Terry Clune: How the taxman helped me make €90m

Terry Clune started out giving tax advice to students for £25 a go. now his company, Taxback.com, is a 24-hour operation with turnover approaching €90m.

Terry Clune, 37, just can't stop making money. At the age of seven, he collected sacks from local farmers and sold them on to a local timber merchant. At 20, he ran discos at Trinity College Dublin, using the money to buy his first computer. Now he heads up one of Ireland's fastest-growing businesses, €90m-a-year tax services firm Taxback.com.

Clune got the idea of becoming a tax expert from one of the entrepreneurial ventures he experimented with at university. As a second-year business student in Dublin, he organised for 110 classmates to go to work in Germany. "I charged £200, sorted out work and accommodation and just about broke even." But by the end of the summer, "they were all going crazy about the taxes they were paying and blaming me for it". With income tax at 55%, the students were getting just £45 back for every £100 they earned. But there was a loophole, which he now sought to exploit. "I knew that if you didn't exceed your tax-free allowance, you could claim some of your tax back. So I contacted the German tax office."

They weren't helpful. "They said no way. It's absolutely not possible". Further rebuffs followed, until Clune got in contact with a civil servant in the tax office in Cologne. "He had been to Ireland on a cycling holiday, really liked it and said he'd help me out. Which goes to show, if you just take the first answer you get, you'll only get so far." You have to "dig deeper, look harder and don't take no for an answer".

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Back in Dublin, Clune put up posters around the university and asked his mother to field calls from customers at home. Charging £25 an application, he got 200 customers, ruthlessly undercutting accountancy firms who at that time charged upwards of £300 to get tax back. He did the same thing in his final year, before being offered a job by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) on graduation. "I left after a week." It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

In September 1996, Clune opened a two-room office on Aston Quay in Dublin and signed a partnership deal with USIT, the student travel agency next door. "We would give them a referral fee if they sent someone to us." Business boomed and by 2001 the firm was turning over €1m a year. That's when he began repositioning the business outside Ireland and gearing it towards corporate clients. He opened call centres in Bulgaria, Peru and Thailand.

As the business grew into a 24-hour operation, he approached big firms such conferencing group Informa, helping them cut costs. "Whenever they organise an event, they get their exhibitors to go to us to claim back expenses." The business reached €20m in turnover by 2004, before realising €60m last year. It is now on track to do €90m-worth of business in 2009 as Clune breaks into the international payments sector, helping companies to transfer money abroad.

Needless to say, he has no regrets about turning down that accountancy job. "I had a certain amount of autonomy. I realised I'd lose that at PWC and the thing entrepreneurs value is the independence to do what they want. I can now do that every day."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.