WHEN Joey Chang hands out his namecard, he is invariably greeted with a gasp of recognition first, and then effusive thanks.

"Whether they're corporate executives, taxi drivers, or car mechanics, they always say: 'Ah, you work for that machine thing! Thank you, paying my bills is much easier now'," says the founder and CEO of AXS.

Established in 2000, AXS is known best for its ubiquitous self-service terminals, which allow customers to perform a variety of transactions on the go. These include paying credit card bills or traffic fines, booking and collecting movie tickets, or even renewing dog licences.

"Customers really appreciate the convenience - especially the older ones who remember the days of writing a cheque and queueing at the post office just to pay a bill," says Mr Chang, 50.

 

There are over 900 AXS kiosks island-wide, mostly in high-density locations such as the central business district, bus and MRT stations, and housing estates. Although the bulk of transactions carried out comprise bills and fines, in recent years they are also increasingly being used for electronic services provided by government agencies - such as NParks' barbeque pit bookings.

While users of the terminals aren't charged a cent, AXS makes its money by collecting a fee from service providers on a per-transaction basis. For instance, if someone were to pay their telco bill on an AXS machine, the telco would in turn pay a fee to AXS.

Flat fees

The company charges most service providers a flat rate - Mr Chang declined to reveal the exact amount, only stating that it is "not more than a dollar" - although some are billed on a percentage rate, depending on their service offerings.

While flat fees under a dollar may not sound like much, he says AXS "plays a volume game".

"We tell the service providers: 'Don't pay us unless we perform a service.' It's reasonable and it helps them save costs - instead of opening 100,000 envelopes each containing a cheque, we consolidate all charges into one data file and pass them on.

"It's stable and reliable, and a value-added service for them. So we play a supporting role and (make money) from volumes," says Mr Chang, pointing out that companies no longer have to pay for pre-paid postage envelopes.

While he would not shed light on AXS's financial performance, the enterprise attracted DBS's attention in the mid-2000s. The company became a subsidiary of DBS in 2006, and the latter now owns 90 per cent of AXS.

The takeover by DBS has not only provided more stability to the company, but has also opened up resources for network expansion, and helped with improving AXS's internal processes.

"Our compliance practices are extremely stringent now that we're part of DBS - even at our most kiasu, we're not kiasu enough," Mr Chang says with a grin.

Indeed, the safety of customers' money and personal data is of paramount importance. Mr Chang - who served as a general manager at the Singapore Tourism Board from 1997 to 1999 - says AXS does not sell any of the information it collects, whether from merchants or from terminal users.

As for whether the advent of Internet and mobile payment solutions has encroached on AXS's territory - and if there any concerns about heightened competition - Mr Chang admits there will always be worries about customer attrition. "But what's the new word now? YOLO, right?" asks the father of a 13-year-old daughter, referring to the popular phrase "You Only Live Once". "Us businessmen have to think two or three steps ahead. AXS has to capitalise on the next generation of payment solutions, to devise a better way of delivering our services."

To that end, AXS launched its e-Station and m-Station payment channels in September 2013, to serve as the online and mobile equivalents of AXS's physical kiosks.

"It's true that most of the transactions we offer can be done online at the service providers' own websites," concedes Mr Chang. "But the key difference is that these transactions can't be consolidated - you have to go to different websites to perform each one."

Growth plans

He cites the example of someone trying to pay for their phone, credit card, and HDB service & conservancy charges bills - the person would have to log on to his telco's, bank's, and HDB's website separately, resulting in multiple (and repetitive) steps. In contrast, AXS users - whether via the physical machines, or on the online or mobile platforms - can complete all three transactions at one go.

Mr Chang says all of this harks back to what AXS's founders wanted to create from day one: a single point of access to a myriad of services. In fact, he pronounces his company's name as "access", and not as A-X-S (as it is better-known).

With a relatively lean team of 104 full-time employees, Mr Chang is particularly proud of AXS's do-it-yourself culture.

"Whether it's the physical hardware of our terminals or the software inside, we've done most things in-house. We didn't purchase anything ready-made - the concept, design, and assembly of everything was done by us," he says. "But we've engaged agencies to do our marketing work for us. We know when not to be too clever!"

As for its growth plans, Mr Chang says that while AXS is "always open to opportunities" to expand - both in terms of headcount and geographical reach - the company is still "looking for the right ingredients" before going regional. "Finding the capital is one thing; we've got to find the right overseas partner as well," he says.