Citizens seeks edge in middle market with tech partnership

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A potential date is only a swipe away in the age of Tinder. Businesses, however, often still have to rely on old methods for finding eligible suitors: the Rolodex, the Chamber of Commerce, the country club.

Opportunity Network, a matchmaking platform for businesses, announced on Tuesday that it is partnering with Citizens Financial to bring some of the ease and simplicity of digital dating to the bank's middle-market clients.

The partnership with Citizens will give the platform's existing members access to a deep pool of capital and potential relationships in the U.S., while the Providence, R.I.-based bank will be able, for a while at least, to offer American corporations a service they won’t likely find elsewhere.

"We're trying to get first-mover advantage," said Steve Woods, the head of U.S. corporate banking at Citizens. "We have a significant middle-market business at the bank, and I want to make sure that we're always on the cutting edge."

Citizens has about 2,000 middle-market clients—defined as companies making between $25 million and $400 million in annual revenue—totaling $20 billion to $25 billion in commitments.

Woods said he wants to help them gain access, perhaps for the first time, "to global markets—whether that be Asia, Europe or South America."

Banks have spent the last year or so looking for ways to improve their tech offerings for commercial clients. Those initiatives, however, tend to be related to lending. For instance, several banks have partnered with marketplace lenders or have overhauled their technology to make applying for a loan easier and faster. Meanwhile, most fintechs tend to focus on applications for consumers. The commercial side of banking is relatively virgin territory.

Both of those trends make Citizens' partnership with Opportunity Network stand out. In 2016, Patricia Hines, a senior analyst at Celent, researched the venture capital and private-equity money that was flowing to fintech startups. Only 5% of it, she found, was going to startups working on commercial applications.

"I have not seen anything even close to this," she said, referring to Opportunity Network.

Opportunity Network users can post business opportunities anonymously to the platform and respond to ones posted by others. Upon joining, members create a profile listing their strategic goals and preferences. The platform then uses a proprietary algorithm to pair them with suitable deals.

"Every deal is segmented by an industry, a geography, a type of deal and a monetary value," said Garrett Smith, the startup's president and founding partner.

The floor for deals is set at $1 million. When users see one that piques their interest, they can click a button and Opportunity Network makes an email introduction to the principals of the two firms involved. Those companies are then able to continue the conversation in private, off the platform.

"As soon as you log into the platform, you'll be able to see all of the different deals that match your strategic and commercial interests," Smith said. "You click 'Connect,' we make that introduction and you're off to have that conversation."

Opportunity Network launched in 2013 and has a handful of European clients, including CaixaBank and the London Stock Exchange. Citizens is the first bank in the United States to partner with the startup.

Although more than 13,500 CEOs, high-net-worth individuals and family offices are already using Opportunity Network, it "was critical to have a U.S. bank and its clients," Smith said.

One of the strengths of the startup's business model is that banks "have such detailed knowledge of their customers,” Hines said.

Commercial bankers' close relationships with their clients are also crucial to selling business owners on the platform.

"They really have a good feel for who their clients are, what their business does, and what their goals are," Smith said.

Although he declined to reveal how much it costs to join Opportunity Network, Smith said the company charges a flat fee for a two-year membership; the company does not take a percentage of any transactions consummated through its platform.

"We made a very conscious decision not to do that," Smith said. "We want companies to keep their financial incentive to themselves, and we want the banks to help facilitate those opportunities and that growth."

The model, which Hines said increases the company's credibility with users, seems to have worked well. Opportunity Network has been profitable since its first year, and today boasts, along with its London headquarters, dedicated offices in New York, Barcelona and Dubai, along with smaller satellites in dozens of other locales. Its corporate footprint covers 40 countries in all.

That means Opportunity Network members are exposed to a whole world of, well, opportunities.

Thousands of deals are currently live on the platform. Some of those are growth opportunities, while others are more appropriate for mature businesses. Still others involve proposed mergers and acquisitions.

"We want to make sure we have the products and ideas to take businesses through their entire life cycle," Woods said. "We want to be known as a life-cycle bank."

Hines gives an example of how M&A might happen through the platform. Say there is a family business with an aging founder whose kids don't want the responsibility of running it.

"You've got a company in Raleigh, N.C.," that wants to sell, "and maybe there is somebody in Spain or Germany or Italy who has been looking for a toehold in the United States," Hines said. "That's really the power there. The CEO gets a network of vetted companies to post to, and it goes beyond his local network. Whereas today you're probably going to sell your business at the country club or whatever."

It remains to be seen whether other U.S. banks will join Citizens in partnering with Opportunity Network. But Woods, who said his due diligence included talking to one of its partner banks in Europe, is more than happy to be the guinea pig.

"I'm optimistic that this is going to be a home run for us," he said, "but, most importantly, for our clients."

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