Sam Hawcroft finds out more about the Grimsby family firm taking on the big players in the payment processing industry.
This entrepreneur interview has ended up becoming something of a case study, too. When I was looking at the website of Card Industry Professionals ahead of my chat with Ciaran and Lyn, from the Grimsby company, I thought, hang on – I have a card payment terminal… maybe they can help me save some money?
I run a small publishing and mail order business from home and, as I’m sure many fellow business owners will agree, you’re often so busy that investigating the minefield of card processing charges is not really at the top of your list of jobs. I vaguely remembered signing a contract with one company a few years ago and had no idea whether the rates were still competitive, or whether I could get a far better deal elsewhere.
However, whereas it’s easy nowadays to go online and switch your car insurance or gas bill, the card payment processing industry is far less transparent – there are so many companies out there catering for all sorts of businesses, from huge national retailers to people like me. And as luck would have it, Card Industry Professionals (CIP) is dedicated to helping people like me.
“That is exactly the experience of a lot of the market we focus on, which is independent business owners and small to medium-size enterprises,” says CIP founder and director Ciaran Savage. “It’s someone like yourself, or a florist, or a pub, where the owner is concentrating on the business, and to actually understand the agreements, the different rates and the added-on fees can be a bit frustrating or confusing.”
But how does a family firm based in Grimsby get a share of this huge market and still be able to beat some of the bigger players on price, I wonder? Lyn – operations director and Ciaran’s mother – explains how CIP came into being.
“I started in the industry about 22 years ago with a local company called Cardsave,” she says, “which has since been bought out by Worldpay. Cardsave was actually the first ISO (Independent Sales Organisation) in the industry – which was then something new for the UK – and I worked for them for eight years; I did the application process, sales support, and learned a lot about the business.”
In 2005, Lyn went on to work for one of the leading merchant acquirers, Elavon; she spent three years there, but, having preferred the ISO model, decided to leave. “With an ISO you felt like you had more sway and that you could get things moving more quickly,” says Lyn, who then moved down to London to join Paymentsense (now the UK’s largest ISO) as its head of operations. During this period Lyn met John Selby, with whom she would go on to work closely at a number of companies within the industry.
For Ciaran, working for his mother was his first proper job at the age of 16. The Monday after he’d finished his GCSEs, he joined her in the office she was running for Elavon in Scunthorpe. While at that point he could have never envisaged running his own card processing company, the opportunity to start work was a no-brainer. “It was a chance to earn a bit of money,” he says. “I learned how to do the applications and that was a quick introduction to speaking to sellers – it took me a few weeks to build up the courage to answer the phone! – and answer any queries if a customer rang in.”
Following this experience, Ciaran began to develop his knowledge of generating sales by making appointments over the telephone for a regional seller in Yorkshire to visit, for Paymentsense. After a few months of getting to know the sales process from initial introduction through to confirming an appointment to review the card payment facility, Ciaran began to feel that he would be able to convert sales better than some of the sellers themselves, and as he was approaching his 18th birthday, he felt he was ready to take a training course and join their ranks. Which he did – he was one of the youngest sellers for Paymentsense at that time, setting up meetings with clients across the Lincolnshire area. I ask Ciaran what that must have been like for someone just barely 18 – surely it must have been somewhat daunting?
“Well, I knew my stuff,” he says, “I knew I had the knowledge, I had a great manager in Maggie (who has now joined CIP’s Team as a regional manager following 10 years with Paymentsense) – and I also knew I could pick up the phone to my mum and ask her if I was stuck. I could be honest with somebody and say, I don’t know, but I'll find the answer for you. But still, at that time it wasn't something that I felt I was destined to do.”
So, Ciaran decided to take a bit of time out. “I felt I’d been a bit manoeuvred into that path after I’d left school, and that there were other things to do and see,” he says. Those things ranged from a summer job in France to a spell at the Ambulance Service, before he settled down to work at Payzone in Grimsby, which had taken on a lot of the staff from Cardsave after its buyout by Worldpay. However, he felt this was somewhat of a backward step, given the progress he’d made with Paymentsense after leaving school.
“I wanted to be able to provide transparency and pricing explanations, rather than shoehorn things into one set of products,” says Ciaran. “And then I wanted good customer service in the background, because even at these more corporate companies there's quite often a lack of after-sales support for a merchant. So that’s why I set up CIP.”
For Ciaran, starting a business was a leap into the unknown, although he had clear ambitions. “I had a good idea of where I wanted to get to, and it's still the same now,” he says. “It was a case of setting up the limited company and a bank account, starting up the social media pages and getting out there and doing some sales – which I knew I could do, just this time they'd be under my own brand. And as the money came in, I’d reinvest it into things like marketing, business cards, etc. I knew from my Paymentsense days that they had hundreds of self-employed sellers around the UK, so there were lots of people out there who’d work in the same manner. They’d do a deal, but they’d do it through your brand, and be paid a commission at the end of the week. They weren’t on a salary, and they didn’t need large overheads – but what they did need was training and encouragement.”
Ciaran continued for the next six months, building up his brand and band of sellers around the UK – using a host of online groups including Facebook and LinkedIn to gather them together and offer them guidance, training and his support – but he knew that if the business was to grow, he’d need access to more merchant acquirers as well as an actual business infrastructure. It was at this point that Lyn and John came on board.
“We needed to be able to pick and choose packages to give customers multiple options, and for this I needed the support of Lyn and John. They had the background in operations and how to set up an office and a sales team, and they had the contacts. It was a challenge to set up direct agreements and prove to the banks that we were reliable, trusted and a legitimate operation that could grow. Thankfully, because of Lyn and John’s experience and the vision that we share for CIP’s future, there were multiple people happy to sit around the table from a range of acquiring banks.”
Now they are partnered with major UK acquirers including EVO Payments, Elavon Merchant Services and iZettle UK (A PayPal Service), and they have 70 sellers around the UK, with five regional managers growing their own teams – but it’s still very much a family affair. Ciaran’s brother Aidan joined the company at the beginning of 2019 and runs the North East and Scotland region, as has John’s wife Maggie, who was one of the leading regional sales managers for Paymentsense for many years, and joined the CIP team at the beginning of the year.
This is just one of the reasons CIP is so appealing to the small business owner – to them, you’re not just a number. “If we come across someone who’s with Worldpay, our eyes tend to light up,” says Ciaran. “They’re great in that they’re the largest in the UK, and they serve more than 300,000 businesses – but that means you’re not given preferential treatment, nothing is really explained to you, they do price increases every six months and if you leave, it’s no great shakes for them. But for us, it’s massive – we don’t want any customer to leave; we want to nurture that relationship and rapport.”
The story of my signing up with CIP is, in the end, quite short – purely because they made it so easy. In the first instance, I sent them a few of my current statements, and the next day, Ciaran came back and pointed out the areas in which I could make savings. Even with the penalty to get out of my current contract, and a small fee to upgrade to next-day payments, CIP’s charges were nearly half those of my current provider. Also keen to support a local business, I went ahead with the application and a few days later, my new card terminal arrived, I plugged it in, and I was away. All I then had to do was send a “So long, and thanks for all the fish” email to my previous provider. Simple as that.
It just goes to show that, it’s not always the case that the largest providers can save you the most money. As Ciaran says, “It doesn’t have to be the corporate way. The major providers’ core focus is on credit cards, banking and mortgages, not shops and card machines, so they just package it together, put you on it and you can take it or leave it. We will tailor it around your business and give you a real recommendation.”
And that’s just what they did.