Sunday 25 August 2019

Here's to you. A toast to the power couple behind Voxpro

Dan and Linda Kiely are the power couple behind outsourcing firm Voxpro. They talked acquisitions, reinventing the wheel and the prospect of an IPO

Dan and Linda Kiely have just announced new 400 jobs on top of the 180 staff they have a present
Dan and Linda Kiely have just announced new 400 jobs on top of the 180 staff they have a present
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Dan Kiely has just been having talks about putting a bar in the office. An actual bar with drinks and stuff. It's a statement, to be sure, although probably something more like, "We're just as cool as Google and Airbnb" than "by all means, get sloshed on company time".

Not that there hasn't been plenty of reasons to raise a toast lately. Voxpro, the outsourcing firm owned and run by Dan and his business partner and wife Linda, has just made an announcement of 400 jobs on top of the 180 they've hired over the last year and a half.

It'll grow their workforce to 1,400 worldwide - they also have offices in Folsom, California - and is the latest highlight in an national narrative of economic recovery.

The company provides outsourcing solutions to some of the biggest tech firms in Ireland - basically, handling overflow of customer service calls for industry behemoths like Google - and has single-handedly transformed the notion of this kind of customer service from call centre donkey work into highly skilled labour.

And they keep up with their clients in every sense of the phrase. As anyone who has walked around Dublin's silicon dock will attest, you're not truly high tech or highly skilled unless you can have a jar on the job.

The outsourcing sector is worth around $87bn worldwide, with activity in the sector in Europe recovering this autumn after a lull earlier in the year.

The growth of the industry has been driven by the scaling of global companies, which find themselves challenged to recruit the right staff quickly enough or to put in place the necessary infrastructure to bolster the pace of their growth. As a result, they frequently partner with an outsource firm such as Voxpro who act as a third-party provider of services on their behalf.

Dan describes the Cork-headquartered Voxpro as "a relatively small player in the global market" but emphasises its ambition: "We have 100 people working at our Folsom office in the US; we've plans to scale that to 800 in the next six months and we're looking at other sites, too, so our vision is clear; we want a presence in four corners of the world."

The EBITDA of Voxpro was 10pc this year and by the end of the year, the company is expected to hit €36m in revenue. Dan thinks that €100m is "doable" for them in the next 18 months to two years and, interestingly, adds that is the point when he would consider an IPO to be a viable option.

When one thinks of outsourcing, one thinks of low-wage markets in far-flung countries; why do multinationals opt for Voxpro?

"The number one thing is scale", Dan responds. "If a company has had massive success in the US, it generally replicates itself in Europe. Those American companies need partners who can grow with them in Europe."

"It's true those companies can set up cheaply in Asia-Pacific", Linda adds, "but the big difference with us is access to a highly skilled, highly educated workforce. We have really talented innovative young people working for us. Our workforce is 65pc Irish at this point in that time."

Voxpro's aggressive growth has been evident for some time but Dan says that until recently, accessing credit was still an issue here. "I can remember a time, just a couple of years ago, when the banks were shut down for business no matter who your clients were. Even though we were a scaling company, it was extremely difficult to get money. Now it's easier to borrow €15m than it is to borrow €1m.

"The banks are very much back in lending mode and they're going to need to be. The competition from the US and Europe, in terms of banks who want to lend to successful, scaling Irish businesses, has changed the whole lending landscape and I think the onus has been on our own institutions to make the correct decisions to keep pace with that."

The work culture of the company, which is at pains to distance itself as much as possible from any subcontinent-tinged associations of the word 'outsourcing', informs everything from the look of its offices to its appetite for taking over competitors.

Dan wants to dispel any notion that what they do bears any resemblance to a "low-paid transient kind of job, a sterile environment with people all cooped up together on headsets". The brief for the designers of their offices in both Dublin and Cork was: "When you walk in the door, you cannot know what kind of business we are in."

The alliances with Dublin's discreet and tasteful high-tech firms have also loomed large in terms of possible acquisitions.

"We're very much opening to possible acquisitions if those will help us to scale more quickly", Dan says: "We are actively looking. I came across a number of opportunities this year but we had to pass on them, mainly, I have to say because the client base they had didn't align with the client base we have ourselves. Also we have to be very selective and strategic about the work cultures of the companies we engage with. Our target market is scalable brands that are changing the world."

He has been vocal in the last few weeks about the urgency of solving the housing crisis in Ireland and the impact that has had on Voxpro's ability to get the right hires. He says this has become sufficiently acute that, in certain instances, existing Voxpro staff have resorted to offering their own homes to new recruits in the short term.

"The problem is equally bad in Dublin and Cork. It's a capacity problem for Ireland Inc," he tells me. "It will have to be tackled by government and business in a partnership approach. On that score, failure simply isn't an option."

That phrase has been Dan and Linda's mantra for 30 years now. They both grew up in Cork; Dan in Turner's Cross and Linda in Douglas. They are an unlikely success story on several levels: there aren't many married couples who have succeeded in business, female entrepreneurs in Ireland are "as rare as hen's teeth" (as fellow Corkonian Caroline Hunt recently put it), and the Kielys started their business life by taking over what was then very much a sinking ship.

"We met in work", Linda recalls. "I was Dan's sales manager for the first 32-page glossy in the Irish market. It was a bad time really, the only people who really spent money were in the entertainment business, so we had to go out every night trying to get ads. The magazine was a casualty of the recession.

"It was just as bad back then; mortgage rates were 18pc. If you come through that, you are certainly a bit wilier," Linda recalls. After the closure of the magazine, she remortgaged her home to help fund the purchase of a small paging company, Pageboy, which employed six people.

Linda also went to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs, turning in seven-day weeks to keep the family's various plates in the air. She also has two children from a previous relationship; her daughter is also involved in the business on the finance side).

Money was too tight to mention in those early years. "I remember we went to a pub and we'd drink Murphy's because it was cheaper than a vodka and tonic or whatever", Dan recalls. "And if you can imagine Linda, being the glamorous woman that she is, a pint of Murphy's just didn't work.

We'd be going into a travel agent and paying off our one week in the sun in cash, any time we had a little extra."

Paging was dying at that point and the opportunity from Dan and Linda's perspective was to convert the customers who had used pagers like doctors and business people to other forms of communications. "It was extremely difficult to get the loan from the bank because mobiles were the new thing and the banks didn't think you could convert a big client base. So we had to kind of reinvent the wheel", Linda recalls. Their tenacity and willingness to take risks paid off though.

"We paid back our loans in half the term of the loan", Dan recalls. "We were able to borrow a little bit more. It was that kind of determination and personal sacrifice that helped us to get through. We had also made acquisitions to scale the company nationally."

The Kielys would go on to buy a similar business called Eirpage, which gave then access to a much larger customer base and then, in 2002, rebranded the company to Voxpro. It was during this period that the business began to morph into what it has become today.

That's when they brought the company to the fully outsourced support solution they now provide for their customers. The take-up was great and the business began to really take off. When the recession began to really take hold in 2008, the company focused on multinational customers, which, with their global reach, were perceived by the couple to be more recession proof.

wWhat are the distinct roles they fill within the business and how do they find working with each other as husband and wife?

"Linda is the strategic mastermind behind the business", Dan says. "She plays an inspirational role within the company and people get that when they meet her."

"I am founder-director" Linda adds, "and Dan is the CEO. Together we really complement each other because we're very different people. Combined, we're more than either of us would be individually."

Can they ever see themselves selling?

"I can't answer for Linda", Dan begins, "but this is a seven-day business and it's not 9-5 either: when the working day ends here, I'm on conference calls to Hong Kong or wherever. But I think even through that, I still have energy and passion and drive to create something extraordinary from Ireland.

"We both believe everyone should have an exit plan anyway, whether you execute it or not is another thing. It's not something we're contemplating right now. You can never say never but, at the moment, our great focus is on building the company into a global brand and if and when we manage that, we can look at all the options."

Including, presumably, a toast in the company bar.

For further information: Voxpro, Nore House, Riverside Business Park, Bessboro Road, Blackrock, Cork.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business