(Bloomberg) -- Coming soon from the world’s largest retailer: checking accounts.
Most Read from Bloomberg
A venture that’s majority-backed by Walmart Inc. is poised to emerge from the shadows this month with digital bank accounts meant for the retail giant’s 1.6 million US employees and legions of weekly shoppers. In coming weeks, the company will start offering the accounts to thousands of workers and a small percentage of its online customers as part of an initial beta test of the new service, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The move heralds the arrival of Walmart’s fintech push after years of fitful efforts to expand its financial-services offerings. Eventually, One -- the financial-technology startup Walmart is leaning on for the effort -- is hoping to offer a bevy of other products, from loans to investing, in an effort to become a one-stop shop for consumers’ financial needs, the people said. Watching closely will be lawmakers, regulators and Wall Street titans.
Representatives for Walmart and One declined to comment.
At One, the work is being led by Omer Ismail, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner who left his post as head of the firm’s consumer bank in early 2021 to become chief executive officer of the independent fintech startup Walmart formed with Ribbit Capital. At the time, Walmart was vague about its intentions with the venture, saying only it was “designed to develop and offer modern, innovative and affordable financial solutions.”
Nearly two years later, those ambitions have begun to take shape. In January, the venture announced it would acquire One Finance Inc., which operates a digital banking account, and fellow fintech Even Responsible Finance Inc., which provides workers with early access to their wages.
The combined companies, which have operated under the One name since the deals were completed in April, had 200 employees and more than $250 million in cash on their balance sheet at the time of the close. One has since hired 100 additional staffers, including Afterpay Ltd.’s Laura Nadler as chief financial officer and Apple Inc.’s Raffi Vartkessian as head of customer operations.
One operates as a completely independent company, though it is majority-owned by Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart. John Furner, chief executive officer of Walmart US, sits on One’s board.
So far, much of the work has been done from a WeWork in Manhattan’s tony Tribeca neighborhood, though staffers are scattered in offices in San Francisco and Sacramento, California, as well.
Walmart’s interest in financial services is nothing new. The company’s MoneyCenter locations already allow customers to cash checks, access tax-preparation services and send money overseas through partners such as MoneyGram International Inc. and Euronet Worldwide Inc.’s Ria. The retail giant also already offers a bevy of credit and prepaid debit cards through lenders including Capital One Financial Corp., Synchrony Financial and Green Dot Corp.
But the company hasn’t been shy about setting more ambitious goals.
“We’ve got a pretty big financial services business, but I would characterize it as being analog, and the opportunity to make it digital is right there in front of us,” Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said last year at an investor conference. “There are so many digital products that we can go build that will help people with managing their family’s expenses and their accounts and ultimately, hopefully, build wealth.”
In 2005, Walmart shocked critics when it applied to be an industrial bank in Utah. Back then, Walmart said it wasn’t seeking to open bank branches; rather, it was hoping to use the charter to process credit and debit card transactions internally, a move that would have saved it millions of dollars a year. After two years and several delays, Walmart withdrew its application.
This time around, the retailer has opted for a different path. The One venture has long relied on a partnership with Coastal Community Bank to issue its debit card and provide other banking services. The company plans to continue partnering with Coastal Community for those activities, according to one of the people.
With Walmart, One has access to a retail behemoth with 5,335 stores across the US -- more locations than any of the four biggest US banks has. The company has touted 150 million weekly customers and says more than 90% of the US population lives within a 10-minute drive of a Walmart store.
That means One will have to spend far less than fintech rivals on marketing and other customer-acquisition costs as it plots its expansion.
“Given the eyeballs that we have and the number of people who transact with us every week, customer-acquisition cost is actually something we already bring to the table,” Brett Biggs, then Walmart’s chief financial officer, said at an investor conference in March. “We should have lower customer-acquisition costs than other companies like that.”
The One venture is hoping to lure shoppers with discounts on purchases. The company will soon revamp the One app to offer shoppers 2% back for every dollar spent at drugstores, gas stations and Walmart itself, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. For Walmart employees, the venture promises faster access to wages -- at no cost to the workers.
“We want to be the best retailer -- the first, best place where people come to shop,” McMillon has said. “But we also have aspirations to help improve their lives as it relates to health care and financial services -- help families reduce the cost of money, save for the future.”
Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.