Saturday 21 April 2018

Entrepreneur exchanged bad news for success with Clear Currency

CEO Barry O'Neill tells Sean Gallagher how his fledgling company filled a gap in the market

Sean Gallagher, left, with Barry O'Neill, managing partner of Clear Currency. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Sean Gallagher, left, with Barry O'Neill, managing partner of Clear Currency. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Last week I caught up with co-founder and CEO of Clear Currency, Barry O'Neill. When I meet him in his offices in the heart of Dublin's IFSC, he is brimming with energy and enthusiasm and talks passionately about banking, foreign exchange and risk management.

"Foreign currency exchange is increasingly important to businesses everywhere because it facilitates international commerce," explains Barry.

For most people, foreign currency exchange is something they only think about once a year when travelling abroad on holidays. Because the nature of their transactions usually involves modest amounts of money, customers are willing to pay the currency exchange rate that applies on the day in their local bank.

However, for businesses, the increased nature of international trade has meant that they are required, often on a daily basis, to deal in multiple currencies, often involving large amounts of money.

For these businesses, the rate of exchange is an important consideration and can in some instances, if not managed correctly, be the difference between success and failure.

Today, when businesses talk about foreign exchange, or FX as it is commonly known, they are referring to the business of investment trading, where specialist brokers or dealers buy and sell currencies from around the world.

"We set up Clear Currency, in 2010 to cater for both corporate and private clients," explains Barry. "Our customers include high-net-worth individuals, small and medium-sized businesses and multinational firms who are involved in sectors as diverse as software, meat and dairy, engineering, aviation and transport. In fact, any company with a foreign exchange requirement is definitely on our target list."

Barry O'Neill grew up in Balinteer, Dublin. He studied marketing and German in Galway Regional Technical College but opted to leave the course early when he was offered a job with Eirpage.

"At the time, the company specialised in paging technology. When a customer's phone was switched off or out of coverage, their calls were routed instead to a pager so that callers could leave a message. How things have progressed since then," Barry says with a laugh.

"What I learned most from that job was how much I loved the world of business and that I had a real aptitude for sales and business development."

He was later offered a job with a London-based foreign-exchange company. From there, he was headhunted to work in the Treasury Division of Anglo Irish Bank in London.

"As companies grow internationally, they are increasingly exposed to fluctuations in foreign currencies. If a currency fluctuates significantly downwards, it can have a devastating effect on a company's finances.

"Because most companies don't have the time or expertise to monitor the currency markets on a daily basis, our job was to help them manage that risk," he explains.

While he thoroughly enjoyed the job, the company announced in 2008 that it was closing down.

"The first offices to go were those outside of Ireland," he explains. "These included Boston and London."

However, instead of allowing themselves to get downhearted about their predicament, Barry and a colleague saw it as the perfect opportunity to set up their own business.

Often, the two biggest hurdles for most start-ups are finding initial customers and accessing the necessary finance with which to start the business. However, Barry and his colleague were lucky to be able to start with both of these in place.

"Because the bank was actually closing down, some of our existing customers decided to come with us to the new company and that gave us a great foundation from which to build."

They were fortunate too in that they managed to secure financial support from one of their existing clients, himself a wealthy investor, who backed their new venture from day one.

From the outset, they focused on developing a boutique-style business based along the same lines as a treasury division of a normal bank. Because they were not aligned to any specific bank, they were uniquely able to offer customers unbiased advice.

"Transparency is at the heart of what we do and it's something that is very important to both us and to our customers," Barry stresses.

But it wasn't all plain sailing for the burgeoning company.

While they were providing better rates than most banks, they were a start-up. And as such, their main challenge lay in convincing customers that any money invested with them would be secure.

"It took time," admits Barry. "Even though our customers' money is ringfenced in a designated client-trust account, and never part of Clear Currencies' own balance sheet or assets, we had to build up trust among our customers that their money was absolutely safe."

Thankfully for the new entrepreneurs, that trust came. And as customers completed their first few transactions, they began recommending the company to others and word of mouth began to spread about the new kids on the block.

Because they were a small company with fewer staff and lower overheads than their competitors, they were able to offer clients better pricing, as well as greater customer service.

Before long, they were managing a flow of hundreds of million in foreign currency. In turn, this enabled them to purchase currency in the wholesale inter-bank market, which further strengthened their ability to offer better rates to their customers.

In time too, they expanded their business to include offering services such as money deposits and invoice discounting.

Today, they are also operating in the commodities market, where they offer fuel hedging to airlines, as well as providing independent treasury advice to larger corporate entities.

It's an exciting time for Barry and his team. He is well on his way to realising his long-term ambition of growing his company into a multimillion-euro business.

This year he plans to raise his staff to 15 and expects to see turnover treble to €1.5m over the same period.

As I reflect on my visit to Clear Currency, I come to the realisation that in life sometimes what happens to us is not nearly as important as what we do about it.

Barry O' Neill never set out to work in foreign exchange or in banking. But life offered him an opportunity. And he took it. In taking it, he grew to discover his love and talent for business.

When he lost his job, he could easily have seen it as a calamity. Instead, he chose to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to start his own business.

Barry's story and that of Clear Currency is about overcoming adversity, about seizing opportunities and about leaning into it.

Above all, it is about how we can create our own success with passion, determination and a can-do attitude.


Business Masters

Company: Clear Currency

Business: Boutique foreign exchange and risk management company.

Set up: 2010

Founder: Barry O'Neill

Annual turnover: €500,000

Number of employees: 7

Location: Offices in Dublin and London

Barry's advice for business

1 The idea is never enough

"Having an idea is like wanting to lose weight -- it simply doesn't work unless you put the work in. It's 10 per cent about the idea and 90 per cent about the application of the idea."

2 Get a business plan

"Get people with experience in your sector to read your business plan, and be willing to take constructive criticism on board. And don't be afraid to re-write your plan at any time."

3 Look for investment

"Get your plan out to as many potential investors as possible. The more investment offers you have on the table, the better options you have to choose from."

Irish Independent

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