This week's business, Voxpro, is one of the most impressive and up-and-coming companies in Ireland. Its founders, husband-and-wife team Dan and Linda Kiely, also have to be among the most inspiring entrepreneurs I have ever met. Their story is an exciting one. Set up in 2000, the pair already employ 900 staff and have an annual turnover of more than €34m. With three separate offices in Cork, one in Dublin and another in San Francisco, they are fast becoming a truly global company. And as I listen to their ambitious plans for the future, I realise that theirs is a journey that is really just beginning. Over the next three years they plan to create as many as 4,000 jobs and achieve revenues of more than€100m.
So what does Voxpro do? I ask.
"We specialise in providing outsourced customer service and technical support for some of the world's best known brands," explains Dan proudly as he brings up the company's new website on his computer screen to show me names that include Google, Airbnb, Nest, TravelZoo, It Works! and Neways. "But we also work with a growing list of great indigenous Irish firms such as Pinergy, Core HR, Magnet and Inhance Technologies," he adds.
"Can you ground what you actually do, for example, for the likes of Google or Airbnb," I ask.
"If a Google customer has a problem accessing their Gmail account or another Google App and they contact the Google Technical Support helpline for assistance, that email or telephone call comes directly to our dedicated Google team here and we deal with it on behalf of Google," explains Dan.
"Similarly, if a customer who is booking accommodation through Airbnb encounters a challenge, for any reason, completing their booking and contacts Airbnb's customers service support, then that mail or call also comes directly to us and our dedicated Airbnb team members assist that customer on behalf of Airbnb," he adds.
Such outsourcing models have grown massively in popularity in recent years as global companies continue to grow and scale. Many are challenged to recruit the right staff quickly enough or to put in place the necessary infrastructure to support the pace of their growth. As a result, they partner with an outsource firm such as Voxpro who act as a third-party provider of services on their behalf.
As the pair take me on a tour of their offices, I find myself constantly pausing in awe at the physical office environment. It's like nothing I have ever seen before. The place is bright, upbeat, even funky. There's a definite energy and vitality to the place. A number of staff are chatting in the coffee dock area, others gather in the restaurant and there's even a few playing table tennis in the corner. Passing by each group, Dan and Linda impressively have a word for everyone, even calling each by their first names.
At times it feels more like an airport than a large customer support centre. Everywhere I turn, I hear different languages as staff engage cheerfully with customers from all over the world.
"We have team members here from 30 separate countries and we conduct business in as many as 15 different languages," explains Linda. "Such multilingual capability has become key to our success to date," Linda adds.
Throughout the building, staff are organised into teams, each one looking after a particular company and their customers. Each team too has their own allocated space which is fitted out in the style and colours of the company they are representing. And as I move from one team area to another, all seem to have genuinely adopted that customer's distinct culture and vibe.
"When we work with new companies, we understand the importance of aligning our own vision and culture with theirs. We know that these organisations don't just want a service provider - they want a partner," explains Dan. "So, we immerse ourselves in our clients and in our clients' customers. This then manifests itself in everything we do - from the training and development of our team members to the physical environment itself. In essence, we become our clients," he adds passionately.
In the middle of each area too are specially themed meeting rooms and breakout areas. There's the American Hollywood area with a standout sign in big bright lights saying 'Dream Big'. If you closed your eyes and reopened them, you could easy imagine yourself in the middle of downtown LA. In another area, the Asia-Pacific themed room has colourful Asian artwork hanging on the walls and low-level furniture where you might just be expected to kneel. It's certainly far from where both Dan and Linda started out.
Dan and Linda Kiely both grew up in Cork city, Dan in Turners Cross and Linda in Douglas. Dan spent his teenage years working part time in a local supermarket and then in a bar. It was this experience that first helped hone his entrepreneurial drive. Later he graduated from the Cork Institute of Technology with a degree in business studies and soon began working with the Cork Examiner.
It was here that he and Linda first met. Linda had had her children early in life and, after returning to employment, began running a number of bars around Cork before joining the Examiner as sales and marketing manager for their new glossy magazine. However, when the downturn in the economy took hold in the early 1990s, the magazine became an early casualty and both Dan and Linda found themselves out of work. Not the kind to sit still, Linda got a job in administration with the local office of the Department of Foreign Affairs, while Dan went to work for a paging company called Pageboy.
"At that time, there were no mobile phones and pagers, and beepers were what those who needed to be contacted in emergencies, such as doctors, were starting to use. It might be hard to imagine now, but at that time, this was seen as cutting-edge technology," explains Dan.
By now a couple, Dan and Linda had decided they wanted to run their own business and decided to buy the paging business in which Dan was working.
"What really attracted us to it was the opportunity to build on what was already there and because we also realised that more and more multinational companies who were coming to Ireland around that time were beginning to use this type of technology to contact their staff outside of normal office hours," explains Dan.
But the couple had one major challenge; they had no money. So in a courageous move, Linda remortgaged her house in order to raise the investment required.
"It was definitely scary at the time," recalls Linda. "But once committed, failure was no longer an option for us," she says resolutely.
Later they went on to buy a similar business called Eirpage which gave theme access to a much larger customer base and then, in 2002, rebranded the company to Voxpro. As their customers became more sophisticated and began to demand additional services, the pair decided that they would have to innovate or die. That's when they decided to move 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. That was, at least, until 2008, when the economy went into free fall.
"It was a real wake-up call for us," explains Linda. "Many of our customers were small at that point and they had to cut back their spend on our services. It forced us to change tack, and as a result, we began to focus deliberately on multinational type customers who we felt were more recession-proof," she adds.
Their strategy proved successful. So successful, in fact, that business began to pour in. However, this presented its own challenges. They quickly realised that they needed to invest further in both staff and technology in order to service the growing number of new customers that they were signing up. But the banks weren't lending. They can even remember one time, when only two days away from getting a massive cheque from one of their major customers, they had to face the possibility of their payroll cheques bouncing. However, family and friends rallied around and provided some funding. But even with that, the pair had to cash in their own pensions to fund the business through what would turn out to be an important development period for the company.
Some of their customers' businesses took off and, unable to grow their own staff numbers quickly enough to keep up, they began turning, instead, to Voxpro to provide a rapid but high-quality outsourced model. As a result, Dan and Linda's business too began to explode.
In the office and as if on cue, a group of about 20 young people emerge from the fully glazed meeting room in the middle of the floor. They look like a bunch of cool college students leaving a lecture hall.
"That's the next group of new recruits that have joined us," explains Linda proudly. "This is their induction week where they get to learn what and how we do things here in Voxpro," she adds
A strong and clear company culture, they both insist, is critical to their ongoing expansion.
"It's impossible to reduce our culture into a few words or even sentences without it sounding like a corporate sound bite," explains Dan. "The sense of energy and focus on excellence that we have here comes from gathering hundreds of people together from the four corners of the world to work, as one, towards our shared goal. It emanates from the human connections that are the very heartbeat of Voxpro. It derives from the quirky diversity we so cherish here and it comes from the team themselves who we continually encourage to be entrepreneurial themselves, to take risks and to make a difference. Our people are the business," he adds.
Linda Kiely is a strong and strategic business woman. She has an engaging, full-of-life, personality that is matched with an equally astute and commercial business sense. Moreover, she has a deep commitment to customer services and a fundamental belief that customers should not only be satisfied, but be delighted.
Dan too loves to dream big. He is ambitious, even audacious. His pursuit of excellence is both relentless and contagious. He possesses an almost insatiable drive to do things differently and to constantly challenge the status quo. He wants to raise the bar in their industry, away from good and even excellent to WOW. And above all, he wants the company to become known, not for the ordinary but for the extraordinary.
Having spent the morning with them, one thing is for sure, there is nothing ordinary about Voxpro and certainly nothing ordinary about Dan and Linda Kiely.
For further information: Voxpro, Nore House, Riverside Business Park, Bessboro Road, Blackrock, Cork. www.voxprogroup.com
Sunday Indo Business