the region in developing a locally sustainable ‘Blue Economy’. Can you go into detail about what these terms represent and what this will look like for the future?

The Caribbean region is one of the most interconnected and dynamic environments in the world, with multiple socio-economic and ecological benefits derived from diverse economies, cultures and ecosystems. The value of the ocean economy in the Caribbean has been estimated at US$407 billion, and the ocean economy is expected to further contribute to Sustainable Development and the 2030 Agenda.

Grenada has undertaken policy and institutional measures to maintain fiscal discipline and to diversify its economy toward a blue growth model based on sustainable, well-governed use of ocean resources.

Grenada is one of the first countries within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to create a vision for managing and protecting national waters as well as setting a path to ‘blue growth’. Grenada’s Blue Growth Coastal Master Plan sets out a strategy to harness Grenada’s coasts to provide new jobs and alternative livelihoods, expanding their economy whilst also committing to preserving their natural environment.

The Grenada Second Fiscal Resilience and Blue Growth Development Policy Credit is the second in a programmatic series of two World Bank–financed operations aimed at deepening support for Grenada’s policy and institutional measures to maintain fiscal discipline and to diversify the economy toward a blue growth model based on sustainable, well-governed use of ocean resources. The project included fiscal reform measures such as building fiscal buffers, improving public expenditure management, instituting customs and excise reforms, and improving transparency of public enterprises. The operation also supported the government’s measures for better environment and natural resource management, including efforts to integrate coastal zone management and to include environmental sustainability requirements in public procurement.

Grenada has strong development partnerships. Close collaboration between the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Caribbean Development Bank, and the Canada-Caribbean Resilience Facility provided technical assistance to support fiscal sustainability and climate change resilience under this project.

The reduction of imports of single-use plastic food containers, cutlery, and plastic straws has decreased contamination in coastal environments, improving the welfare of coastal communities and creating indirect positive impacts and health benefits related to marine-based economic activities such as fishing and marine tourism. Reduced pollution has also helped to improve coastal area quality and lessened the potential for vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and Zika.

 

Jarrett Banks

Editor-at-Large

Exec Edge

jb@capmarketsmedia.com

Twitter: @Exec_Edge