How a Meath couple landed a €266m jackpot with their business idea

Noel and Valerie Moran's prepaid cards business was born at their kitchen table

Valerie Moran, head of operations and client relations at Prepaid Financial Services and Noel Moran, the company’s chief executive. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Valerie Moran, head of operations and client relations at Prepaid Financial Services and Noel Moran, the company’s chief executive. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Noel Moran will have plenty to celebrate when he turns 50 in three weeks. Along with his wife, Valerie, the Meath-based entrepreneur this week offloaded their payments business for €327 million in a deal that will give the couple a payout of up to €266 million.

For a business that started at a kitchen table in London during the height of the world’s financial meltdown, that success is unquestionably all the sweeter.

And although it happened quite quickly in the end, getting to the point of a multimillion euro sale wasn’t particularly easy, the pair explain as we sit in a glass-walled conference room in their Navan offices.

“There were moments we thought it was a dead end,” says Valerie of those early days, when Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) was solely operating in London with just her and Noel.

After losing £36,000 (€42,000) in the first year of its operation, Noel set about trying to raise money to bolster the company’s finances. Initially, he sought to raise €300,000 and ultimately that figure rose to €1 million. But “there was no-one investing in London”, he says. In fact, “they were doing the exact opposite”. In the end they didn’t manage to raise any funding.

And so, with only their savings and a bit of luck on their side, the couple worked through their “chicken and egg scenario” whereby clients would only come on board if the business looked credible but, in the absence of office space, that was a struggle. After five months at the kitchen table, the couple caught a break and landed a large client. They then moved into an office in London’s Hanover Square, which was losing tenants at a fast pace. Given the world’s economic woes at the time, PFS was offered the first three months of its tenancy for free.

Skip on 12 years with the company operating in 25 countries and expecting this year to post revenues of £86 million and earnings of £13.5 million. Doubtless Noel and Valerie are thanking their lucky stars that their early fundraising efforts were a flop, given their 81.5 per cent ownership of PFS.

Nevertheless, when they were unable to afford office space in the early days, they could hardly have expected the valuation the business ultimately achieved? “No, I think it’s fair to say we would never have expected it to be that much. You go through different phases over the years. There was a point we realised this was potentially worth €50 million and then a couple of years later we realised it was potentially worth €100 million . . . I would never have expected to get it as far as we did today,” Noel says.

Lucky break

Noel Moran is a local boy done good. Having grown up in Navan, he attended St Patrick’s Classical School before leaving at the age of 17. For one year after that he worked in his father’s furniture business, but he had desires on a career in an office. A fortuitous phone call from his career guidance teacher in St Pat’s ended in him getting a job with PermanentTSB, initially working as a filing clerk.

After a number of years climbing the ladder at PTSB, Noel moved to AIB where he was first exposed to the world of card payments. Then followed several contract roles in the UK, working for banks including MBNA, the Co-operative Bank and RBS, before he ultimately joined Altair Financial Services, a business that sold payment cards to the “corporate high end sector”. When that company fell into administration in 2007 and Noel lost his job, he grabbed the opportunity to sell prepaid payment cards to smaller corporate clients.

His first hire, and business partner, was Valerie Willis. Having first met Noel a year previously, she left her paid job to work at her partner’s start-up, which couldn’t pay a salary at first. From Zimbabwe, Valerie had little financial services experience, having studied systems analysis in Harare before working in property and later with a tobacco company.

She moved to London around 2003, prompted by a recession in Zimbabwe, working in insurance before moving into the payments business with Noel.

And since they set out 12 years ago, the business has grown at breakneck speed, last year posting a £7.2 million (€8.11 million) net profit on sales of £64.75 million.

More recently, the pair made moves toward an initial public offering, something that was ultimately “derailed and sidetracked with Brexit”. But the process sparked talks with some of the potential IPO investors about a full acquisition. In August this year, those conversations progressed and “pretty quickly” PFS agreed commercial terms with Australian-listed payments company EML. From start to finish, the deal was wrapped up in about three months.

Was it always their intention to sell?

“No, it definitely wasn’t at all,” says Noel. “We wanted to stay part of it for at least the next three years, there’s still a lot of growth in it.” Although they may not be involved for that long – the deal with EML requires their involvement for 12 months at the very least – they will hold a roughly 6 per cent shareholding in the listed EML entity. For the company, and indeed for them, this deal offered “new beginnings [and] better opportunities”.

For example, the agreement immediately allows PFS to piggy back on EML’s Australian and US licences. At present, PFS has a UK and Irish e-money licence. The award of the Irish licence is a recently won Brexit hedge that allows the group transfer its European clients to the Irish entity, which can operate across the single market. And although it’s been a long, hard process to get the licence, Noel is clear that Brexit hasn’t much troubled the company otherwise.

“London is still the financial services capital of the world, no matter what you say about it. Business is done in London and there’s a lot of business done in London that won’t happen anywhere else,” he says, adding that the Irish regulator is “miles behind London” when it comes to PFS’s part of the financial services sector.

“The UK regulator is all about competition and there are hundreds of competitors to us in the UK, whereas here in Ireland it’s the opposite. I think there are only seven or eight regulated entities that have e-money licences.”

We have, he adds, missed an opportunity with Brexit. A lot of his company’s competitors, for example, have sought regulation in Frankfurt, Malta, Gibraltar, Lithuania and Latvia. Those regulators, he says, were proactive. “A blind man would see that there were about 400 regulated entities that had to go somewhere.”

Missed the boat

While he isn’t trying to be overly critical of the Central Bank of Ireland, he believes the Republic missed the boat to secure a boon for the financial services sector. “We could have created a lot more employment and we could have taken over from London as the financial services hub.”

The speed of the regulator, or lack thereof, isn’t Noel’s only gripe with the State and its agencies. The 3.5 times salary cap for mortgages is problematic for young people looking to get a foot on the property ladder, he says. But more importantly, getting visas for foreign workers is “an absolute nightmare”.

“We’ve reached out to multiple politicians and … they’re very proactive at replying, but unfortunately, they don’t do anything.” Much like the Brexit opportunity, he sees the attraction of foreign workers as a chance to “generate more for the economy”, but those in command keep erecting “barriers in the way of job creation”.

Noel isn’t irascible, it should be said – his views on these topics are prompted by my questions. Nevertheless, he’s keen to illustrate the struggles facing the business community. Planning, he adds, is another troublesome issue.

But as he and Valerie edge closer to the exit door at PFS, perhaps they can forget about these issues and instead focus on winding down?

“We don’t plan to wind down,” says Valerie. “In fact, it wouldn’t suit us because … we like to be doing something and engaged.” One needn’t look too far for evidence to back up her assertion. Aside from PFS, the pair run Ecomm Merchant Solutions – a company offering payment solutions to businesses. That business is starting to become “fairly established” and will next month launch in Poland to add to its presence in Ireland, the UK, Cyprus and Greece – it’s primary market. Ecomm, though still unprofitable, will record revenues of about €8 million this year, more than double that of 2018.

Ecomm isn’t part of the PFS deal and, unsurprisingly, the couple are keen to replicate their previous successes in a different segment of the payments market.

“We might not be talking on the same level, but the ambition is to get it to the way we managed PFS. At some point, there’s no point lying about it, we do intend to exit and then really relax,” Valerie says.

But total relaxation seems unlikely, given the couple’s ownership of Bective House, which sits on a 180-acre estate overlooking the Boyne river. The couple acquired the estate after it was put up for sale in 2016 and have since split it to include a stud on one half. On the other half, they’re developing a five-star estate hotel, from which the couple don’t expect to “have much change” out of €50 million. The planning application for the hotel, in which they want to have 60 rooms initially, will be lodged in the next three to four months. The way in which it is designed will allow them add on rooms in phases, should that be required.

Separate to that, they’re building a fintech hub in Trim, primarily to house the growing PFS workforce, but also to cater to banks that are allowing their staff work in hubs closer to home, thus avoiding the daily Dublin commute.

Much done, more to do, as it were.

So other than their five-star hotel project, their other payments business and their fintech hub in Trim, do the couple have any other plans for their newfound wealth? A nice car, perhaps?

“I can safely say we haven’t had time to say ‘this is what I’m going to get’ or ‘I’m going to go on holiday’... Before we can even think of what paradise island we’re going to ... it’s very much business,” Valerie says.

That’s not to say they don’t take time off. Horse racing, for example, is a pastime the couple enjoy. But given their enormous success with PFS, it’s very clear that business comes first. When they eventually offload Ecomm, expect to see the couple on the racecourse more frequently. But with their multiple other projects, perhaps don’t expect them not to be distracted.

CVs

Names: Noel and Valerie Moran
Ages: Noel is 49 and Valerie is 44.
Positions: Noel is chief executive of PFS while Valerie is head of client relations and operations.
From: Noel is from Co Meath and Valerie is from Zimbabwe.
Lives: Navan, Co Meath.
Something you might expect: Given his sponsorship of multiple men and women’s adult football and underage teams in Meath, Noel is a big GAA fan. Valerie, meanwhile, is a self-professed “huge fashion enthusiast”.
Something that might surprise: In her spare time, Valerie enjoys doing interior design. Noel loves animals and recently bought a herd of alpacas.

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