Ian Flanagan isn’t your average businessman. Not just because of his tennis background, but due to the fact he is one of the most candid chief executive officers you’ll ever meet in charge of such a high-profile company.
His candidness does not come from a blunt and malicious ‘I’m the boss, so I say what I think’ place, rather he is straightforward and honest, having little time to waste on nonsense when it comes to business. In short, he is a straight-talking congenial man.
Perhaps this mindset derives from an early and overwhelmingly successful career in sport, since there are no blurred lines when it comes to tennis – you either win or lose. He does in fact credit much of his drive for success to the game, which he began playing as a schoolboy, travelling to 67 countries with it from age 11.
One of two brothers and born in north Wales, a surprise to many laughs Flanagan who does not have a Welsh accent, he says his childhood was amazing. He had a usual school life and began playing tennis at age four, before representing the country at eight. His supportive mum and dad drove him round the country “non-stop” in pursuit of his passion.
He turned pro after leaving school with 10 GCSEs and played in leading tennis tournaments across Europe, winning a gold medal in the Youth Olympics at around age 15. However, he contracted glandular fever at 17 which stopped him playing for a short while.
But he bounced back, starting from the bottom of the adult league, working his way up into the top 1,500 and then the top 500. His big break in tennis came at 21 after beating Australia’s Mark Philippoussis, who was the current Wimbledon finalist, in 2008’s Stella Artois tournament.
“And that’s when I hit the spotlight in the tennis world and played Wimbledon doubles, Centre Court,” he recounts. “Playing Centre Court is one of the things you want to do in tennis, but I retired not long after that. I was injured.”
The injury put Flanagan in a difficult position. Having spent close to two decades in the sport, he faced retirement or an unapproved operation on his elbow. Surgery could have either helped him back into the game or left him dealing with lifechanging consequences. “I remember my dad saying if you have a son or daughter, you might not be able to carry them if the operation goes wrong. Tennis is just one part of your life.
“I don’t regret any of it, I did some amazing things and being able to play at Wimbledon is a number one dream for a tennis player.”
Five with Flanagan:
Your three desert island must have
My wife and children (that’s not one?), and the third thing would be Red Bull or Mayonnaise, which I eat with everything from a roast dinner to a curry. Red Bull, though, is my caffeine allocation – I don’t drink coffee.
What can’t you live without?
I couldn’t live without my mobile phone, mostly because of the business. It’s horrific when Apple says your weekly screen time is 50 hours, but then 90% of my emails come from my phone.
What drives you?
It’s my competitive edge and providing for my family. I have an instinct and know when something is good and deserves to succeed and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s not just about money, it’s a success thing.
What is success?
Growing a business and being a market leader and industry standard, but also being able to provide for my family. I get great satisfaction from building a great team, I know they enjoy coming into work and think we’ve built a really good ethos in the company.
What do you do in your spare time?
I travel the world with work, so I do like to spend free time with my family. I also like to play golf, but if you’re trying to grow a business, you don’t get much time off. I feel like everyone has a nice vision of a business owner, that you go in 9–5, go home and put your feet up. But it’s not like that, you live and breathe the business, it’s a 12-hour day at least.
The big question for Flanagan now was how to make a living after tennis. “I didn’t really know what to do. I’d always had a knack for making money, even when I was on tour, I’d always loved making money and had an aspiration to go into business. My dad was in sales and always business-minded.”
Knowing business was the route he wanted to go down, Flanagan looked at many options, “working out what was good for myself through success and failure”, he says. “You look at the superyacht owners; they’re multimillionaires and billionaires, they always had ups and downs before success, and I knew it was similar to sport – you have to work hard.”
Tennis had given him the competitive edge and an instinctive resilience to work until he found something that stuck. The following years saw him venture into sports hospitality, concierge services, insurance brokerage and property investment. “It was all win and lose. But that’s how Voly was born.”
Flanagan spotted his big idea after learning the number of currencies superyachts dealt with on a regular basis. He saw significant sums of money lost through foreign exchange rates, at up to 5% a go. “It’s not a big percentage, but it is when you’re dealing with big money like superyacht captains do,” he says.
As well as exchange rates, market research threw up a stat showing around 75% of superyachts were reporting financial data on Excel spreadsheets. “You can make so many mistakes on an Excel spreadsheet, I’m the first to say we made them too. But it’s unreliable when you’re dealing with big money.”
From that point he bought a basic expense management system from his now chief technology officer Rob Shanks, “and then we integrated the vision and thought how you could bring this into every part of the boat, to add data and make sure it was accurate from input to approval”.
The software works by allowing superyacht employees and owners the ability to input expenses into one system, with each member of staff having their own line. For example, a stewardess may put her expenses into the system which would then be approved by the captain when she’s happy to sign it off. It accounts for all expenditure and manages the books in a safe and efficient way, “including no financial documents being sent by email”, Flanagan explains.
“The aim is to give every person who touches that boat a financial management solution that solves every problem they have, and we’re close to reaching that target,” he adds.
“It works by making simple things even simpler, booking taxis in ports or buying shellfish, all of these everyday transactions take time to account for, but they don’t have to,” Flanagan sums up.
There are ambitions to expand the fintech software into other areas of the superyacht sector, including refit and new build to ensure projects run to schedule and on budget. “It takes you through every part of the yacht. There were things out there that did parts of what Voly does, but with minimal capabilities. Voly maximises the possibilities, which allows the captains to drive the boat and not spend hours on the accounts.
“I believed I was onto something from day one, it’s only really now that we’re seeing it reach a new height. We’ve organically grown to 500 boats in this time, it’s been quick.”
The business was launched five years ago and received investment from Magenta Partners earlier this year, allowing the company to continue its expansion plans, but with more capital. “I remember a friend saying I’d need deep pockets to do this, and they weren’t wrong. So, building Voly has risked everything of mine.”
One of the major problems Flanagan and his team encountered when creating Voly was the security risk superyachts could be victim to through improper data transfer.
“Since our deal with Magenta Partners in February, we’ve invested even more in our security features. We’ve always been secure and fully end-to-end encrypted. It’s something we’ve taken to the highest level and we have taken someone on to always make sure we’re one step ahead in this area.
“That’s why I’m always amazed more people don’t use this, but choose to use email to send data about the most private people in the world. It should be their priority to keep this sort of thing safe. Security is one of our top three priorities.
“We’ve always been strong on security since the start of Voly, I have an extremely bright chief technology officer Rob and it’s always at the forefront of his mind.
“To keep it secure, we’ve followed the banking industry’s processes and spent hundreds-of-thousands of pounds on this and we pride ourselves on it and the fact it’s succeeding.”
Although it was clearly a big risk, it has paid off with Flanagan and Voly in a very strong position. “We’ve achieved a lot and made the way superyachts manage their financial assets better, but there are still so many ways we can improve it and that’s our team’s number one commitment."
Next for Voly are plans to streamline the software’s offering, to allow captains better control when working with agencies and the hundreds of line items they have to account for. “Part of this will also be about the industry talking to each other more, we have to work hard to do that,” says Flanagan. “I know if I worked with a shipyard, we could streamline their processes. The fact is, we’re all working for the owner and ultimately should be doing the best for them.”
Beyond that, Flanagan is still working to make Voly the go-to industry company, or even the standard software superyacht owners and captains use to ensure their vessel’s finances run efficiently and securely.
“We cater for every boat from 24 metres to the biggest yachts in the world,” he says. “We’re operating in such a small part of the market, and our focus is to get this 100% perfect and not digress, too many companies spot gaps and then drop it because they realise they’re not a software company. We’re not that, we’re a really strong product and we’ll continue to make it even stronger.”