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Fintech: Nickel draws on banque-tabac model

After turning French banking upside down, Compte Nickel is taking its tech-savvy approach to financial inclusion abroad. Insiders say its barebones account service will spread further and keep its dynamism under BNP Paribas ownership. But can a bank for outsiders with a physical network also be the fintech champion of Europe’s banking establishment?


Illustration: Jane Webster

At a time when the likes of N26 and Revolut are capturing millions of French customers, the growth of Compte Nickel – arguably France’s biggest neobank – is stepping up a gear. But Nickel is not your stereotypical London- or Berlin-based, consumer-facing fintech firm. It’s based in a slightly drab building in an unfashionable district just outside Paris’ inner ring road. Unlike its peers, it’s making more profit, rather than bigger losses, as it expands abroad.

Nickel’s greatest difference with other fintechs and neobanks is that it does not try to recruit urban millennials and digital natives. Its success is based not just on using new technology but also on a unique ability to distribute bank accounts cheaply, in a vast physical network reaching thousands of isolated and marginalized French communities.

It does it through France’s ubiquitous bar-tabac network – tens of thousands of tobacconists, typically doubling up as bars and selling newspapers and lottery tickets, as well as cigarettes.

Nickel struck an exclusive agreement to deploy electronic terminals in the network in 2014 in return for a 5% stake in Nickel still held by the tobacconists today.

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