Many people begin their lives with uncertainty, unsure of the paths they will take or the heights they will reach. This is the story of Aftab, whose story is one of extraordinary achievement and perseverance in the face of uncertainty and daunting challenges.

Ace Money Transfer started out as the most unprepossessing of fledglings but has grown into a very fine swan indeed. The fintech – which lets customers move money abroad quickly and easily – began life as a little shop. Today it employs 300 people, has offices in 14 countries, turns over £30m a year and is relied upon by 1.3 million customers. It also operates charitable endeavors and is building a town on a 100-acre site near its birthplace in Pakistan.

Two young brothers

However, the bird that cracked the egg in 1992 showed few signs of swan-like potentiality. The business began in Kharian, Pakistan – a town of around 100,000 people between Lahore and Islamabad. There, the father of two teenage brothers – Aftab and Rashid Ashraf – ran a travel agency where barely a day passed without clients asking to send cash overseas. Spotting an opportunity, 19-year-old Aftab opened a currency exchange next door. It did well, and Rashid soon joined the business.

In 1999, Aftab got married and moved to the UK. Three years later, armed with the knowledge he’d amassed at the currency exchange and bags of youthful fearlessness, he opened an outlet in Bolton, UK, to help people to send money to Pakistan. This was ACE Money Transfer’s first branch.

Riding turbulence

Twenty-four years later, ACE is one of the world’s most exciting B2C fintech companies. It’s been an incredible journey for Aftab, now chair of Ace Money Transfer, his brother Rashid, now CEO, and their team. To put things into perspective, ACE Money Transfer was born amid the aftershocks of 9/11 and sometimes used fax to do business. Then, six years later, it rode the global financial crash, staying healthy despite foundation-shaking market changes.

In other words, since those shops in Kharian and Bolton opened, ACE Money Transfer has seen the world undergo a financial and technological revolution. Yet it has navigated these storms with apparent ease, launching across Europe and overcoming language barriers and law changes en route, growing into a global business. So how did two teenagers without business or technical training build such a formidable operation?

Take the punches, get stronger

Much of ACE’s success is down to the founders’ intensely humble willingness to absorb lessons, change and work smarter. Rashid says: “In the early days, we had fears and self-doubts. We had to learn how to manage company politics and recover from wrong hires. But these experiences taught us a lot – they let us build better systems. And as time went on, I travelled the UK and Europe, learning even more. So we always keep an open mind and try to bring what we learn into our systems to strengthen us.”

Saplings in the wind

Another significant reason for ACE’s growth was Rashid and Aftab’s early decision to embrace digital technology. Where many companies clung to traditional methods in response to the unprecedented market changes, ACE Money Transfer and its young founders flexed like saplings in strong winds.

The CEO continues: “When we started building ACE, I was 17. At first, we always seemed to be in the red. I worked hard but it didn’t make any difference – and I had no idea why! So in 2000, we decided to bring software into the company and hired a programmer. He’d sit with me, and I’d tell him what I needed. I’d say things like: ‘I want to change that; I want to simplify that accounting process; I want to see those figures on my dashboard.’ I just kept telling him what I wanted. It simplified everything, and after two years our balance sheet was more balanced! That was a success story. If you don’t have an effective system in place – a system than works for you – you’re in trouble.”

Embrace change

The company’s flexibility came to the fore again after Brexit. In response, ACE Money Transfer ditched its ‘agency’ model and became cashless. Previously, 1,300 shopkeepers had acted as agents, using ACE’s tech to send customers’ cash worldwide. But today ACE Money Transfer has no agents; it is a purely online business. It has proved to be a good move.

“The agency system was stressful and hard to manage,” says Rashid. “Now we’re online-only and we all feel more relaxed. This model also means we can scale bigger and faster, and the ultimate goal is to build an ACE ‘digital wallet’ that stretches across the globe, empowering our community to send money anywhere at WhatsApp speed.”

Ultra-loyal workforce

A third factor behind ACE’s remarkable talent for thriving in storms is the deep roots the company has put down in Pakistan. Rather than treating Kharian’s relative remote location as a weakness, the team have turned it into a strength.

Rashid says: “Our back office in Kharian houses our compliance, IT, relationships, accounts and HR teams. We hire locals because we want to give back to our community. Building our Kharian office has been challenging – we’ve had to work harder to attract talent. For example, we’ve built employee hostels, run residential courses and we provide transport. But it’s paid off and now we have a skilled, loyal workforce.”

Eating together

The supportive workplace culture that Aftab, Rashid and their colleagues have built is a fourth reason for ACE’s long-term growth. In Kharian and Bolton – and their offices across the globe – they’ve created a sense of loyalty and pride among the workforce. This, says Rashid, stems from a family-like culture carefully maintained by his brother Aftab, the founder.

Here, Rehan Ashraf, the 22-year-old son of Aftab, joins the conversation. Rehan is a relationship and development executive at ACE and a student at Salford University, and his presence highlights the family dynamic vital to ACE’s success. He says: “Back in the day, Aftab would bring hot food from home and the team would eat together in the office. Now we’ve got 300 employees, so we’ve built a kitchen and cafeteria to carry on that tradition. It’s about eating together, sharing moments and having fun.”

Rehan continues: “Another great thing is our families’ philanthropic endeavors, which was started by my grandfather and then continued by Aftab and Rashid to amplify their father’s and their family’s legacy. This includes daily meals for people – not just the poor but anybody – who can turn up to our office and eat together in the courtyard. It also offers microfinancing and lends vehicles to people who need transport for business. This approach is driven by the desire to address the issue which were faced by Aftab or Rashid on their journey and to offer solutions to other young entrepreneurs.”

Legacy building

The final reason for ACE Money Transfer’s success is the founders’ extraordinary passion for entrepreneurship and creation. The resulting excitement and energy drive not only ACE’s global growth and constant evolution but also spin-off projects, including building a town.

“We’ve bought 100 acres near Kharian,” explains Rashid, “and we’re building homes, schools, a hospital and sporting facilities, including a horse-riding club. We’ve been working on it for nearly two years and I’m loving it because we’re creating a legacy.”

FEBE says…

A legacy is precisely what Aftab, Rashid, Rehan and the team are forging, and it’s an amazing outcome from a story that began with two small shops. By flexing like bamboo on the rock-solid cliff-face of a supportive, family-like culture, the founders and their loyal team have created a fast-growing global fintech with enormous potential. And before long, they will have built a town, too.

ACE Money Transfer shows how far you can travel once you start on the entrepreneurial path. Even if your journey begins with a waddle, if you keep going, learn from your mistakes and embrace change as you go, it’s possible to end up swimming downstream like a magnificent swan.


Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.