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Asia banking: Inside Ant Financial’s nest

Alibaba, Alipay, Ant Financial – by now everyone in banking knows the triumvirate of brands that have transformed financial services in China, and the domestic story is only the start. Going global will be Ant Financial’s biggest-ever test, with tougher markets, tighter regulation and a whole new world of risk management. But it is nothing if not ambitious.

Illustration: Justin Metz

For a company that is changing the world, Ant Financial occupies modest premises. Far from the funky fractured lattices of parent Alibaba’s head office, Ant resides in a nondescript grey tower block half an hour’s drive across Hangzhou in east China. 

There is little signage upon it to mark its dynamic inhabitant, nor much evidence of technological sophistication. In the morning, 6,000 staff scrum to get into the six lifts that serve the building. In an overspill tower five minutes’ walk up the road, Euromoney eventually reaches an executive interview via a plywood-flanked goods lift.

Considering that it has been roughly valued as a $60 billion enterprise – the true figure will be clarified if a long-discussed IPO goes ahead – it is worth remembering that Ant is still to a large extent a start-up that has only existed in its current form since 2014. On some floors, that is what it feels like: on one there is a life-size Iron Man figure, which at first glance appears to be working on a Dell laptop next to a table football game and an open-plan kitchen.

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