A FinTech founder has accused Macquarie Bank – dubbed the ‘vampire kangaroo’ in the media for its aggressive profit-taking – of killing her startup in Australia.

Louise Stewart has accused Macquarie Bank of ‘debanking’ ProjectPay after the country’s Morrison government made negative comments about her.

The firm, set up to provide payment protection for contractors in the construction industry, was in the advanced stages of a two-year integration partnership with Macquarie when it abruptly ended the relationship.

The move came shortly after she had stood as an independent in the 2019 federal elections in Curtin, Western Australia, campaigning against the Liberal Party on a promise to introduce statutory protection for payments on building projects that would have protected homeowners and small business subcontractors from devastating losses when builders collapse.

Stewart had sold her previous technology business Revive Group – an online booking and patient record platform used by thousands of pharmacies to manage their flu vaccination programmes – to global pharmaceutical giant Apotex in a multi-million-dollar deal and planned to retire to focus on her family.

“But when my husband’s business collapsed because five builders failed to pay him, I became aware of the huge payments problem in the construction sector,” she says. 

“The government stimulus to build new schools after the global financial crisis had overheated the sector, resulting in builders getting paid and then collapsing their businesses into bankruptcy before they had passed on those payments to subcontractors, who were left penniless.”

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She became chair of an Australian Subcontractors Association before setting up ProjectPay then running for office.

“After I stood in the election campaign, they abruptly ended the relationship. An email from the bank in October 2019, cited disparaging comments made about me by Mathias Cormann, former Minister for Finance and the current OECD Secretary-General, as a reputational risk for the bank,” she claims.

“They warned they would have to ‘work through the negative sentiment’ if they were to continue with the integration partnership.

“My contact at the bank said the Morrison government would not be prepared to work with me because I had run against them and that there were people working to discredit me. I was told that it was pointless trying to reverse the decision because the executive team would not change it.”

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ProjectPay says it had previously passed the bank’s compliance review and they were proceeding with an agreed business model to integrate the payment platform. Sensitive documents had been shared and technical teams had been engaged and were already working on delivering the integration. 

A month earlier, Macquarie Bank had also terminated a 20-year relationship with another independent, who also ran against the Morrison government, Stewart says.

Stewart relocated her business to the UK and ProjectPay has received over £1m public funding from Innovate UK to develop the platform. It is backed by Lloyds Bank in the UK.

Meanwhile. she has made a subject access request to Macquarie Bank under the Privacy Act 1998, requesting details of any internal correspondence or discussions between executives about her business and the reasons for terminating the relationship. So far Macquarie has refused to comply with their obligations under the Act and has not provided any information.

She has also lodged Freedom of Information requests with the Department of Finance and the Treasury, seeking any information about the relationship between herself, ProjectPay and Macquarie Bank which originated from either civil servants, or the departments’ ministers, Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg, both of whom had well publicised dealings with the bank in 2019, the election year.  

ProjectPay has recently submitted a complaint to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is now being investigated in Australia.

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Having ‘debanked’ Project Pay, Macquarie Bank is now rolling out a very similar business model with a competing startup set up by ex-Macquarie Bankers, Stewart claims. However, unlike ProjectPay, which protects builders’ payment rights, the new platform makes developers custodians of project funds and fails to protect downstream subcontractors, she says.

Macquarie Bank has been embroiled in a series of scandals and its history of high-risk debt financing models has come under increasing scrutiny. During its ownership of Thames Water, Macquarie was accused of saddling the company with an unsustainable debt burden of nearly £14 billion before walking away in 2019.

“The recent actions of Macquarie Bank and its former employees raise serious ethical concerns,” concludes Stewart. “Through our innovative payment platform, ProjectPay aims to bring fairness, transparency, and financial security to all construction project stakeholders. 

“Unfortunately, the behaviour exhibited by bad actors like Macquarie and their copycat startup shows a blatant disregard for what is right. We remain committed to upholding integrity as we work to transform the payment process using new technologies.”

BusinessCloud has contacted Macquarie Bank for comment.

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