Western Union Calling

A few weeks back, The Motley Fool's Rich Smith had the chance to speak with Christina Gold, CEO of Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation Western Union (NYSE: WU  ) . Our Inside Value subscribers have already had the chance to hear Christina's thoughts on her company, its place in a "flat" world, and the challenges posed by dot-com and "plastic" competitors. Now you can, too. What follows is an excerpt from the interview.

Rich Smith: Christina, everyone knows Western Union, the brand, but can you give us a thumbnail sketch of Western Union, the company?

Christina Gold: Part of the challenge for Western Union is that everyone thinks they know us. Believe it or not, there are still those who think of Western Union as a telegraph company, while others may not understand the full scope of financial services we offer.

Western Union is a truly global company. We have more than 5,900 employees who live and work in diverse locations such as Hong Kong; Vienna, Austria; Mumbai, India; and Denver. We have some employees who have been with us for less than 30 days and some who have been with us for more than 30 years.

We are the money movers of the world. Our money-transfer business allows consumers to send money virtually anywhere in the world within minutes, while our payment services allow consumers to quickly and conveniently send their car, mortgage, or utility payments or to prepay for things such as mobile phone service and prepaid credit cards. We offer services in person at our 312,000 global agent locations, online at westernunion.com, and by phone. We're exploring new products such as money transfer via mobile phone and new services such as microlending. Personally, I think Western Union is the most vibrant 150-year-old company around.

Smith: When First Data spun off Western Union in September 2006, it loaded you up with a hefty slug of debt -- $3.5 billion if I remember right. I seem to recall a similar situation happening when Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) spun off Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI  ) a few years back, and again when Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB  ) unloaded Neenah Paper (NYSE: NP  ) . Do you think it's fair for companies to emancipate their "children" and load them with debt in the process?

Gold: I can't speak on behalf of other companies. What I can say is that our former parent company made its decisions based on a lot of different factors. While it's true that Western Union assumed its fair share of debt, we have a strong capital structure and strong investment-grade credit ratings of A-. We also have extremely strong cash flows to support our debt requirements, investments in the business, and [we've been] returning value to shareholders through stock repurchases or dividends.

Smith: In 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published The World Is Flat, positing several global trends, among them continued outsourcing. Now by definition, when a "home" country outsources work to an "abroad" country, as opposed to importing workers from the abroad country, there's no need for said workers to transfer their paychecks "abroad" to support their families. Their families are sitting in the next room, watching TV. To what extent does the growth of outsourcing pose a hindrance to Western Union's growth?

Gold: Certainly there are a lot of areas in which outsourcing makes sense, but it's not something that works for every company, every industry, or every country. There is still a strong flow of people leaving their home countries for more industrialized nations. According to the United Nations, right now there are an estimated 191 million people who are currently living outside their country of origin, and global migration trends are only increasing. This number is projected to exceed 280 million people by 2050.

Smith: One of your fastest growing businesses is westernunion.com, with revenue up 34% last year. Clearly, you see the Internet's usefulness in facilitating money transfers. But flip that coin over, and doesn't it reveal a low barrier to entry for competitors? I mean, eBay's PayPal has proven the popularity of online payments. Google's got its new Checkout service. What's to prevent a swarm of start-ups nibbling away at your business by offering money transfers online?

How does Western Union plan to navigate a world whose increasing "flatness" both encourages funds transfers around the globe and at the same time creates new competitors here at home? Current Inside Value subscribers can read the full transcript of this interview and learn the answer by clicking right here. Not yet a subscriber? Then click here instead to get yourself a 30-day free trial, complete with access to the rest of this interview, and those with all of the other CEOs we've had the pleasure to speak with over the years. You'll also be able to see our current recommendations and our top stock choices for new money now.

Rich Smith does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. EBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Neenah Paper is a Hidden Gems pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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