The joke is that it all began with scribbling on a napkin at Quiznos in downtown Salt Lake City in the early 2000s.
Whatever the truth of that, in 10 years the three guys who run GPS Capital Markets have seen it rapidly grow to serve 500 multinational clients. It’s expanded from its South Jordan headquarters to open offices in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and Boston, and soon in London.
“We started in the Intermountain West and then we grew west and east, and now we’re hoping to grow globally,” said Al Manbeian, a founder and managing partner.
The company holds a somewhat unique spot in the world of foreign exchange transactions carried out for companies that need to move money between various currencies. It helps to get the best rates for exchanges and to minimize the risk of fluctuations in values.
While other U.S. companies also facilitate foreign-exchange payments to make purchases or bring home revenue, “we are the only nonbank player that offers the full spectrum of corporate foreign exchange products that banks do,” Manbeian said.
Banks traditionally have been the institutions that carry out the transactions for clients. And that’s where the founders of GPS Capital Markets got their start.
In 1994, Manbeian, Ryan Gibbons and Jason Langston were working together at First Security Bank in its small but growing international operation, which mainly served clients in the Intermountain West.
It also was a period of bank consolidation, and in 2001 First Security was bought out by Wells Fargo.
Right around that time was when the lunch at Quiznos took place.
With other businesses looking at hiring away people from the First Security operation, and Wells Fargo looking forward to consolidating the operation with its own, the three sat down to discuss their futures and that of the foreign-exchange business. They decided staying on at Wells Fargo or moving to another bank were not the best options for them or their clients.
“Our clients look to us much like a stockbroker’s clients look to them — to guide them in our area of expertise — and we felt the best thing to do was to be able to provide them with products and long-term solutions,” said Gibbons.
They made the decision to form a company that would have the flexibility that an operation independent of a bank could offer.
The trio received start-up money from investors, who let them run the company without interference. They also built a software platform that could provide the necessary information to clients to facilitate currency exchanges but also go beyond that to give them a companywide picture of their foreign-exchange needs.
They used their Rolodexes of past clients and then began to expand beyond.
“We have clients in the Fortune 50, we have clients in the Forbes 3000 and then we have a lot of clients, especially up and down the Wasatch Front, that are small-business success stories,” said Gibbons.
They won’t disclose the names of their clients, who are on just monthly agreements, because of the nature of the business where others try to reel in other company’s clients as soon as they are known.
Lew Cramer, CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, said part of the reason the state has led the nation in export growth in past five years is that it has a number of banks and GPS Capital Markets, which all can facilitate international banking for customers.
“I can cheerlead all I want for the international opportunities and export potential, but unless they can get their products financed, people are saying, ‘Yeah, it’s real nice but I can’t get it working,’ ” Cramer said. “But GPS makes it ‘finance-able.’ ”
Manbeian, Gibbons and Langston all carry the title of managing partner and insist they make decisions by consensus. But as the business has grown, they have divided their responsibilities into three areas.
Manbeian handles sales and marketing, Gibbons trading and technology, and Langston is chief financial officer.
“We absolutely operate [together],” said Langston. “It isn’t that we get together and talk and it’s two against one. That doesn’t happen. We talk it through until we’re all good.”
What has given them an edge over banks is their ability to make decisions and institute changes rapidly at the request of clients.
“We pride ourselves in making a five-second decision in five seconds,” said Gibbons. “If it needs to be 10 minutes we’ll take that but we’re not going to be inefficient.”
They also can and do provide services beyond currency exchanges for which they don’t charge, but that helps them build the services they can offer to attract and retain clients.
One example, according to the founders, was a client who had operations in many countries but no timely way of knowing what its cash position was at a given time in the various banks where it held accounts.
GPS Capital Markets, which has four programmers on staff, was able to leverage its software and relations with banks, to create a program that harvested that information and delivered it to the client.
“We are not a software company but by extension what has happened is we have developed a very capable international treasury suite that helps our clients manage their international treasuries,” said Manbeian.
Where GPS makes its money is simply in the buy low-sell high basis of exchange. It buys currencies wholesale and then marks up the price and sells them to clients.
The company continues to expand. It’s grown from six employees to about 50, with around 30 of them in the Utah offices.
The managers like recruiting interns from local universities and then hiring the ones who learn the company’s system and it ethos of client service.
The London office, expected to open in June, is a signal of its continuing expansion and ability to serve clients from other nations.
The founders say another of their successes is creating a healthy and convivial work atmosphere. The company was named one of the best companies to work for in Utah by Utah Business Magazine in December 2011.