ATMIA's Ron Delnevo sees cash access still playing critical role in banking, society

Like a lot of folks, Ron Delnevo flies for business and pleasure. But when he flies on British Airways, he gets peeved. That’s because, if you want to purchase food onboard, you better have a credit card handy, because the airline does not accept cash. 

The executive director for Europe at the ATM Industry Association thinks that’s just plain wrong. After all, the airline accepts cash donations for the needy. If cash is good for the needy, it should be good for the passengers as well.

“I fundamentally disagree with what they are doing. They have a duty, in my view, to accept cash,” he told ATM Marketplace when we caught up with him in Rome last month.  

A Scot who lives in Edinburgh, Delnevo has been in the cash business for two decades. He first got involved with ATMs in 1998, when he began working for Euronet. Later that year, the Kansas-based firm installed the first independently operated ATM in the U.K. At the time, the other 25,000 cash machines in the country were all owned by banks. A lot has changed since. 

Q: You actually remember that first independent ATM in the U.K.?

A:  It was in a SPAR convenience store in Stone Cross, a suburb of Birmingham. The shop manager was called Marie. The public loved the ATM. I know because I asked them the day after the ATM was installed. They didn’t mind paying £1 for a cash withdrawal. The nearest free-to-use ATM was three miles away.

Q: You’ve seen a lot in terms of the evolution of ATMs?

A: Absolutely. I’ve seen an amazing evolution in the U.K. In the beginning, everyone thought independent ATM operators would only operate what you Americans call surcharge machines, tucked away in little shops. The banks certainly thought that would be the case forever. But of course, we moved away from that business model to one which saw independents installing free-to-use ATMs everywhere, giving the British public better free access to cash, 24/7. So that surprised the banks. They never expected that. Now of course, the independents are the dominant players in Britain. They have more ATMs, both free and charging, than the banks have. 

Q: Is that a good thing?

A: It was good to start with, but now the banks are beginning to pull out of ATMs, and in a way, pull out of cash. In some countries, banks now think it would be a good idea for ATMs to stop being around because banks make money from non-cash transactions. There are many countries were cash is still immensely popular, and the banks would never think of trying to stop their customers from having access to cash. But in some countries — and we’ve seen examples of this in Sweden — there has been a reluctance to make cash available. We need to watch that. Banks need to stay involved but there is also room for independent operators to augment the service provided by banks.

Q: So you are pro cash?

A: I am not in favor of cash only. I believe that merchants should accept every significant payment method. Obviously, you need a measure of what is significant, and I would say any payment method that accounts for 5% by number of a country’s transactions should be accepted by merchants. People deserve payment choice. Cash is not king. The consumer is king, and they should have a right to choose. 

Q: Whose responsibility is it to keep the cash infrastructure alive in the U.K.?

A: It is a mixture of the banks and also the government. You cannot ask commercial organizations — and I’m not just referring to banks now — to take responsibility for that. Nobody can criticize Visa and Mastercard for wanting to maximize profits. They have a duty to their shareholders. You can’t look to them to safeguard the public interest. It has to be a government’s role to make sure that cash is a legitimate and accessible payment choice for the public.

Q: What country serves as a good model for payment choice?

A: Switzerland would be a perfect model. Switzerland is a counterbalance to the Swedish example. Sweden is the poster child for those looking to propose a cashless society. The Swiss central bank claims its people can pay with wearables, Apple Pay, cards, but they can also use cash. Interestingly, in a country where people have perfect payment choice, 70% of transactions are still made using cash, that is by number, and 45% by value

Q: What do you think about the U.S.?

A: The U.S. has led the way with ATMs. We’ve had independent ATMs in the U.S. since the late 1980s. It’s unfortunate that the average person pays $4.95 for a cash withdrawal. The whole industry, banks and independents, can make cash look too expensive, and there is a danger of that. But access to ATM systems is good in America. You have ATM operators — who maybe only have 20, 30, 40 ATMs — offering a genuinely local service to retailers and other businesses. That is not a model that works in many markets. Certainly not in the U.K., because the costs of joining the networks, and staying a member of the networks, are too high. 

Q: Living in the U.S., I’ve have never had trouble accessing cash or using cash. It’s not like that outside of the U.S.?

A: No it is not. We’ve got independent operators in the U.K., and they are very successful, but the problem is they are small in number. I want to see more competition in that sector, not just in the U.K. but all around Europe, and indeed all around the world. We need more independent operators because the fact is, many banks are deciding they don’t want to operate ATMs, and therefore, independents have to fill the gap, but they can only fill the gap if they are there.