An interview with Terry Clune, Founder of Taxback International and CEO of CluneTech
At CluneTech, we’re extremely lucky to have amazing leaders and a workforce that has continued to collaborate, innovate and deliver, while adapting to the new situation very quickly. Terry Clune, Founder of Taxback International and CEO of CluneTech, recently met with Economy.bg to share some valuable insights about how CluneTech has adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and his inspiring story of building a sustainable business from scratch.
Terry, you have gone a long way from the student years returning from a summer in Germany and establishing a company in the kitchen of the family home.
What is the secret to building a sustainable business?
There’s a couple of important things people should think about in terms of that. I’m from a farm in rural Ireland, my parents encouraged me to start business when I was young. The first business I started was when I was eight years old. I used to collect fertiliser bags, plastic bags from farmers and I would fold them neatly and sell them to wood merchants who used them to sell firewood in.
This was a great business for me as an eight-year-old as I was able to my first bike, a yellow BMX bike. However, the biggest business lesson I learned was when I was nine years old. My business went bust when another farmer’s son saw what I was doing and ended up getting a better bag than mine to sell, a see-through bag so people could see how much firewood was inside. He ended up taking all my customers as he was able to sell them this better bag and he put me out of business. This was a really, really valuable lesson for me.
As I was busy with my yellow BMX bike cycling around every Saturday and Sunday to all my farmers collecting the bags, I would also spend my money on chocolate. Breakfast on a Saturday morning would consist of Snickers bars and I really felt like a cool dude. But I had gotten lazy and a bit complacent, while the kid competing with me asked the customers what he could do better and ended up sourcing a better bag. I lost all my customers then and as a result, my business stopped.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
There are always opportunities to see how things can be done better. That was a very important lesson for me. You also need to surround yourself with positive people. People who are progressive rather than people who will hold you back or be critical or negative.
We expanded our business to this extent by asking the customers ‘what can we do for you?’, ‘how else can we help?’, ‘what can we do differently or what can we do better?’ and as a result of those questions, we now have many different businesses within the Group. If something changes for one business or the market changes, we are not just reliant on one company. Having a series of different businesses takes away an immediate risk.
The lesson here is that what any business must do, is to continue to find out from your customer what they want and stay on the pulse and keep your eyes open for new opportunities because business changes all the time and the second you stop looking at how you could do better you’re going to be finished. The secret of a successful business is constantly wondering ‘how can we do this better?’
Do you plan to speed up the automation of your businesses and reduce staff?
Recent surveys by EY and Brookings Institution showed that employers in many countries are speeding up plans to automate their businesses as workers are forced to stay at home during the pandemic. Where do you stand?
I think that this is not something that smart people should be concerned about. In our business, nineteen years ago, it was very non-automated and since then we’ve brought more and more automation to our business, but our business has also grown more and more in terms of the number of people. The work that we do is no longer administrative; it’s more technology-enabled, which leads to, for many people, more interesting work, more skilled work and higher value-added work. For people who are willing to learn the more modern and updated skills, automation should not be a worry.
Increased automation is definitely happening and our business would be a prime example of the impact of automation on services. I need and want our team to be learning the new skills and to be able to do the technology-enabled jobs.
Again, in our business, we’re not just focusing on one customer or one region. Our services are global, we’ve got customers in virtually every country in the world so it’s really about using the technologies available to provide the best service possible and having the best people driving that forward.
Are your staff still working from home? Do you plan to continue with this model?
For us, it’s not really about whether we work from home or work in the office. Simply, it’s important for us that people are able to do their job wherever they are, be they at home or at work, it doesn’t really matter. I think into the future, I imagine many of our people will probably work half the time from home and half the time from the office.
Remote working will definitely be an option, yes. It won’t suit everybody but for those who wish to have that facility and are able to continue to perform, it will definitely be a key option. I think it will be good for people and their lifestyles. Not having to commute or commuting less will mean more time at home with family for people. These are all valuable benefits for people and it’s definitely something that we’re keen to support into the future.
How will this crisis transform the software/fin-tech industry in the long-term?
Fintech and financial business is very much changing to using more technology-enabled services and we’re very much at the forefront of that. For example, in the payments space with TransferMate we’re building really cutting edge technology to help companies to manage their global payments. Our business in Varna is a combination of technology-enabled services and services which have a high degree of expertise in areas such as global payroll. Another business in our group, Immedis, manage the global payroll for Uber and for Harvard.
Taxback International manages Global VAT Reclaim and VAT Compliance for Enterprise level organisations across the world. They provide VAT Reclaim services for companies like IBM, Google and some of the biggest Universities in North America. Taxback International has pivoted their focus during the pandemic and developed an award winning, Global VAT Compliance platform called Comply. This end-to-end VAT management platform came as a result of our clients’ need to manage complex global VAT requirement in an efficient and compliant manner.
Also, Benamic, our sales promotion service, provides technology marketing services to very large companies like Cannon.
All of these services need technology but at the same time they need a very high degree of customer care and being able to do both of those things, technology and customer care together is why we continue to be very successful. Really, all of our services are driven by technology and we’ve got very strong technology people in our business.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
I think success is like Einstein says, 99% hard work and 1% talent. I think talent comes from hard work. Some people are naturally talented but for most people by working at something you can become talented at it. That’s what I tell my kids, I have five children, three boys and two girls and what I would be saying to them would be by working hard at something you can become talented at it. Be it learning to play chess or play a sport, yes some people are naturally talented at those things but by working hard, putting the effort in and continuing to try you can become talented and it’s the same in business. Lots of people have talent but don’t use it so it goes to waste. It’s the people that are moderately talented but put the effort in that become hugely successful. It’s all about making the effort.
University or straight into work?
I’ve met many people who were successful in business without going to University but I know a lot of them would feel at a disadvantage having not gone to University. University gives you, if anything, confidence. Confidence from getting through it. There are very high rates of people going to University which is hugely valuable for the economy into the future. I would be encouraging everyone if possible to try and finish your 3rd level education even though it’s not always easy to do, it brings you such confidence in the long term.