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A version of this interview was originally published in issue #3 of The Different Times in May 2021.

There’s a beautiful Norwegian idiom used to describe something being in a great spot. Å være midt i smørøyet literally means “to be in the middle of the butter eye” and refers to that lovely hollow formed in butter as it melts into a bowl of porridge.

In February 2021, Mastercard completed its acquisition of the account-to-account payment business of Nordic-based Nets to form Mastercard Payment Services. Capabilities include clearing and settlement instant payment infrastructure, bill payment and e-invoicing applications. Frode Åsheim, executive vice president for Mastercard Payment Services, joined Mastercard with 310 of his former Nets colleagues.

We begin by asking Åsheim if the Norwegian idiom might be an apt way to describe the new position of Mastercard Payment Services within Mastercard. “We occupy a central place in Mastercard’s multi-rail strategy,” he responds. “That’s a strong foundation for us coming in.” But he’s quick to add a cautionary note: “I’m not sure I’d describe Mastercard as porridge though!”

Nordic Origins

Åsheim speaks with a mix of humbleness and pride: “A Nordic player coming into a global company doesn’t know all the answers, but we take pride in knowing that we represent top-notch solutions.” Mastercard Payment Services’ Nordic origins aren’t coincidental: countries in the region are esteemed as pioneers in innovative payments technology with their near-cashless economies and electronic IDs for banking.

“We’re too small individually, so we create economies of scale by coming together within markets and sometimes across borders. Cost of labour is high too, so we digitise processes and have invested heavily in digital infrastructure,” explains Åsheim. He also reflects on Mastercard Payment Services’ “50 years of experience and history” in its evolution from the merger of Norwegian payments processor BBS and Danish payments processor PBS.

"We create economies of scale by coming together within markets and sometimes across borders."

Global Vision

Still, Nordic doesn’t do justice to the scope of Mastercard Payment Services’ activities, which extend to instant payment infrastructures in Slovenia, Italy and Hungary. “It’s truly more than a Nordic business” comments Åsheim, noting that its instant and bill payment capabilities are relevant worldwide. “The vision is more than European, and it’s actually a global one,” he adds.

It’s the clarity of Mastercard’s global vision that Åsheim finds particularly appealing. But he also reflects on a culture of openness “in terms of how people act.” He effacingly suggests that “Mastercard is truly leading the way”, but the sense of compatibility is palpable. “Combine that with the sense of urgency that we bring through our smaller size, and that’s a strong argument for joining forces,” he notes.

Distinction in the Details

Global footprint aside, Åsheim is keen to stress the importance of services: “Equally important is moving from infrastructure to applications, which is really where you start using the rails that you have provided.” Here he notes the combined strengths of Mastercard Payment Services’ “strong experience in bill pay services” and Mastercard’s “broader suite of applications.”

Bill-pay services are of course not unique to Mastercard Payment Services. The distinction is in the details. Åsheim highlights “multi-access” as one example of how his business stands out. He’s referring to how Nordic customers can access the same invoice across multiple bank channels. There’s a sort of analogy in open banking, but Åsheim is keen to distinguish the level of integration that benefits the bill payers and bill presenters. “With our multi-access approach, all invoices can be paid in any bank a customer chooses. This simplifies and supports a thriving bill pay ecosystem. To pay and get paid in any channel is a true omnichannel approach,” he explains.

Coming Together

A discussion around integrated payments across Nordic banks naturally brings up P27. The joint initiative is led by a consortium of Nordic banks to build a world-first multi-currency instant and batch payments platform for the region. It will be operated by Mastercard.

The scope of P27 makes the Norwegian and Danish background of Mastercard Payment Services an important complement to Mastercard’s existing presence in Sweden through Vocalink. “We hope that we can bring local insights. We know the markets. We know the stakeholders. We know the existing services very well and happen to drive a lot of them. And we think that’s of essence when you go live,” comments Åsheim.

Again, he’s humble: “I’m sure Mastercard would have been able to do it without us,” he says. “But maybe they can do it even better with us,” he adds with a hint of pride.

That Nordic butter looks ready to sink in.

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