Terry Clune has started eight fintech companies in three decades to help such clients as Barclays, Wells Fargo and Harvard handle taxes, payroll and marketing in other countries. Having sold just one, he’s already well on his way to becoming a billionaire.
By Devin Sean Martin
In the misty rolling hills of Wicklow, Ireland, Terry Clune founded his first business. He was eight, the son of a farmer, and looking for a way to avoid long, wet days in the field. He began collecting and cleaning discarded fertilizer bags from neighboring farmers and selling them in bundles of 20 for one Irish pound apiece, mostly to wood merchants who would bundle firewood in them.
It wasn’t long before the precocious eight-year-old had the newest BMX bike in his driveway and could afford all the Snickers bars he wanted. But, unfortunately for Clune, the high life was short-lived.
“Life was good until one day, this young guy, a seven-year-old, came across the mountain with a better bag and put me out of business,” says Clune. “A smarter guy saw what I was doing, thought he could do it better, and he did, and I was too busy getting fat on Snickers to see it coming.”
It was a valuable lesson, and one to which the 51-year-old credits his huge success.
Since his fertilizer bag business went bust, Clune has made a career out of seeing what others are doing, and trying to do it better. That has led him to start eight companies in the fintech space, all providing software solutions to help global companies or universities handle taxes, payroll and marketing in other countries, with clients ranging from Barclays and Wells Fargo to Harvard University. Clune operates these companies through CluneTech, his holding company in Kilkenny, Ireland. While he wouldn’t confirm revenue or net profits, Forbes spoke to analysts and used publicly available information to estimate his net worth at $900 million.
The majority of his net worth derives from his estimated 50% stake in CluneTech’s largest holding, TransferMate. The company, which facilitates cross-border payments for the world’s largest banks, became Ireland’s newest unicorn in May 2022, when it raised $70 million in capital from the U.K.-based pension fund Railpen at a $1 billion valuation. Clune also has an estimated $280 million in cash from selling his international payroll firm Immedis for nearly $630 million in June.
On deck are plans to raise money for Sprintax, which helps non-U.S. residents file taxes in America, and he’s working toward IPOs for several other companies. If all goes according to plan, Clune will be a billionaire within a year or two.
Not that he’s necessarily looking forward to that day. “He doesn’t seek any accolades, banners or headlines,” says Joanna Murphy, a longtime friend and colleague of Clune’s who is CEO of two of his companies, including Clune’s first venture, Taxback.com. “He’s Mr. Ordinary, and values that as a currency above any other currency, including money.”
But when it comes to his businesses, Clune insists he’s just getting started. “I think I have a lot more company in me,” he says. “I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon.”
Born in London to Irish parents in 1972, Clune’s family moved back to the Emerald Isle when he was just a year old to open a sheep and barley farm in the rural Irish county of Wicklow.
At 17, he left home for Dublin to attend Trinity College, studying business, but spent the summer after his second year in Germany working in a factory. “Back then, it was very common for Irish students to work abroad, and you could make a lot more money if you went to Germany,” he says.
The woman who ran the factory liked his work ethic, and asked if he could bring over some of his fellow students the following summer. So, Clune started a business getting Irish students jobs at the German factory and finding them places to live. “At the time I had dreadlocks down to here,” says Clune, pointing to his shoulders, “and Doc Martin boots up to my knees, and I was wearing a suit interviewing my classmates who are paying me 200 pounds each. It was quite the image.”
A total of 120 students accompanied him to Germany that summer. The scheme went off without a hitch, until the very end. As residents of Ireland, Clune’s crew should have been entitled to reclaim a portion of their income tax based on the much lower Irish rate. At least, that’s what Clune thought.
“Throughout the summer, the students had paid about 50% income tax in Germany, and along the way I had promised them ‘don’t worry, we’ll get that back toward the end, and that will be your drinking money for the year ahead,’” Clune says.
Nearing the start of the next semester, Clune gathered the tax forms for all of his 120 paying clients in his suitcase (a Guinness duffel bag) and ventured to the German tax office.
“I put the Guinness bag up on the counter as 120 students all waited outside the front door for their cash, and I said in broken German, ‘I’d like to get this tax back please,’” Clune recalls. “They came back after five minutes and said ‘es tut mir leid,’ which means, ‘I’m very sorry, but your students aren’t due any money back.’”
According to Clune, fate then intervened in his favor. “I was coming down the lift wondering what the hell I was going to say to these students, when the lift stops at level two, and a guy comes in wearing a beautiful suit and a twisty mustache,” Clune says. Eyeing his Guinness bag, the man asks, “Do you happen to come from Ireland?”
The man introduced himself as the director of finance at the tax office. He had just returned from a vacation in Ireland, and was eager to hear what an Irishman was doing in a German tax office with a duffel bag.
After explaining his predicament, the man took Clune up to his 8th-floor office, and following an afternoon of phone calls to colleagues about international tax treaties, he told Clune that he and his friends could get all of their money back.
Not only did he save Clune, but he gave him his next big idea. Back in Ireland, he founded Taxback, designed to help the thousands of Irish people working overseas each year reclaim the foreign taxes they paid.
The plan was to become an accountant after college and run Taxback as a side hustle. But soon he became inundated with inquiries from prospective clients around the world. So he left his job at Price Waterhouse Cooper to focus full time to his startup.
For a kid who grew up on an Irish farm, adapting to foreign cultures and tax systems proved to be a significant adjustment. “The first time I went to China, I learned how to exchange a business card – you do it with panache and total respect, with two hands on the card,” he says. Soon he was opening Taxback offices in countries like China, India and Australia.
He had to bootstrap to scale his business in the 90s, before private equity and venture capital made funding more readily available for companies like Clune’s. “I had to be a lot more thrifty,” he says. “Rather than buying the brand new thing, I had to settle for the second thing, which was probably good enough—and there’s value in that.” It also meant he held onto more of the equity.
Clune was short on cash, but had plenty of ideas. “When we were transferring our tax refunds to our customers in Brazil, very often we would send checks, and the checks would very often go missing in the post,” Clune says. “The postman probably took the checks.”
That’s when he started using bank transfers instead, but they would regularly cost the customer up to $300 in transfer fees. “That’s where the business of TransferMate came about,” says Clune, who founded the company in 2010, “to cut out SWIFT, the interbank system, which is very, very expensive for individual payments.”
The big challenge was figuring out how to operate in the highly regulated space of global payments, where companies need separate licenses in every country and, in the U.S., in every state. The process for acquiring those licenses, says Sinead Fitmaurice, TransferMate’s CEO, took about nine years, but is now a key part of TransferMate’s competitive advantage.
“It was quite an ambitious idea, but if you know Terry, you know that he would be the biggest advocate for identifying a problem and doing what it takes to solve it for the customer,” says Fitzmaurice, who has run daily operations for the past 13 years and still speaks to Clune multiple times a day.
Clune got an idea for yet another venture just a few years after founding TransferMate. “As we were growing TransferMate and Taxback, we had to work with staff in about 30 countries, which meant managing the payroll for all of them,” Clune says.
He tried handling payroll internally, then commissioned PWC. But the complexities of paying a staff spread across 30 different financial systems proved too overwhelming.
Hence, Clune founded Immedis in 2016 to manage cross-border payroll for businesses with a global workforce. His third venture, Immedis is the only company he’s ever sold. He offloaded it to UKG, an American multinational workforce management company, in June for about $600 million.
While the seven remaining companies that make up CluneTech operate separately, they cross-sell to one another and also share office space. Roughly 300 staffers work out of the corporate headquarters in Kilkenny, Ireland, including Clune. Over half of the total 1,300 employees are based in Bulgaria, where Clune opened his first office outside of Ireland in 2001 with just 15 people. He first took a liking to the country after reading about it in a world atlas, and felt its black sea scenery made it the perfect place for a major office.
“Each of the businesses in my group, they’ve all got their own management teams and leadership teams, but they often work in similar spaces with similar clients, so we’ve been able to share a lot of business across each of the firms,” Clune says. A new client for one company could mean a new client for three companies.
Clune thinks his younger businesses have high dollar potential too. That includes Benamic, which helps manage international marketing campaigns; Visa First, a visa facilitation service; and Sprintax, which he says he’s most bullish about. Born out of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sprintax helps non-U.S. residents like college students file taxes in America; about a third of all U.S. international students, some 415,000 students, use Sprintax’s software. But Clune says the real growth opportunity is in the corporate sector, where an increasingly globalized workforce means lots of potential clients looking to streamline their overseas payments system. “That software is very relevant for staff working in different countries where there are tax compliance issues,” Clune says. “That company has some massive scale potential.”
Up next for his assortment of companies: hopefully a public offering or sale. “We are building these businesses to take them to the IPO stage, and if somebody comes along with an offer to take us off that journey along the way, I’m happy to entertain those conversations too,” says Clune, who has come a long way from being muscled out of his first business by an enterprising kid a year younger than him.
“Being the eight-year-old and being successful with one business is a huge accomplishment,” he says. “It is slightly more difficult to do it again. Sustaining success is the hard part.”
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