Saturday 24 August 2019

TransferMate makes hard work pay off

The global payments firm is in pole position after years of groundwork, co-founder Sinead Fitzmaurice tells Fearghal O'Connor

Taxback Group Chief financial officer Sinead Fitzmaurice says the AIB deal was crucial. Photo: David Conachy
Taxback Group Chief financial officer Sinead Fitzmaurice says the AIB deal was crucial. Photo: David Conachy

Fearghal O'Connor

One morning in early 2010, Sinead Fitzmaurice, chief financial officer of Terry Clune's Taxback Group, climbed the stairs with her boss to the unoccupied top floor of the company's then new Kilkenny headquarters. She had only just begun working on the vast amount of international licence applications needed if they were to develop their idea for an international payments platform. The tiny team that would become TransferMate was in a small corner of the group's office below.

"I want you to fill this with TransferMate people Sinead," said Clune, gesturing across the silent, empty top floor. Fitzmaurice, co-founder and now chief financial officer of TransferMate, was aghast.

"The next day we set about our task. Now that floor is full of staff. I always remember that moment. He had the belief that we could do it and he instilled that belief in me. Now we have 185 people employed in TransferMate, with significant employment growth to come."

The company, now a separate entity to Taxback and until last week 80pc owned by Clune and 20pc by Fitzmaurice, is on the cusp of extraordinary growth, she says. The goal - over two to three years - is to turn TransferMate into a €1bn global payments business based out of Kilkenny, says Fitzmaurice.

A major step on that growth path came when last week it signed a €30m strategic partnership deal with AIB, revealed by this newspaper. It is just the first of a series of banking collaborations the company hopes to agree and, with AIB taking a small minority stake, values TransferMate at between €250m to €300m.

"It is a proud moment for us," says Fitzmaurice. "The biggest bank in Ireland, a pillar bank, has looked at us inside and out and said that we tick all the boxes for them. Now we can start putting the foot down in terms of building our volumes."

The AIB deal gives TransferMate the wherewithal to execute its strategy. It plans to concentrate in particular on the US, Australia, Canada and Europe. Fitzmaurice believes the opportunity is huge in a €138trn global payments market. "We are in pole position for a land grab in that market," she says.

Other players in the sector have focused on fundraising first and building the infrastructure later. "We've done it the other way around," she says. This has meant that the company can offer banks a fully-functioning international-payments platform that has already transferred $10bn to over 100 countries. Apart from the AIB partnership, Fitzmaurice says there is potential for further deals in 2018 with a top five US bank and a pan-European bank, giving TransferMate access to potentially huge distribution channels.

The temptation for many up-and-coming fintechs is to become market disruptors, to do to banks what Uber has done to taxis and what Airbnb has done to hotels. But, says Fitzmaurice, a partnership approach was always likely to be a more lucrative option for TransferMate.

"Because of the platform that we have, particularly on the receivables side, we always knew that there was an opportunity to bash the banks here in the short term. But we never did that. Yes, we were competing in the same market but our vision was always about what we could do overseas, particularly in the US market. For us, it's about being stronger together.

"The opportunity is immense," she says. "We were always building towards this. We already have thousands of clients around the world. But the AIB partnership is really exciting because it is an opportunity for us to scale at a different pace."

It is little wonder so that Fitzmaurice describes the signing of that deal last week, after months of negotiation and due diligence, as a turning point in her own career. TransferMate has long kept itself below the radar and Fitzmaurice professes to not relishing the media spotlight. She cringes at having her photo taken for the newspaper. "The one thing they don't train you for as an accountant is having your photo taken," she says with a smile. "Myself and Terry are similar like that. I much prefer wheeling and dealing on deals. But sure it has to be done."

Fitzmaurice, who grew up in New Ross, Co Wexford, went straight from school to train as an accountant with PwC in its Kilkenny office. She was qualified by the age of 20 and quickly rose to management level in the office. In 2000 she went on secondment to PwC's Jersey office.

"Jersey is a hub for the financial services industry and I learned everything from anti-money-laundering to compliance. I also got to work with US clients and learned about SEC regulation."

By age 24 she was regularly sitting in a boardroom with up to 30 older colleagues, nearly all men. But she was not particularly daunted.

"Red hair is always good in these situations," she jokes. "People always ask me about the glass ceiling and of course it can be daunting. But if you are confident in what you are doing and passionate about the subject, that goes a long way. I always try to excel at what I am doing. That I think is more important than whether you are female or male."

After having their first child in 2005, Fitzmaurice and her husband, also a chartered accountant, decided that they wanted to return to Ireland.

"I came across Taxback on the internet and sent in my CV. When I met Terry I instantly clicked with him - his entrepreneurial spirit, his belief in talent and his vision and strategy is inspirational."

Fitzmaurice brought with her a particularly important skill set - including risk management and multinational experience - at just the right time. The company was already making international transfers for its own business but by 2005, it was tapping into the booming Australian visa market for Irish students. That process required money transfer to Australia so Fitzmaurice set about applying for an Australian bureau de change license for Taxback as a way to avoid the exorbitant international money transfer charges levied by banks on painfully slow inter-country transfers.

"That was our first dip into the regulation of these services," she said.

At the same time the EU was preparing the payment services directive, which would bring sweeping changes to how the payment services sector would be regulated right across Europe.

"We began asking ourselves what else we could do with these licences. We sat around a table and hammered out what, as accountants and financial controllers, we would like from such a service. Terry would say 'Well, Sinead, what would you like to see? You're doing our accounts ... what would make your life easier?'

"It was very much all of us together at the table sketching it out. And what we realised was that if you had a tech-enabled international payments platform that was fast, cheap and easy to use then you were on to something pretty powerful."

They also came to the conclusion that the best way to achieve this was to set up a network of domestic bank accounts in each country that allowed them to control both ends of the transaction rather than relying on international banking infrastructure to process payments.

If a customer could pay into a domestic bank account in their own country at one end and their client could receive the payment through a domestic bank account at the other end, this would avoid the expensive, messy and time consuming route that international bank transfers traditionally used. Even better, if all this could be tied seamlessly into the major cloud-based accounting software packages at both ends, then TransferMate could be on to a massive winner.

But to achieve its potential, Transfermate needed to get the required licences individually in Europe, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and, most daunting of all, every one of the 50 US states, each of which has its own set of payments regulations.

Fitzmaurice set about researching the regulations for each state and country and began hiring staff to tackle each one in turn. In May of this year TransferMate finally achieved the last US licence it needed - New York. It had taken seven years to get every licence but the success of Taxback and the resources that was generating had meant that it was able to dedicate this time without having to seek external funding.

"When the New York licence came through that was when we put the accelerator down and said 'let's go for it'. We are in pole position in the US now because with a licence in every state, we have something very powerful to sell.

"The backing of a bank like AIB really gives us the fuel in the engine we need. It is a rarity in the industry to have the regulation platform that we have. No other Irish company has ever done it and there are only about three others in the world. The difference with us though is that they don't have the technology platform and integration with accounting software that we have," she says.

Right throughout the time that the company had been tackling the regulatory side, Fitzmaurice had engaged with senior AIB people to keep them informed as to progress.

"'OK,' we said to them when we got our licences, 'Now we have something pretty powerful ... let's collaborate and bring something really powerful to your exporting client base, extend your reach and promote employment in Ireland.' The bank saw the opportunity and the innovation we had brought to it."

The timing, she agrees, was perfect. The bank was just emerging from its successful flotation with an appetite for innovation. But it could also see the huge breadth of opportunity that TransferMate has internationally. This, says Fitzmaurice, also makes the company a huge and growing asset to the economy in Kilkenny and the southeast.

"The international dimension allows us to attract talent home and to develop talent locally. It provides an opportunity for local people who are working in Dublin and want to get out of the city. And we are also very encouraging, as we scale our offices around the world, to provide an opportunity for staff to co-locate in the States for example. It is a great way for a young person to get experience abroad. I spent six years abroad and I know what that can bring to the table."

It has been a busy decade for Fitzmaurice since her own return to Ireland. But, she says, it is only now that the TransferMate story is really about to start.

Name

Sinead Fitzmaurice

Age

42

Position

Co-founder and chief financial officer, TransferMate Global Payments

Lives

Kilkenny

Previous experience

Trained with PwC in Kilkenny before spending six years at the company's Jersey office

Family

Married with four children

Pastimes

Swims every morning at 7.30am

Favourite movie

Meet the Fockers

Favourite place for a holiday

The Canary islands

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