Biz: Two Guys with a Vision

Had they earned the label in elementary school they’d have likely landed in detention, but as adults blazing paths in financial technology, these entrepreneurs branded as “disruptors” wear the term like a badge of honor.

Justin Brownhill and Nicolas Perkin are the co-founders of the groundbreaking firm Receivables Exchange, which has won big raise among technology innovators and recently won a huge vote of confidence from no less than the New York Stock Exchange.

Barely five years old, the New Orleans-based company has made rapid inroads into territory that’s largely unfamiliar to consumers but is of keen interest to business owners – the realm of accounts receivable.

Collecting payments from customers in a timely manner is crucial if a business is to maintain positive cash flow, but collections can be one of the most difficult functions a business owner must manage.

When payables due in 30 days slide to 60 or 90 days or longer, managers find themselves facing unattractive options. Do they delay their own payments owed to vendors in order to keep daily operations in the black? Can they afford to put a client relationship at risk by demanding immediate payment of a bill?

This fundamental challenge to doing business  gave rise long ago to a practice called “factoring,” in which a business owner sells off invoices to a third party in return for cash. The third party, who buys the invoices at a discount, then collects the full amount of the bill and profits on the difference.

Several years ago, Brownhill and Perkin turned the factoring process on its head through a seeming miracle of technology. They created an electronic marketplace that operates much like an eBay for receivables.

Potential buyers log on to the exchange, search a database of receivables and bid on the assets they want. A pre-qualifying process “certifies” the buyers as being legitimate, and helps ensure the viability and security of the transaction. If a seller accepts the terms a buyer offers, the transaction occurs quickly, often within 24 hours.

The Receivables Exchange lets buyers and sellers manage the whole process while sitting at their desks, using proprietary desktop software. Most importantly from the seller’s standpoint, the transaction quickly converts invoices into cash.

Creating what they describe as the first online marketplace for real-time trading of accounts receivable has snagged Brownhill and Perkin a slew of business tributes and sent their profile soaring in financial technology circles. The website Silicon Alley Insider last year ranked Brownhill among the 100 “coolest tech people” in New York, where Receivables Exchange has an office.

Recently, Institutional Investor magazine named the two among a handful of the most “disruptive” figures in America’s financial technology sector. the magazine’s list pays tribute to individuals who are “eager to make innovative leaps to gain competitive advantages” while creating ways to do business.

But the company’s biggest landmark to date may be the September announcement that the New York Stock Exchange has acquired a minority ownership stake in Receivable Exchange. The New York exchange will market the company’s services to thousands of NYSE-listed companies, giving Brownhill and Perkin unprecedented access to the $17 trillion U.S. accounts receivable market.

Almost as impressive as the growth of Receivables Exchange is the statement the company’s presence in New Orleans makes about the city. Neither Brownhill nor Perkin is a Louisiana native, and no one would have been surprised to see them sink their corporate roots in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or any other financial center.

“As we started formulating the business plan, New Orleans naturally evolved as a leading candidate,” says Perkin, a native New Yorker who received an undergraduate degree from Tulane University.

He and Brownhill looked closely at the merits of all the cities that might have seemed more likely places to headquarter a major financial exchange.
“New Orleans had a particularly strong entrepreneurial spirit, given what the city had just been through,” Perkin says, referring to the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina. “There was a sense that everyone was going to work, to build and rebuild.”

In addition, he says, the local quality of life and relatively low cost of living were pluses.

“We wanted a place where the people working in the company could have a good quality of life at a fraction of what it would cost them in California or New York,” Perkin says. “Here you can afford to go to great restaurants, hear great music and see a great sports team. Try to do that in New York or San Francisco on a start-up salary, and you’re going to be very limited in your options.”

The Receivables Exchange solidified its local presence early this year when it became the anchor tenant of a downtown building formerly known as Chevron Place. Taking over two floors of the 21-story tower, the company also acquired naming rights to the building, which is now called The New Orleans Exchange Centre. It was a fitting way to top off a year that saw trading volume on the exchange increase by nearly 470 percent.

Perkin says the company, which employs about 70 people, continues to grow at a rapid clip. August was a record-setting month, the full year will be strong and “it’s going to be a great 2012,” he says.

Perkin is equally optimistic about New Orleans’ potential over the next few decades. He says, “I really think the city is going to achieve its destiny.”

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