Monday 19 August 2019

The not-so-secret millionaires share more than money

They sold their 'baby' for €150m, but for Dan and Linda Kiely it's not all about the money, writes Sarah Caden

OPPORTUNITY: Dan and Linda Kiely believe big businesses can make a big difference to the community. Photo: Frank McGrath
OPPORTUNITY: Dan and Linda Kiely believe big businesses can make a big difference to the community. Photo: Frank McGrath

Sarah Caden

Two years ago, after the news broke of the €150m acquisition of their company Voxpro by Canadian firm Telus International, Dan and Linda Kiely went out for dinner. Halfway through the meal, Dan asked Linda what people were looking at.

"I said, 'They're looking at us,'" says Linda in her quiet voice and her drily, witty way.

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"We were 'that couple'," says Dan, adding quickly that they didn't want to be 'that couple'.

Firstly, it wasn't as simple as being handed a huge, novelty-size cheque and walking away into the Caribbean sunset: the deal was in two stages, with the final stage next year in 2020.

Second, as far as the Kielys were concerned, very little materially changed for them. Their life was comfortable before and their life was comfortable after; but, certainly, people's attitudes to them were altered.

"I just wanted the deeds to my house and the business premises," Linda says. "Not too much to ask," says Dan.

"And we owed a lot," Linda continues. "Also, you couldn't [sell the business] just for money. It was always about all the employment we were creating in Cork, expanding, all the mouths that people had to feed. When you build a business and you employ more and more people, you increase your sense of responsibility. To them.

"But people don't think of it that way - they think you've just won the lotto one day. They don't think of all the years you've been at it," Linda concludes.

"For a while I thought I was getting Alzheimer's," says Linda. "The asks were incredible. People were coming up to me and I didn't know who they were."

I ask if it changed how she was with people. "Well, I don't go to the supermarket any more," she says with a laugh.

The way you are with and about money is formed very early on in life, Dan and Linda, both Cork natives, agree. And they are not people to over-value it, or waste it, or think it raises them above anyone else.

"Even now," Dan says with a laugh, "if I say to Linda that such-a-body has whatever sort of car, she'll say, 'Ah, but they're loaded'."

Dan and Linda met 30 years ago in Cork, when both were working in the The Examiner. "I was his boss," says Linda.

In 2002, they founded Voxpro, offering call-centre support to businesses, a service that proved to have international value, particularly in the age of the internet. Their heart is always in Cork, but now they have bases in Dublin and across Europe and in the United States, providing customer-service and call-centre support to brands such as Google and Airbnb. The business is huge, but when it comes to success and wealth, their focus seems very fixed on the responsibility that comes with both.

"With the money comes extra responsibility," Dan says. "One of the things we'd both like to do, when we get around to it, is start our own foundation and leave a legacy that could do a lot of good for a lot of people. And we'll work on that when we have time, for sure."

Do enough people with big money think that way?

"No," they both answer.

"Look," says Dan. "I've met some amazing people across the world who talk the talk and walk the walk. Richard Branson would be one of them, he just wants to make a difference in the world and treats everyone the same. But then I've met people who are the opposite. They are entitled and have an expectation that people will be deferential and I just hate that and hate to see it."

They think that money makes them different, he explains.

"But it's only money," says Linda.

They don't want to be that couple.

Voxpro has always had a strong culture of giving back, which they call Give Where You Live. It has two strands, Dan explains, in that it's about supporting charity and supporting start-up businesses.

"There are a lot of entrepreneurs I come across now who have amazing ideas and they get series-A funding and then sometimes they run out of cash - I passionately think the Government should do something around having a fund there for entrepreneurs with great ideas but a bump in the road and no one to turn to," Dan says, "because the banks won't support them. It's stopping a lot of these people."

Is it harder to start up a business now than when they got going? "Well I remortgaged my house at 18pc for the business, so I don't think it gets much tougher than that," says Linda, who reminds me that she also cashed in her pension many years ago in difficult times.

Their attitude to helping people in charity is the same as their attitude to helping entrepreneurs. It's about the greater good and it's something they observe and are quick to praise in the millennial generation who make up a huge proportion of their workforce.

"To get top talent these days, it's not enough to say, 'We pay well and we work with some of the most iconic brands in the world'," says Dan. "They want to know what you're doing to give back to the community. They'll ask it and the answer matters to them. What is your CSR (corporate social responsibility) policy? Who do you support and how does it work? It's important to them to see how the company is a force for good and that's going to become the norm if you want to attract top talent."

Every year, Voxpro does one big charity event where the staff push up their sleeves and actively get supportive. Telus, as it happens, does similar around the world, so that was an area in which the acquisition was a good match.

This year, the Give Where You Live day was at the Field of Dreams in Cork, where adults with Down syndrome develop their work and life skills primarily through horticultural work.

In May, hundreds of employees headed out to the Field of Dreams at 6am and stayed until evening, erecting new buildings, building a new polytunnel, helping to plant pumpkin seeds, a crop they can sell.

"People are very quick to point the finger at the Government and ask them to fix every problem," says Dan, "but I think businesses have to step up too.

"You know, big businesses can make a big difference to the community. We were looking for something where we could make an impact, and Field of Dreams was somewhere we thought we could make an impact and a real difference in a single day. In real terms, that day enabled Field of Dreams to take on nine more students."

"They loved that day," says Linda of the Voxpro gang. "Being creative, making people happy, doing something positive. They're very good, the millennials."

It meant a lot to Dan and Linda personally, too, particularly as Linda's nephew, John, has Down syndrome. John is 33 and works one day a week in McDonald's in Douglas. Through him, Dan and Linda understand the full meaning of the fact that less than 5pc of Irish adults with Down syndrome have paid employment.

"Companies need to get behind these things." Dan says.

"You can't expect the Government to do everything and they won't anyway," says Linda. "They can't get a bed in a hospital, they can hardly build a Field of Dreams all over Ireland."

Is there the heart in Irish big business to get behind meaningful projects for change?

"It depends on the top," says Linda. "If the very top isn't committed, you won't get far."

Words to listen to, which seem to have worked well, on every front, for that couple.

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