The launch of CleverCards marks the latest chapter in Kealan Lennon’s entrepreneurial story and the FCA has ambitious plans for his latest venture
It was while taking part in an IDA Ireland trade mission to China in 2019 that Kealan Lennon hit upon the first spark of an idea for CleverCards, the payments platform provider that would, four years later, bring to market what the serial entrepreneur calls “Ireland’s first tax-free digital Mastercard”. “It all goes back to that trip because that’s when I noticed that no one around me was using plastic cards to pay for anything,” Lennon explains. “People in shops and restaurants were using their mobile phones to pay wherever I went and, at the same time, I could see neobank players like Revolut, N26 and Starling starting to gain traction in Europe. The shift was obvious, but the main focus was the consumer market.” Lennon saw a gap in the market for a payment processor that would focus on businesses rather than consumers and set about developing the technology that would underpin the CleverCards platform. “We agreed a partnership with Mastercard pretty much right at the beginning; becoming a payment processor is effectively the foundation of the entire business,” Lennon says. “For a small company trying to integrate with one of the world’s biggest financial service providers – it was a very tall order. We worked with Mastercard in Ireland, then London and Belgium. It took three years.” CleverCards launched its first product – a digital prepaid employee gift card – just over a year ago on the back of the Small Benefit Exemption introduced by the Irish Government in 2022. This exemption allows employers to give their employees up to two small benefits each year, tax-free but capped at €1,000 overall. These benefits cannot be made in cash, nor can they be redeemed for cash. They can only be used to purchase goods or services. “It amazes me how few employers actually know about this benefit,” says Lennon. “It’s frustrating. The Government brought this in, and people just don’t know about it.” Cue CleverCards: “We’re the only game in town here. Employers can order our gift cards online on clevercards.com and email it out to their employees loaded with credit of up to €1,000 tax-free,” says Lennon. Employees can, meanwhile, use CleverCards to pay for goods or services anywhere online or in-store using Google or Apple Pay contactless technology. “They can use the cards for cost-of-living expenses and they can use them in small shops and restaurants the length and breadth of the country, whereas traditional plastic gift cards are restricted to a limited selection of retail networks.”
So far, CleverCards has signed up over 5,000 businesses and 250,000 cardholders. The company generates revenues via a Mastercard fee on all transactions and also charges clients a small handling fee. Lennon’s ambitions for the business stretch far beyond employee gift cards and the Irish market, however. “Right now, our focus is Ireland but also the UK. We’ve seen pretty rapid growth and we’re expecting to do significantly more business in the run-up to Christmas,” he says. “Looking ahead 18 months, our goal is that every employee in Ireland and the UK has one of our digital Mastercards on their phone.” In the New Year, Lennon also plans to launch CleverCards’ second product – a digital Mastercard for employee expenses. “We want to start expanding further into Europe from late 2024 and, ideally, we want our existing multinational clients in Ireland and the UK to carry us into new territories by recommending CleverCards to other offices in their European network,” says Lennon. “It’s much faster and more cost-effective than spending millions on marketing in each new market. You’re letting your existing customers bring you there instead. “That’s our strategy and our USP is that our digital cards can be used for all sorts of expenditure, they give control to the financial controller who has visibility of where spend is going, and transactions are automatically authorised because we are the payment processor.”
Lennon’s confidence in CleverCards’ potential is drawn from a longstanding career in entrepreneurship and a seemingly insatiable desire to identify a gap in the market and run with it. Originally from Leixlip in Co. Kildare, the FCA has had an “eye out for opportunities” almost from the very beginning of his working life as a Chartered Accountant. Lennon initially qualified with Simpson Xavier and worked in corporate finance before leaving the firm in 1992 to strike out on his own. “I took the commencement route to becoming a Chartered Accountant. My first choice on my CAO form was commerce, but I missed it by one point and I couldn’t wait around,” he says. “I was lucky that I started my career under the leadership of Anthuan Xavier at a very entrepreneurial firm. Being able to get in front of clients straight away was a buzz for me.” Lennon decided to leave the firm aged just 23, however, so he could set up his own financial consultancy, offering corporate finance, tax and accountancy advisory services. “I took an office with a big brass sign on the door and I landed my first client, quite honestly I’d say simply because I was a one-man show so I was cheaper than any of the bigger firms,” he says. “That client owned Kartoncraft, a pharmaceutical packaging business, and he had an offer on the table to sell his business to Inistech, an Irish plc at the time. He hired me to manage due diligence. “The guy they had hired on the corporate finance side was also a one-man show. Once I had a full understanding of his selling price, I said to the client one evening ‘don’t take this the wrong way, but I think your business could sell for a lot more’. “I got the whole textbook explanation of ‘well, it’s an x percent discount on PE multiples and so on’, but he listened to my advice and came back having doubled the price of the business. He fired his corporate finance advisor and hired me instead. “The Government and IDA Ireland at the time were focused on bringing more pharmaceuticals into the country. I looked at this strategy, put a five-year plan together for my client and, about six weeks later, we went back to the plc and we doubled the selling price again. “My client made four times his asking price from the time I started working with him. He paid me £100,000. I was able to buy my first house for cash at just 23 and I had a red BMW. I really thought I’d made it.”
Kartoncraft and MeadWestvaco
But more was to come for Lennon, who was subsequently asked by Inistech to join the board of the newly acquired Kartoncraft in the role of Finance Director. Within 18 months, aged just 25, Lennon had led the management buy-out of Kartoncraft from Inishtech Plc, backed by AIB in Ireland and Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, a London-based private equity house. He sold Kartoncraft five years later for $20 million to the NYSE-listed MeadWestvaco and joined the US packaging company’s Board of Directors as Head of Mergers and Acquisitions for Europe. “I was the youngest board director of MeadWestvaco Europe, which had 35,000 employees worldwide,” Lennon says. “It’s interesting now to see the media reports about MeadWestvaco and Smurfit Kappa merging, because when I sold Kartoncraft, Smurfit was the underbidder. “It’s quite a ‘full circle’ feeling to see them coming together to become the biggest packaging group in the world, and those early connections are still part of my life today. Both Michael and Tony Smurfit are investors in CleverCards all these years later.” By the time he left MeadWestvaco in 2007 to set up investment firm K Partners, Lennon was ready for a new challenge. “That corporate role was kind of like an on-the-job MBA. I learned so much about strategic development, people management, motivation and incentivisation. “It gave me an incredible insight into how large corporates work, but, deep down, I am an entrepreneur and I wanted to build something again from the ground up. I had an eye out for potential acquisitions and decided to go for it.” K Partners went on to participate in private equity and VC-backed investments spanning the media sector, publishing, telecoms, leisure and hospitality. Its interests included education publisher CJ Fallon and broadcaster Wilton Radio, now trading as iRadio and recently acquired by Bauer Media.
The Netflix of payments
Lennon’s vision for CleverCards is to see the venture become the “Netflix of payments”. “Our focus isn’t streaming obviously but I see our market opportunity in the same way,” he says. “It’s pretty clear to me that everything is moving to the mobile phone and our focus is the configurability of payments. The market is wide open. There’s a big blue ocean of potential there and nobody else is doing it.” That said, he is under no illusion that crossing this “big blue ocean” will be plain sailing all the way. “It can be tough going in any early-stage business when you are trying to spot a gap in the market, launch a new product or service to fill that gap, and keep driving it through in the face of the forces that might be going against you,” he says. “There are challenges every day in business. People talk about an early-stage business being a rollercoaster and that is so true because it implies ups and downs,” he says. “What people don’t realise is that there can be an up and a down in just one day. I don’t mean a small move in either direction. I mean really big ups and really big downs. You just have to deal with it and move on. You have to be resilient.” Interview by Elaine O’Regan