UK financial watchdog investigating Wise founder over alleged tax default

Kristo Käärmann, co-founder of Wise, formerly Transferwise.
Kristo Käärmann, co-founder of Wise, formerly Transferwise. Source: Wise

The United Kingdom's financial regulator is investigating the co-founder of Estonian payments company Wise after he failed to pay his taxes. The news on Monday was followed by a loss of nearly three percent of the company's London Stock Exchange share price.

Wise reported the breach itself to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) following an audit by external lawyers, U.K. daily The Guardian reports.

Wise board chair David Wells said that the company was taking both the tax default and the FCA investigation "very seriously", adding that: "After reviewing the matter late last year the board required that Kristo take remedial actions, including appointing professional tax advisers to ensure his personal tax matters are appropriately managed."

The board has shared details of its own findings and is fully cooperating with the FCA, Wells added, while the FCA itself says it cannot comment on individual cases still in process.

Wise share price dropped by 2.8 percent Monday, after publication of the news.

Last year, Britain's HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) imposed a fine of £365,651 (€428,733) on Kristo Käärmann, alleging he either intentionally submitted incorrect documents to the HMRC, or had deliberately failed to provide authorities with correct information, or had made errors in paying VAT or excise duties, another U.K. Daily, The Telegraph, reported at the time.

That fine related to Käärmann's tax return for the 2017-2018 tax year, which came to a total of £720,495 (c. €845,000).

The FCA can in theory rule Käärmann a not fit and proper person for senior management; he has been approved as an executive director of a subsidiary authorized to carry out investment activity, by the FCA, the Guardian reported Monday.

Käärmann's holding in Wise was last September estimated at £1.7 billion (€1.99 billion), while co-founder Taavet Hinrikus' holding was valued almost £1 billion (€1.17 billion).

Käärmann and Hinrikus came in the top three on business daily Äripäev's annual rich list (link in Estonian) last year; Käärmann headed up Wise's €9.3 billion LSE flotation, also in 2021, when it was valued at £8 billion sterling, or €9.3 billion on its first day trading.

The company was re-branded to Wise (formerly Transferwise) alongside the flotation.

The Guardian reports that Wise made a profit before tax of £41m in its last financial year.

Founded in 2011 as a solution to overly excessive foreign payment transfer fees, Wise's shareholders have also included a number of world-renowned investors, such as Richard Branson and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Branson reportedly put a million pounds into Transferwise in 2014, though cashed out around five years later.

The company was well-known early on for ad campaigns which included spots photographed over high street branches in the U.K., such as Natwest.

The firm became a "Unicorn", meaning a company with a market value of over a billion US dollars, in 2016 and is one of nearly a dozen such companies which are Estonian or Estonian-founded – the others being voice over internet protocol company Skype, gambling tech firm Playtech, ride-hailing and courier app Bolt, CRM software firm Pipedrive, secure verifications platforms Veriff, and, insurance quotation solutions provider Zego, customized print provider firm Gelato, and  Digital Customer Service (DCS) company Glia.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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