The Big Interview: Jonny Combe of PayByPhone

‘You know that scene in The Matrix where he’s offered the red pill or the blue pill?” Jonny Combe has found the ideal analogy for the moment his career reached a fork in the road; the known versus the unknown. His reference to sci-fi hero Neo’s choice between continuing the life he knows or daring to enter a new reality is a tongue-in-cheek parallel to his own decision to move roles.

As a Borders lad Jonny Combe is proud that PayByPhone is about to break into the Scottish market

In all seriousness, the Scot says, after more than a decade with motor industry behemoth BMW – where he joined as a marketing graduate straight out of university – the switch to becoming UK chief executive of mobile parking payments firm PayByPhone was a “big move”.

“On one hand I could stick with the stability, the security – I spent 13 years working at BMW and I loved it,” says Combe. “But then I could take the sideways, unknown route which might potentially be much more exciting, more challenging.”

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The jump from his comfort zone into a small but fast growing firm in an even more rapidly expanding area of the market was a chance too good to miss. The mobile payments market is becoming a force to be reckoned with, as tech titans such as Apple and Google lead the way. Carrying cash is becoming increasingly unnecessary and, for many of us, ever more inconvenient.

PayByPhone is positioning itself as a leader in parking payments through mobile devices, thanks in part to significant investment by Volkswagen Group’s financing arm, Volkswagen Financial Services, which acquired the company in 2016. The business works with local authorities and private car park owners, who can range from chain operators to hospitals, universities and hotels, to allow drivers to pay using an app, online platform, text messaging service or telephone helpline.

The move to cash-free payment means that the site owner no longer has to maintain pay and display machines or collect money, and customers no longer need to worry about finding change. The company already has partnerships with PayPoint and Apple Pay, including an agreement for users to extend parking time on their Apple Watch.

The group describes itself as one of the world’s fastest growing mobile payments companies, processing more than £242 million in payments annually. It serves 17 million registered users in around 300 cities globally. In the UK, the firm has eight million users and processed 28.3 million transactions in 2018, delivering full-year revenues of £6m. Combe only sees these numbers increasing.

“We work really hard with councils to help them remove a lot of pay and display machines. There’s someone driving around collecting them so there’s a lot of CO2 there, sometimes they’re subject to theft or vandalism,” he says. “If we can take that out it saves an awful lot of money, and in the current climate I’ve not met a local authority yet that says cost saving isn’t important. We even had one client take every pay and display machine out of their borough in Haringey, so we see typically with local authorities that we’re getting 85 to 100 per cent adoption of our service by working with the client.”

Chief executive for the UK business since the beginning of November, Combe is tasked with growing the firm’s British presence “aggressively” and breaking into the Scottish market. He believes the company, which has its UK base in Hertfordshire, is helping to shape the new face of mobility. “Some people look at parking and think it’s just parking. But look at the ways in which mobility has changed. Whether it’s autonomous cars, connected cars, the move to electrification, or different models of ownership, such as shared usage models: parking plays into all of them.”

Building the firm’s Scottish presence is particularly high on Combe’s to-do list and he is “very hopeful” that the first trial with a local authority north of the border will be confirmed within the first quarter. “I’m really passionate that it becomes the first of many because there is no way, as a proud Scot, that I can be leading PayByPhone in the UK without us having a significant presence in Scotland.”

Born and raised in the Borders, Combe was “always keen to work”, learning the ropes from local business celebrity Sonny Murray while working in a Hawick car accessory shop as a teenager. During his time at the University of Stirling, Combe started to buy and sell cars for a bit of extra cash. He joined BMW’s marketing department after graduation and went on to hold a variety of senior roles within the group, including in product development and sales. Latterly, he spearheaded BMW’s digital and innovation programmes, playing a key role in its Innovation Lab, a ten-week programme allowing start-ups to trial products at scale.

It’s this experience with technical development, scaling and delivering innovation which made him such a strong candidate to lead PayByPhone, he says. Along with the fact that “if we’re going to make a big dent in Scotland, we at least need someone who understands the Scots!”

Under the Volkswagen Group umbrella, Combe and his team have the opportunity to access the best of both worlds: moving quickly and flexibly as a relatively small organisation, but with the support and heritage of a large scale manufacturer. “When you look at the VW Group in the UK, they sell about half a million new cars every year across all brands,” he says. “If we can leverage the scale that we’ve got through the Volkswagen Group then that’s really going to help us be successful.”

The firm is currently looking at integrating the parking payment functionality within the car. Depending on the connective capabilities of the vehicle, this would allow a driver to pay for their parking space through a few clicks on the dashboard. Combe predicts that this function will be on the market “in the next couple of years”. The business is also developing a space availability function to provide consumers with real-time information. For instance, if the car park a driver is heading to were full, the app would send a notification and suggest an alternative site nearby, saving a wasted trip.

But the company’s roadmap also includes supporting its local authority clients through the data it gathers on people’s movements, with the aim of helping planning authorities to better manage traffic flow.

Combe says: “If you take a really congested city centre, 25 per cent of the people sitting in traffic are looking for a parking space. One thing that we’ve got a lot of is data, in terms of understanding movements of people at different locations. This is a key part of solving that mobility puzzle. We can look at removing pay and display machines and the most sensible order in which to do that, and we can also – as we grow as a business – look at how we use this data to help build new products and services.”

The business is currently expanding into continental Europe and building its presence in North America. The constant theme across the global market, says Combe, is fewer people using cash and increasing numbers of us relying on smartphones, expecting them to do more. Reluctant to divulge specifics due to commercial sensitivities, Combe insists that the firm is on “a pretty steep upward trajectory” for payment transactions and user forecasts in the coming year.

“We’re looking at trebling in size in the next three years,” he says. “A primary metric would be transactions. With the transactions, the user base grows, the revenue follows.”

On a personal level, he is focusing on instilling a culture of empowered leadership throughout PayByPhone. “I think if we can get to the point where you could take me out of the equation for a day, a week, a month and everything would continue to run like clockwork – that would make me very happy.

“It sounds a funny thing to say as a leader, but I think that’s the acid test of whether the leadership you’ve got within your own organisation is one that’s going to support a company running successfully.”