Terry Clune, Founder and CEO of Taxback Group: “Coronavirus did not have any direct impact on our business”
The last few months haven’t been easy by any means. We have been, and continue to be, faced with unprecedented and ever-changing challenges due to Covid-19. At Taxback Group, we’re extremely lucky to have amazing leaders and a workforce that has continued to collaborate, innovate and deliver, while adapting to the new situation very quickly. But what’s the secret behind our success?
Terry Clune, Founder and CEO of Taxback Group, met exclusively (and virtually) with Economy.bg to share some valuable insights about how Taxback Group has adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and his inspiring story of building a sustainable business from scratch.
Mr. Clune, has how the Covid-19 pandemic affected your business in Bulgaria and did you have to cancel any projects?
Coronavirus did not have any direct impact on our business. The services we provide are global, we’re not specific to one region or one industry and we provide a range of different financial services, mainly to global companies so our global business has not really stopped to any major extent. We’ve been very successful at continuing to trade during the pandemic because of our tremendous team of people in Varna and across the world who are very committed, very experienced and very capable. We appreciate the work that all of our team have done across the world in getting through this difficult time.
What were the main challenges for Taxback in Bulgaria to adapt to the new situation?
Coronavirus has been challenging for every business across the world and it would have been more challenging for us but we adapted what we do very quickly, we were able to move our team to remote working very quickly. All of our teams are now working successfully from home and I expect that will continue to some extent into the future.
Regarding working from home there were some expectations.I expected that working from home would have an impact on our team’s productivity but I’m very thankful that our team really got focused and straight back into their work and from what we’ve seen most people have been even more productive in working from home. They’ve really gotten behind the business during the coronavirus pandemic and we’ve managed to get through it successfully thanks to everyone playing their part.
Are your staff still working from home? is remote working something you plan to continue in the future?
For us it’s not really about whether we work from home or work in the office. Simply, it’s important for us that people are able to do their job wherever they are, be they at home or at work, it doesn’t really matter. I think into the future, I imagine many of our people will probably work half the time from home and half the time from the office.
Remote working will definitely be an option, yes. It won’t suit everybody but for those who wish to have that facility and are able to continue to perform it will definitely be a key option. I think it will be good for people and their lifestyles. Not having to commute or commuting less will mean more time at home with family for people. These are all valuable benefits for people and it’s definitely something that we’re keen to support into the future.
What type of roles does Taxback Group offer in Bulgaria?
Over the nineteen years now that we’ve been in Varna the work that we do has changed. It used to be very administrative and many of the people at the beginning of our business were involved in administrative roles. Now many of those roles have changed. They have become more expertise orientated, expertise in payroll, expertise in payments, expertise in taxes etc. We also have a much larger technology team now than ever before. We currently work with nearly 150 people in technology across Bulgaria.
Ultimately, the work here has changed from administrative to using technology to provide the services and with that roles and jobs are changing too. Many of the administrative people have now learned new skills and have developed into much higher technology/ higher skilled positions in our business.
So right across our business the work has changed and now more than ever we need highly skilled people. I’m delighted that so many of our team leaders today have grown within the business and have learned and adopted the latest skills.
Do you think that western companies will move away from South East Asia and move to Eastern Europe because of the Covid-19 pandemic? And could Bulgaria benefit from such a trend?
I think Bulgaria has done an extraordinary job of keeping the impact of the coronavirus very low in the country. One of the lowest contagion rates in Europe and is clearly a very safe place now and will be into the future to be doing business. The government have absolutely taken this issue very seriously and all the people too have taken it very seriously. Considering this, I think that Bulgaria can be a potential location for any company that is planning to relocate their business from Asia to Eastern Europe.
How would you compare Bulgaria to other countries that you are operating in and do you see any challenges or other opportunities here?
We’ve always said that Bulgaria is a great place to do business. For example, most recently I’ve seen that wherever I go around Varna the internet connections are so fast. I read recently that Bulgaria have one of the top three internet speeds in the world. So they’re clearly very forward-thinking in terms of technology and in terms of things that really matter to people and to businesses. I think over the last nineteen years I’ve seen dramatic improvements and in terms of the confidence of people there’s been a dramatic increase and also huge positive improvements in the way things are managed here. I’m sure not everything is perfect here, just like any country, but I’ve seen huge improvements in the local economy and local area and hopefully, that can continue forward into the future.
In terms of the Bulgarian people that we’ve been able to recruit and lead our teams here, they boast a wide range of skills from engineering to customer care and languages. There are very smart people here. It’s enabled our business to really grow technology wise and customer care wise across the world.
Yes, there’s a lot of competition in Bulgaria and Varna to hire the best people. We recognise that we want the best people to be working for our business and we’re very fortunate to have a fantastic team here and that’s what has enabled our business to be so successful. We also have a very strong and growing relationship relationships with local universities in Varna and in Veliko Tarnovo that has enabled us to identify people.
Recent surveys of EY and Brookings Institution showed that employers in many countries are speeding up plans to automate their businesses as workers are forced to stay at home during the pandemic. Do you think automation in business will reduce the need for staff in Taxback Group?
I think that this is not something that smart people should be concerned about. In our business, nineteen years ago, it was very non-automated and since then we’ve brought more and more automation to our business but our business has also grown more and more in terms of the number of people. The work that we do is no longer administrative, it’s more technology-enabled which leads to, for many people, more interesting work, more skilled work and more higher value added work. For people who are willing to learn the more modern and updated skills, automation should not be a worry.
Increased automation is definitely happening and our business would be a prime example of the impact of automation on services. I need and want our team to be learning the new skills and to be able to do the technology-enabled jobs.
Again, in our business, we’re not just focusing on one customer or one region. Our services are global, we’ve got customers in virtually every country in the world so it’s really about using the technologies available to provide the best service possible and having the best people driving that forward.
How will this crisis transform the software/fin-tech industry in the long-run?
Fintech and financial business is very much changing to using more technology enabled services and we’re very much at the forefront of that. For example, in the payments space with TransferMate we’re building really cutting edge technology to help companies to manage their global payments.
Our business in Varna is a combination of technology-enabled services and services which have a high degree of expertise in areas such as global payroll. For example, we manage the global payroll for Uber and for Harvard from Varna. We manage global VAT tax for IBM and Google from Varna and we provide global services for hundreds of thousands of students who for example, study in North America. We provide tax return expertise to all their universities, so we are doing very significant and important work. Also, Benamic our sales-promotion service will provide technology marketing services to very large companies like Canon.
All of these services need technology but at the same time they need a very high degree of customer care and being able to do both of those things, technology and customer care together is why we continue to be very successful.
Really all of our services are driven by technology and we’ve got very strong technology people in our business in Bulgaria, a couple of which have strong expertise in customer care.
You have gone a long way from your student years, returning from a summer in Germany and establishing a company in the kitchen of the family home. What’s the secret to building a sustainable business? What lessons have you learned along the way?
There’s a couple of important things people should think about in terms of that. I’m from a farm in rural Ireland, my parents encouraged me to start business when I was young. The first business I started was when I was eight years old. I used to collect fertiliser bags, plastic bags from farmers and I would fold them neatly and sell them to wood merchants who used them to sell firewood in. This was a great business for me as an eight year old as I was able to purchase my first bike, a yellow BMX bike. However, the biggest business lesson I learned was when I was nine years old. My business went bust when another farmer’s son saw what I was doing and ended up getting a better bag than mine to sell, a see through bag so people could see how much firewood was inside. He ended up taking all my customers as he was able to sell them this better bag and he put me out of business. This was a really, really valuable lesson for me. As I was busy with my yellow BMX bike cycling around every Saturday and Sunday to all my farmers collecting the bags, I would also spend my money on chocolate. Breakfast on a Saturday morning would consist of Snickers bars and I really felt like a cool dude. But I had gotten lazy and a bit complacent, while the kid competing with me asked the customers what he could do better and ended up sourcing a better bag. I lost all my customers then and as a result my business stopped.
There’s always opportunities to see how things can be done better. That was a very important lesson for me. You also need to surround yourself with positive people. People who are progressive rather than people who will hold you back or be critical or negative. In Varna, we’ve been very fortunate to hire an extraordinary team of people. Having fantastic people around you is a key to success for any business. The number one of course is to be hiring the best people, be that in Ireland or in Bulgaria.
We expanded our business to this extent by asking the customers ‘what can we do for you?’, ‘how else can we help?’, ‘what can we do differently or what can we do better?’ and as a result of those questions we now have many different businesses within the Group. If something changes for one business or the market changes, we are not just reliant on one company. Having a series of different businesses takes away an immediate risk.
The lesson here is that what any business must do, no matter if they’re Bulgarian or Irish, is to continue to find out from your customer what they want and stay on the pulse and keep you’re your eyes open for new opportunities because business changes all the time and the second you stop looking at how you could do better you’re going to be finished. The secret of a successful business is constantly wondering ‘how can we do this better?’
Do you think ambition or talent matters more for success?
I think success is like Einstein says, 99% hard work and 1% talent. I think talent comes from hard work. Some people are naturally talented but for most people by working at something you can become talented at it. That’s what I tell my kids, I have five children, three boys and two girls and what I would be saying to them would be by working hard at something you can become talented at it. Be it learning to play chess or play a sport, yes some people are naturally talented at those things but by working hard, putting the effort in and continuing to try you can become talented and it’s the same in business. Lots of people have talent but don’t use it so it goes to waste. It’s the people that are moderately talented but put the effort in that become hugely successful. It’s all about making the effort.
Private school or state school?
All of my schooling was in public schools. I think in Europe, for most countries the public school system is very good. I’m not sure what it’s like here in Varna but the EU would be very supportive of Ireland, ensuring that we don’t need to have huge fees for private education. The university sector in Ireland too is ultimately, not crazy expensive compared to places like America.
I think Ireland and Bulgaria have much in common in the education sector. The public system in both countries is what most people use and in general, it’s a good system.
Should young people go to university or go straight into work, what do you think provides a better experience?
I’ve met many people who were successful in business without going to university but I know a lot of them would feel at a disadvantage having not gone to university. University gives you, if anything, confidence. Confidence from getting through it. Many of the people I’ve met in business that have been successful but didn’t go to university would usually say that if they had one regret it would be not going to or not finishing university because of the confidence that it can bring you.
In Ireland now and in Bulgaria, there are very high rates of people going to university which is hugely valuable for the economy into the future. I would be encouraging everyone if possible to try and finish your 3rd level education even though it’s not always easy to do, it brings you such confidence in the long term.
This article was originally published on Economy.bg in two parts. Read the original here – part 1: „Таксбек Груп“: Търсенето на таланти при нас не е спирало and part 2: Как се създава бизнес за милиони от нулата?