Former quantity surveyor develops sensible gift card idea that fits the bill
UNDER THE RADAR: Rory McGuigan, Utilize.ie:WHEN THE economy was booming, overpriced restaurants and fast cars were products whose time had apparently come. Well, here’s the perfect product for the recession: a gift card that allows the lucky recipient to pay that pile of overdue utility bills.
The Utilize card is the brainchild of former quantity surveyor Rory McGuigan, who teamed up with MasterCard and launched the business just before Christmas. Already, he finds himself on the verge of a global rollout.
“It seems extraordinary now, but the idea first came to me less than 18 months ago,” says McGuigan. “Construction was devastated and I’d just taken my third pay cut in the run-up to Christmas 2008, so I didn’t have much cash to spend on presents.
“It occurred to me that the very best gift anyone could give me would be to pay my ordinary, everyday bills and take that pressure off me. And I figured there had to be a whole lot of other people in the very same boat.”
While McGuigan was wary of making the jump into business, his parlous work prospects concentrated his mind, and he eventually found a private investor willing to stump up the cash he needed to commercialise his big idea.
The most serious hurdle was developing the technology necessary to create one card that could be accepted by several hundred large companies, all with their own specific requirements.
But McGuigan did the groundwork, and now he’s got his big break.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith, I suppose. I had an initial meeting with MasterCard early in 2009 and to my absolute surprise they loved the idea and agreed to come on board as partners. We’ve issued around 2,500 cards so far, but I’d anticipate that will be somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 by the end of this year.”
If there’s one obsession McGuigan has already developed as a businessman, it’s keeping control of costs. “Before this took off, I’d spoken to a number of investment houses who weren’t interested, ironically because I wasn’t looking for enough money. Our total investment so far has been less than €200,000, though obviously there’s also been the MasterCard expertise. But I’m anticipating a turnover for the first year, 2010, of around €2 million, going into profit in year two.”
Essentially, the Utilize card works like any other gift card. The giver can spend anything from €25 to €250, and the recipient just has to go to www.utilize.ie to activate it. The difference is that you can then pay scores of bills, from gas, electricity, water and refuse to phone, mobile, domestic fuel and television.
Apart from individuals giving the card as a gift, corporates such as Dell are using it as a staff incentive. It is also being marketed as a wedding gift and to parents who want to give their children money when they leave for college but don’t want it spent at random.
“Everyone knows someone nowadays who’s lost their job. We believe that Utilize will chime with the idea that the era of excess is at an end in Ireland and that money should be used responsibly,” says McGuigan. “For instance, looking at the breakdown so far of how recipients of the card are spending their money, between 70 and 80 per cent of gifts are being used on essential household bills such as electricity, water and heating, rather than on anything remotely frivolous.”
This story has just begun. “MasterCard is planning to roll out the Utilize card in a number of other markets and we’re now looking at the idea of prepaid cards as an alternative to the credit card. There are about 10 different cards I’d like to launch over the next five years. And the extraordinary thing is, everyone seems surprised it hasn’t all been done before.”
On The Record
Background:Began degree in construction economics in Kingston-Upon-Thames and completed it at DIT Bolton Street in 2003.
Began working as a site clerk with McInerney Construction in 2000, before graduating to junior surveyor in 2002 and quantity surveyor in 2003.
As the construction industry collapsed, he brought the idea for a utility gift card to MasterCard in early 2009. The Utilize card was launched in Ireland in December.
MasterCard plans to roll out Utilize in other markets and McGuigan has plans for up to 10 prepaid cards over the next five years.
Challenges:“Getting the funding to build up the company. My instinct is to build it up myself on a shoestring rather than look for venture capital funding. I’d rather do the hard work myself rather than lose my say in the running of things. If that happens, I may as well work for someone else.”
Inspired by:“I’d say there are three people: Arthur Ryan, who built up Primark; Michael O’Leary, who built up Ryanair, and Seán Quinn, who built up the Quinn Group.”
Most important thing learned so far:“Without a doubt it’s to keep overheads under control. That is something I was aware of as a quantity surveyor, but when you’re running your own business, it really is crucial. You’ll never turn a profit unless you keep costs under control.”