What Cities Across America Can Learn From Atlanta’s Financial Tech Boom

And how the ATL got the nickname 'Transaction Alley'

Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

Over the past few years, Atlanta has become somewhat of a Southern powerhouse in the financial technology world, attracting companies, talent and revenue that have put the Empire City of the South at the center of the burgeoning industry known as fintech.

While Atlanta might be more famous for peaches than processing payments, the city is home to around 100 financial technology companies large and small, roughly two-thirds of which are focused on digitally processing credit cards and other online transactions. About 70 percent of the $4.4 trillion in payments processed in North America go through companies in Atlanta, according to the American Transaction Processors Coalition, or ATPC, a trade organization set up by the city in 2014 to advocate for fintech at the state and federal level.

All told, Atlanta’s fintech companies comprise around 60 percent of the industry in the U.S. In fact, fintech companies in Atlanta and across the rest of Georgia generate annual revenues of more than $72 billion. That’s a total surpassed only by New York and California, according to the Technology Association of Georgia.

The sector has also been a strong jobs creator. Fintech now employs between 30,000 and 40,000 people in Atlanta and 80,000 indirectly in transportation, infrastructure, construction, technology support and other jobs that service the industry, according to the ATPC. And it’s poised to grow. According to a report by McKinsey Global Consulting, global payment revenues are expected to increase 5 percent over the next five years, with the total expected to exceed $2 trillion by 2019.

But despite such growth, Atlanta has a profile problem. Even some former and current Atlanta residents in tech and finance have remained unfamiliar with the city’s concentration of fintech talent.

“I think one of our biggest problems is raising the profile of the city as to our role in this already,” said H. West Richards, executive director of the ATPC.

It was Richards who came up with the nickname “Transaction Alley” for Atlanta. In 2013, after working for years as a financial services lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Richards and an attorney were discussing the payments industry in the city and realized it was even bigger than they realized. They came up with the name, and it soon took hold.

“It was simple as that; it stuck,” Richards said. “I knew we had a winner when I was in San Francisco and someone said, ‘Oh, Transaction Alley. Yeah, I know that.'”

Why Atlanta, and why now?

While Transaction Alley might not be as recognizable a monicker as Silicon Valley, the name has indeed stuck. It’s fitting, considering that companies in the state processed 85 billion of the 135 billion global payments in 2012, per the ATPC. The organization said the size of the payments-processing industry in terms of global annual sales is the same as that of the U.S. movie industry, adding that more than 15 million merchants that accept credit cards rely on Georgia’s fintech firms.

The city’s history with fintech can be traced back half a century, to when the Federal Reserve began testing automatically processed payments and other financial innovations, said Kathryn Petralia, co-founder and COO of Atlanta-based digital lending service Kabbage.

About 70 percent of the $4.4 trillion in payments processed in North America goes through companies in Atlanta.

To understand why Atlanta’s payments industry is thriving, it helps to think about an older one that’s not—checks. The number of checks being cleared by the Fed’s systems has dramatically decreased and transferred to credit cards. Citing the Federal Reserve System’s Cash Product Office, a 2014 report by Quartz found the total number of transactions using checks fell from 40 billion to 20 billion between 2000 and 2012.

That means more business for companies like those in Atlanta that process credit card payments and other digital transactions, noted Harold Solomon, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who now runs Georgia Tech’s VentureLab, which helps faculty and graduate students launch tech startups. Solomon pointed to innovations currently taking place in the developing world in countries like Kenya and Bangladesh, where people are using text messages to make transactions, even without using PayPal. He said the way people are exchanging currencies is evolving “wickedly fast,” and that the developing world has a head start.

Petralia said Atlanta’s pool of talent has made it ripe for entrepreneurship, which has also drawn more attention from investors, and money continues to pour into the sector.

From 2013 to 2015, companies invested more than $208 million in fintech, creating 1,570 jobs, according to the the Georgia Department of Economic Development. And just last month, Atlanta-based TTV Capital announced it had raised $93 million for a fintech venture fund, which could provide much needed funding for the startups coming out of schools like Georgia Tech. Others are raising funds as well. The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that Atlanta-based early-stage funds have raised around $300 million in just the past few years.

“When you think about the way economic sectors grow, they tend to cluster together for obvious reasons, like talent or R&D,” said Matt Fogt, vp of marketing for Invest Atlanta, which works to bring more businesses to Atlanta.

Companies interested in the future of fintech go beyond those that are directly engaged in it. In January, Georgia Tech and 10 Atlanta companies launched Engage, a mentorship-driven accelerator program that over the next three years will house nearly 50 startups. The initiative is also aided by a $15 million venture fund. Brands including AT&T, Delta Airlines, UPS and Home Depot are committing $1.5 million each, and executives at those companies will mentor the program’s participants.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed takes great pride in the city’s fintech boom during his two terms in office, and he said the niche industry’s wide-ranging impact bodes well for other areas of innovation in the city.

“It just suggests that there are going to be more and more dynamic businesses that are choosing to make their roots here,” Reed said in a recent interview with Adweek, “because we’ve got high talent and we have a terrific pool of potential clients.”

What’s next for Transaction Alley

Worldpay, a British payment processing company whose North American headquarters are in Atlanta, recently relocated from the city’s northern suburbs to its booming Midtown neighborhood, home to other payment companies like NCR and Kabbage. However, there was a time not long ago when the company considered moving elsewhere—Austin, for instance, or San Francisco—but then decided to recommit to Atlanta.

“One of my favorite words is ‘propinquity,’ the study of relationships and how they benefit from being close to each other,” said Joe Kleinwaechter, vp of innovation and design at Worldpay. “The closer you are to somebody, the more effective [you’ll be] than being far away from them.”

In 2015, Worldpay invested further in the city’s fintech future, donating $1 million over a three-year period to the Atlanta Technology Development Center, or ATDC, an incubator spun out of Georgia Tech. According to Kleinwaechter, the investment also lets Worldpay execs mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs while also getting a closer look at the latest innovations. He said startups often smell trends faster than larger corporations.

“It’s almost like an old tree dropping acorns,” Kleinwaechter said. “At least we have a good ground to drop on, and some of them will grow. Some of them won’t.”

And in Atlanta, the acorns are just as important as the oaks. The ATDC has 45 companies physically located in its offices, along with another 80 participating digitally. About 20 of them are fintech thanks in large part to Worldpay’s donation, which led to the creation of the ATDC’s fintech vertical.

In February, the ATDC hosted a hackathon for people interested in working on fintech projects related to the Internet of Things. In a short period, several teams came up with working models. One developed a payments platform for connected cars. Another found an easier way to tip valets and bartenders without needing cash.

“Uber and Alexa have made payments ubiquitous,” said ATDC general manager Jen Bonnett. “So where else should payments be ubiquitous?”

Later this year, Atlanta will co-host a new annual payments conference with London, the payments capital of Europe. The first one will take place this fall in the U.K. In 2018, P20, as the conference is called, will head south.

“When it rotates to Atlanta, it will put the city on the world stage of financial services in a way it’s never been before,” Richards said. “And that event in 2018 can be a watershed event when the world realizes what great talent and opportunity is here.”