Irish company ESW, formerly eShopWorld, was founded just over a decade ago, and has since flourished into a global leader in crossborder e-commerce solutions. Set up in 2010 by logistics entrepreneur Tommy Kelly, ESW shoulders the complexity of e-commerce on behalf of its clients – typically globally recognised premium retailers and brands – and manages the entire shopping experience on their behalf. The company says it can set up and manage an entire end-to-end service in as little as six weeks and give its clients access to customers across 200 markets in the process.
Joining ESW in 2019 as CFO, David Manifold FCCA sums up the appeal of the company as ‘bringing brands to market globally. Crossborder trade is our area of expertise and we optimise the shopper experience at a low cost to our clients. ESW integrates with the brand’s existing technology seamlessly; to the end customer, it looks like the brand is doing the magic.’
Manifold adds that what struck him immediately upon joining the company was ‘the passion our people have for the brand and the business. Client and customer needs are top of mind for everyone in the company. That comes from the top down. Tommy Kelly established the ethos of the customer coming first and it is fundamental to how we do our business on a day-to-day basis.’
‘ESW integrates with the brand’s existing technology seamlessly; to the end customer, it looks like the brand is doing the magic’
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Manifold brought to ESW almost 30 years of industry experience from a diversity of organisations and sectors. ‘From my schooldays, I wanted to be an accountant. I thought it was the profession best suited to me and I never veered from that,’ he recalls.
Studying ACCA at Griffith College, Dublin, he became a member in 1991, having gained experience in practice through the firm CooneyCarey. Working with small to medium clients provided a ‘well-rounded approach and proved a great foundation to my later roles and ongoing education’, he says.
Manifold gained his first industry role with Adare, assisted by the intervention of firm principal Hugh Cooney. ‘Hugh recommended me for the role at a time when jobs were scarce and the outlook in Ireland was bleak. I’ll always be hugely indebted to him for that,’ he says.
Aer Lingus provided the next significant opportunity, and Manifold would spend over nine years with the company at a time of intense transformation, leading much of this as director of integration when the airline became part of the IAG Group.
‘The Aer Lingus brand is iconic,’ he notes. ‘Everyone in Ireland feels they own a little part of it, and it was hugely exciting to be part of the story as it came out of government ownership and into the plc world.’
The director of integration role was ‘about ensuring the right level of synergy, benefits and interaction’ at a pivotal moment. ‘A lot of M&A work can fail on the post-integration side, when the benefits are not realised or followed through on,’ he says. ‘In this case, it helped that the arguments for integration were strong on both sides. The Aer Lingus team was very keen on realising the benefits of being part of the wider IAG family, while Aer Lingus could also bring significant cost and margin discipline to IAG.’
Subsequent roles in Bus Eireann and information management company Oasis Group may seem an unlikely precursor for a leadership role in e-commerce, but Manifold stresses that ‘the reality with an accounting qualification is your skill set is easy to transfer to multiple areas of interest. People can pigeonhole you but, having worked in areas such as FMCG, telecoms and the airline industry, I know that, at the end of the day, it comes down to business fundamentals and experience.’
It also helped that, in Aer Lingus, Manifold saw first-hand the dramatic shift that e-commerce could bring to a business model. ‘It completely transformed the sales channel for Aer Lingus and so, when the opportunity with ESW came along, I understood in my DNA what a strong catalyst e-commerce could be for change for any company.’
‘All our markets are incredibly active and we believe the structural shift of Covid-19 is going to be a permanent one’
ESW is fully acquired by Asendia
ESW announces 160 new roles as annualised sales reach €1bn
Company records sales of more than €543m
Asendia becomes majority shareholder
Founder Tommy Kelly appointed CEO
ESW (eShopWorld) founded in Swords, Co Dublin
ESW today employs more than 500 people, the majority at its headquarters in Swords, Co Dublin, and has offices in the US, Singapore and the Netherlands. Earlier this year, the company hit the headlines with news that Asendia, a joint venture between La Poste and Swiss Post, had acquired full ownership in a transaction that business analysts say values it at over €1bn, more than triple the value of four years ago, when Asendia first secured a majority stake in the business.
While strong growth has been a feature of the company’s performance over the past few years, it will be no surprise that the pandemic accelerated this to a whole new level. Intensive growth, side by side with the addition of new clients, has effectively seen the company double in size over the past 12 to 15 months.
Manifold summarises it as follows: ‘Consumer habits significantly altered, and the pandemic has moved things forward for us by between two and five years. Previously, we were in hyper growth; now we are in super-hyper growth.’
Of course, such rapid expansion brings its own challenges, and Manifold credits the company’s fortuitous decision to invest in the platform prior to the pandemic with giving it the capacity to absorb unprecedented growth and maintain its commitment to quality.
For the finance function, rapid growth also brings specific challenges.
‘When an opportunity like this appears, the business case effectively writes itself, but you also have to maintain discipline on the cost base,’ he says. ‘One of the key selling points of ESW is that our cost to serve is cheaper than the client doing this for themselves. That places demands on us in terms of keeping control of the cost base.’
For maintaining that balance between growth and cost successfully, Manifold pays tribute first to the ‘entrepreneurial spirt that is key to ESW and which we never want to lose’. He also has praise for his team, who ‘managed the transition to working from home seamlessly as they coped with an increased level of requirements and onboarded new members remotely. It’s safe to say that if we didn’t have that strength of people we have, our department wouldn’t have been able to deliver as it did.’
As 2021 progresses, Manifold says that key lessons from 2020 will be applied as ESW seeks to maintain the momentum of accelerated growth.
‘Currently, we are where we thought we would be in 2023, and we will continue to advance from this. Our goal is to be at the multibillion-euro revenue stage in the next two to three years. All our markets are incredibly active and we believe the structural shift of Covid-19 is going to be a permanent one.
‘We all want to get back to normality, and shoppers will certainly go back to bricks and mortar, but the pandemic has accelerated a move to e-commerce that isn’t going to be reversed.’
While Manifold doesn’t expect a full return to the office for employees when the pandemic recedes, he sees enduring value in the environment it offers.
‘The problem with Zoom is a lack of team engagement,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to have a team call online that’s as effective as being in a room together.’
That said, the experience of the past year has only strengthened his positive outlook. ‘A lot was thrown at our team over the last year or so and it was a test of our ability to deliver against challenges none of us could have foreseen,’ he says.
‘Looking to the future, that gives me a great sense of confidence. We have set out our objectives clearly. There will obviously be challenges along the way, but I have huge optimism for where we can take ESW.’