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Tech firm TranferWise moves to Ybor City, illustrating a new chapter in Tampa's business history

The J. Seidenberg & Co./Havana-American Cigar Factory, opened in 1894, is Ybor City's second oldest brick cigar factory. It also has been the home to a sewing room for the Works Progress Administration, a bonded warehouse, a microbrewery and a real estate development company. Its latest incarnation is as the Tampa office of TransferWise, a tech finance firm based in London. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Published Jan. 19, 2018

TAMPA — You could sketch an economic history of the city of Tampa — and maybe get a glimpse of its future — just by looking at the old J. Seidenberg & Co./Havana-American Cigar Factory.

It opened in 1894, making it Ybor City's second-oldest brick cigar factory, but it has seen a lot of different workers: Immigrant cigarmakers, of course, but also tailors during the Great Depression, warehouse clerks later, brew masters at the birth of the craft beer renaissance and more recently, office workers at a real estate development company.

Now it is the new home to the Tampa office of TransferWise, a London-based financial tech firm founded to make sending money from country to country cheap and easy.

TransferWise began moving its 90-some employees into the old factory in November, but company co-founder Kristo Käärmann said the 21,000-square-foot space wasn't ready to receive guests until this week.

One of the first visitors, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, said TransferWise's move to Ybor City marks a new phase in the evolution of his city.

"We are transitioning from an economy that was focused on construction and tourism and agriculture to an economy that is built on technology," Buckhorn told employees at an hors d'oeuvres-and-champagne reception. "We are global in our perspective. That is why we love companies like yours. You are telling Tampa's story all over the world. You are attracting talent from all over the world."

For TransferWise, which had previously occupied offices on Gunn Highway, the Seidenberg building aligns with its corporate ethos. The business is built on a new idea, but its founders are drawn to places with some history to them.

"We kind of like these old buildings," Käärmann said. The company has 850 employees, and its London headquarters is in a former warehouse known as the Tea Building. Its office in Tallinn, Estonia, where Käärmann is from, started in an old textile factory. Another old warehouse is home to the Singapore office.

"It's not by design, but we happen to end up in these quirky, slightly older buildings, and then do the interior design that matches the modern requirements," Käärmann said. TransferWise also has offices in New York, Tokyo, Budapest, Sydney and Cherkasy in Ukraine.

Käärmann founded TransferWise with Taavet Hinrikus, a friend from Estonia, in 2011.

At the time, both men lived in London, but each regularly needed to exchange British pounds to euros or vice versa. Käärmann was paid in pounds but had a mortgage in Estonia for which he needed euros. Hinrikus worked for Skype, which grew out of Estonia's vibrant tech scene, and was paid in euros, but he needed pounds to pay his day-to-day bills.

The friends discovered that when transferring money through banks, the fees appeared nominal, but the banks set their own exchange rates, typically at rates that allowed them to pocket a chunk of the money being moved. The friends began checking the daily exchange rates and doing their own transfers directly to each other's accounts to save the expense of using the banks. Then they realized their peer-to-peer approach might have a broader application.

Since then, some serious investors have backed TransferWise, including Virgin founder Richard Branson and Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook.

The company now has about 2 million users in more than 60 countries who make transactions in more than 50 different currencies. TransferWise moves $2 billion a month, but Käärmann said "the number we're most proud of" is the $2 million a day that it calculates its customers save by not using exchange rates set by banks.

Instead, TransferWise sets its exchange rate at the midpoint of rates established by currency buyers and sellers. That mid market rate, Käärmann said, would allow users to change dollars into euros and back again without seeing the value of their money diminished. He said the company charges a fee — $3.50 per $1,000 in Europe and $7 per $1,000 in the United States — to cover its costs.

Given the nature of its business, TransferWise echoes a tradition that goes back to Ybor City's earliest days. Far from home, many of Ybor's original immigrant cigar workers sent part of their wages abroad to family in Cuba and Spain.

The parallels don't end there. Like the original cigar factory, the latest version of the Seidenberg building is designed with its workers in mind: There's an open floor plan, but also plenty of smaller, themed rooms for meetings or quiet work, plus a small gym, a pet-friendly area, and a scattering of bunkbed-like nooks where employees can focus or recharge.

By comparison, the cigar factory of a century ago would have had a lector, a reader paid to read newspapers and novels aloud to the scores of workers focused on rolling cigars.

"Like a live podcast," said Kenny Levidiotis, TransferWise's team lead for North American banking operations. "That's pretty cool. It's kind of like us."

This report includes information from Times staff writer Paul Guzzo and the New York Times. Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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