Self belief pulled company through hard times

Noel Moran wrested his pre-paid card company from the jaws of defeat into a multimillion-euro company which now employs 200 people, with plans to employ 800 more. He tells Louise Walsh how he did it

Self belief pulled company through hard times

ONE of the country’s most successful businessmen, who started his multimillion-euro industry over a kitchen table, now hopes to create up to 800 jobs in his hometown.

Noel Moran, who has no third-level qualifications, aims to lodge planning permission with Meath County Council for the construction of what would be Ireland’s third-largest financial centre in Navan in the coming months.

He has also just awarded €200,000 to teenage students in Co Louth and Co Meath as part of an innovation fund to find the next generation of home-grown entrepreneurs.

His company Prepaid Financial Services is one of the fastest growing technology companies and e-money payment institutions in Europe and yet he was just one day away from walking away from his dream, due to mounting finance issues.

A steely willingness to take risks, however, put him back on track to become an employer of almost 200 staff, both directly and indirectly, in branches in Navan, London and Malta.

He is married to his business partner Valerie Willis, the woman who initially worked for him for free, simply because she believed in him.

The Navan man looked likely to follow in the family’s furniture business after leaving St Patrick’s Classical School until he received a phonecall from his former career guidance teacher advising him of a job in the Permanent TSB.

“I didn’t really like school. Football was more important to me and I played with our local club Bective at the time.

“I only went to school because I was made go. I suppose I was handy enough at maths but had no real interest in any other subject.

“I got the Leaving Certificate and started working with my father’s furniture business, Ashleaf Furniture, for about a year before my career guidance teacher rang me and a few other past-pupils to tell us about a recruitment drive by the Permanent TSB. I started in the filing area of the Dublin branch and gradually worked my way up internally to accounts in mortgages before starting to manage the bank’s testing area.

“I worked for Bank of Ireland and the AIB before moving to the UK to work with most of the leading high-street banks and credit card companies including MBNA, RBS, Co-Op and Lloyds Bank.

“I got fascinated with cards in general and the fact that you could earn revenue, even when sleeping, from cardholder fees globally,” he says.

Noel Moran, chief executive of Prepaid Financial Services
Noel Moran, chief executive of Prepaid Financial Services

Mr Moran was working for Altair Co Services when the crash hit in 2007 and the business closed, owing him four months’ pay.

“When I started Prepaid Financial Services, I had very little money in the bank. My first office was the kitchen table in my one-bedroom apartment in London’s Craven Hill in 2008.

“My first employee was my then-girlfriend Valerie as she was the only person I could convince to come and work for me at the kitchen table and who was happy not to get paid for a while,” he says.

“We started trading in 2009 and the business has moved on ever since and the kitchen table has become offices in London’s Regent St.

“The girlfriend has also moved on to become my wife.”

However, Mr Moran says his dream came very close to never becoming a reality and recognises that a successful business is all about facing obstacles.

“A crucial part of being an entrepreneur is about being able to overcome challenges. I knew back then that there were only a few companies beginning to dabble in prepaid cards so there were multiple opportunities out there for a product that I firmly believed in.

“At the start, I had very little money but I knew I would need an office address to look professional. I signed a lease on a very nice office in London’s Hanover Square. I had agreed with the landlord to get the first few months rent-free and the following few months at half the rent.

“This gave myself and Valerie a three-month runway to get some business before having to pay rent. The offices eventually helped us to attract clients and gave the impression we had money.

“However, one of the toughest and lowest points in my career came shortly after this, when we were three days down from closing the business and walking away.

“Valerie and I had agreed to wrap up the business the following Wednesday if we didn’t get a client as we had stretched things out as far as we could and the landlord was knocking on the door for his rent.

Valerie Willis, Noel’s wife and business partner
Valerie Willis, Noel’s wife and business partner

“Wednesday came and went but a client didn’t. I remember walking back from lunch that day knowing we had less than 24 hours left as we had no rent money.

“But the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in again and I decided to hang out for as long as I could and try and avoid the landlord for a few more days.

“The following Friday, we signed our first client who luckily agreed to pay up front for 5,000 cards, which saved us.”

Now PrePaid Financial Services has more than 1,300 corporate clients in Europe but Noel is looking to build on his dream to create an even bigger company within wider international markets.

“I have my sights set on growing the business globally not just in Europe. Today our licence allows us to transact in 35 EU countries, of which we are live in 24.

“We are currently looking at obtaining financial licences outside of Europe, in Asia and Africa and are presently working through applications for Ivory Coast, Malawi, Angola, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.

“We had our credit license granted in May 2017, which moves us closer to becoming a bank and a true alternative banking provider,” he says.

Prepaid Financial Services is now known in the prepaid industry as a proactive market leader and is one of Mastercard’s preferred partners.

The company also services more than 100 councils in the UK in a unique scheme for those claiming benefits.

“Each recipient is given their benefit on a prepaid card which cannot be used in certain establishments, including off-licences and betting shops,” he said.

“Effectively, we provide a platform to the local authorities that lets them manage the spend on each individual account and gives it more transparency on where their money is going,” he says.

Prepaid Financial Services is also about to announce the winners of its €1m Innovation Fund to find new entrepreneurs and new ideas within the financial technology industry, to enhance its portfolio.

Five winning teams in the Junior FinTech Award category were recently rewarded with an iPhone 8 each, €10,000 for their school and an investment for start-up costs totalling €200,000.

The schools from Navan, Co Meath, and Drogheda, Co Louth, devised inventions such as an affordable fraud- prevention product for contactless cards.

At present, the couple split their time between their offices in Navan, where they live, and the UK. And as the business continues to develop, it’s all about surrounding yourself with a good team, according to Mr Moran.

“I am a firm believer that you need to build a great team around you to have a successful business and I am happy that we have done that.

“Another important element for me is that I expect anyone I hire to be prepared to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, in the same way as I have done for 10 years.

“I would never ask anyone to do anything I would not be prepared to do myself.”

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