When the social media giant Facebook unveiled its plans to spearhead a global cryptocurrency called Libra from its California headquarters in June last year, Michaela Dodd [pictured] was putting in another day’s work at the office, over five thousand miles away in Manchester, in the north of England.
Dodd and her brother Peter Nolan had only set up their company the month before, a boutique asset finance brokerage which they’d named Libra Leasing.
The siblings had both started their careers in asset finance working for the family business, Academy Leasing, founded by their father Mike Nolan in 1987.
Academy Leasing developed into an own-book funder and brokerage business with a strong vehicle finance offering, but the family affair came to an end in July 2015 when 1pm Plc bought the business.
“Initially we all stayed on with 1pm, but after a few years Peter and I decided we wanted to set up our own business,” explains Dodd.
The pair wanted to build an asset-backed funding business for SMEs that replicated the closeness to the client they experienced when it was a family-run business. “We wanted to run a business that upheld the traditional values on which our previous success was built,” she says.
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After incorporating Libra Leasing in May 2019 Dodd trademarked the name.
“When we trademarked our name, there were a few other ‘Libras’ trademarked in financial services so we didn’t see a problem with co-existing as we all offered different services within the sector.
“We decided on Libra because we felt it represented who we were and what our business was about. If we do the right thing by our customers and introducers then our business is in balance and is on the right track,” she says.
“What we’re looking for is long term relationships with our SME customers and equipment suppliers – we want to build a business they are happy to come back to.
“Our ethos is ‘balance’, so the Libra sign, symbolised by the scales, we felt summed us up,” she says.
Unbeknownst to Dodd and Nolan, however, who were busy building their fledgling company last year, corporate manoeuvres were afoot in the US and Switzerland that would soon see them embroiled in a legal dispute over their continued use of the ‘Libra’ trademark.
As part of Facebook’s announcement of their move into cryptocurrency, the social media company formed a group, the Libra Association based in Geneva, to oversee the project, with members that included Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and eBay (although those companies have since pulled out of the project).
It later came out that Facebook had acquired the rights to the Libra trademark as early as June 2018, according to documents from the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Initially, the plan was very ambitious – the New York Times reported it as “a futuristic global money that could serve as the foundation for a new kind of financial system” – but it has had to be scaled back after wide-scale regulatory opposition to the project.
The European Commission launched an antitrust investigation into Libra, over concerns of unfair competition, and founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before the US Congress over similar competition and consumer privacy concerns. This resulted in a number of key members pulling out of the project.
Today, the Libra Association, which describes its mission as “working to empower people around the world through the creation of a simple global currency”, continues to seek EU regulatory approval, albeit for a vastly amended cryptocurrency proposal.
While the Libra Association was staking its claim for a new global payment system, Libra Leasing got caught in the crossfire as the Association asserted its trademark rights.
Dodd first got wind her trademark was under threat in September 2019, when she was contacted by Lane Intellectual Property in London, specialists in the ‘prosecution and enforcement of trademarks, copyright, designs, patents and domain names’.
As Facebook’s legal representatives in the UK, Lane IP contacted Libra Leasing’s directors to let them know their Libra trademark was under “threat of opposition” by the Libra Association.
By November 2019, opposition to the trademark was officially confirmed.
“We argued with them. We felt that there wasn’t any significant overlap with what we offered and what Libra Association was offering, despite us both being in financial services,” says Dodd. One area of overlap was brokerage services. Libra Association was involved in foreign exchange brokerage while Libra Leasing was an asset finance brokerage, “which we felt were quite separate,” she says.
“We argued that we had no problem co-existing, and that we were already coexisting with other financial services companies who had the Libra name in their trademark,” she says.
But despite the legal wrangling, Dodd and her team concluded by February 2020 that the Libra Association were in a stronger position and had far deeper pockets than Libra Leasing.
“So eventually, after a few months and quite a lot of money, we took the decision not to fight this any further and to cut our losses,” she recalls.
“We’re a relatively new business, and yes we have cash in the bank but we don’t want to spend it on legal fees and we don’t want this hanging over us.
“It does seem desperately unfair and there was lots of anger and upset to start with but we decided that we’re here to build a business and not to fight a legal battle we can’t afford,” she says.
Soon after deciding they would surrender the Libra name, the world began to go into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At that point, a familiar family structure was in place, with siblings Michaela (managing director) and Peter Nolan (operations director) being joined by their father Mike (chairman), who had come out of retirement as a part-time adviser to the business. Paul Horan and Parveen Sokee had also been appointed as directors.
“The last week of March and all of April, the business was extremely quiet,” recalls Dodd.
“Fortunately, as lockdown happened we were in a good cash position, but it’s been hard as we’ve not had any help with the business rent, we’ve not been able to furlough anyone in the business and we’ve not qualified for any government grants – we’ve very much fallen through the net,” says Dodd.
Fortunately, handling forbearance requests has not been a concern. “Up until lockdown we were operating solely as a broker, so any client forbearance request went to the funder. We did spend time helping our customers with their requests, but it was the ultimate funders who had to deal with the forbearance.
“Although the lockdown has been awful, as a finance company we’ve come out of it relatively unscathed, she adds.
But, rather than resting on their laurels for the last three months, “lockdown has created an opportunity for us to get involved in lending,” with the business using the opportunity to secure its own lending book through a block lending facility via two wholesale funders, as well as securing an investment cash facility.
“Our experience from the 2008 financial crisis told us that we can expect to see business coming to us who have never used finance before and who are cash-rich, but in the current climate, they want to hold on to their cash and so are willing to explore funding opportunities,” says Dodd.
On top of this, a good number of funders, labouring under the pressure of forbearance, are unlikely to be able to lend out as much.
“So, we want to be able to offer our own funds coming out of Covid,” says Dodd.
With a semblance of normality returning to small businesses as lockdown is lifted across the UK, Dodd is philosophical about the business changing its name. “We wanted to keep with the ‘libra’ balance theme so ‘latitude’ seemed close enough.”
Also, Dodd’s team felt that ‘Latitude’ was a recognition of its past, “given that ultimately we didn’t have the latitude to use the name Libra,” says Dodd.
As of July, the company will be known as Latitude Leasing, with its logo remaining unchanged.
Additional reporting by Katherine Muir.
Leasing Life approached Lane Intellectual Property and the Libra Association, but both declined our invitation to contribute to this article.
Libra Association rebrands to Diem Association
On 1 December 2020, the Libra Association said it would adopt a new name, the Diem Association. In a statement, the association said: “Now transitioning to the name “Diem”, which denotes a new day for the project, the Diem Association will continue to pursue a mission of building a safe, secure and compliant payment system that empowers people and businesses around the world.”