'There's nothing like the satisfaction of getting an idea right ... it's all about creating a vision'
Dave Whelan of Clarity Telecom tells Lisa Smyth about the firm's success, his coffee and wet wipes businesses, and taking to the high seas with his friend
David Whelan has good reason to be proud of his business achievements. Not only is he the founder of managing director of Clarity Telecom, fast becoming a major alternative to BT for business customers, he is also director at global baby wipe brand Water Wipes.
He also established Clements, one of Belfast best-known homegrown coffee shop chains, before selling it on in 2003.
It's fair to say that David, who grew up in Dublin, has acquired a great deal of experience throughout his career, which is even more impressive given his modest aspirations when he was at school.
"I pretty much enjoyed school although I went to boarding school, which tends to knock the corners off," he says.
"When I was at school, it was more about whether you could earn a wage at all.
"Ireland was tough, it was going through a tough time and there was a lot of uncertainty about how to get a job at all.
"The whole idea of having career aspirations is more of a recent phenomenon, at that time it was a question of whether you could keep your head above water."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
When he left school, David went to Trinity College Dublin and studied business.
After graduating, in 1985, he made the brave move to London even though he had no job lined up. He began the search for employment.
He worked as the marketing manager at Quaker Oats between 1986 and 1988, before moving on to the soft drinks division at Cadbury Schweppes.
"I started out as marketing manager and ended up as marketing director," says David.
"I was based in London but there was a lot of travelling and I spent a lot of time working all over Europe."
David and his wife eventually made the decision to return to Ireland in 1993 when they wanted to start a family and it was then that he started up his first business.
"I spent all my time travelling and I decided to set up my own company," he says.
"I thought that maybe I could do something on my own."
It was the emergence of peace following the Good Friday Agreement that saw David expand his business into Northern Ireland in 1998 and not long afterwards he identified a gap in the telecommunications industry and Clarity Telecom was born.
The company provides a range of services to businesses, including telephone lines and online bill analysis.
The firm is also involved in research and development and has a team of engineers who provide consultancy, project management, sales, installation, maintenance and training.
"I think in every business you want to find out what the customer wants and then you go about trying to provide it," continues David.
"I have been focused on that for the last 15 years.
"We have run a very big research project, supported by Invest NI, and we have a number of exciting products that we are starting to export.
"The principle is around service, we want to reduce someone's bill and make systems easier to use.
"If you are trying to ring a large company, the amount of time you're left on hold on the phone before you get to speak to someone, that was something we wanted to improve.
"I was very fortunate in managing to persuade our technical director in 2006 to come and join us, as he brings a serious amount of experience.
"The system we have created is so easy to use that you don't even need to read a manual.
"Ultimately it works as soon as you open the box.
"I suppose that's the beauty of software - if you think of the difference between something like a traditional remote control and an Apple remote.
"One has two buttons, whereas a traditional remote has 20 or 30 buttons."
Clarity Telecom was such a success that within the first year, there were 110 customers.
David says: "We have just continued to grow each year.
"Again, it goes back to providing something that people need.
"You might ask how I went from marketing to coffee, but it was 2000 and there were no coffee shops in Northern Ireland.
"Belfast was actually very receptive to the idea of a coffee shop at the time.
"We opened our first one in Donegall Square, then Rosemary Street, then Royal Avenue.
"The idea was always to set up a chain and within 18 months to two years we had six coffee shops.
"It was such a new concept when I opened Clements and in the early days, we actually needed a security guard at our coffee shop at Botanic in south Belfast because there were so many people keen to go in.
"The coffee shop on Royal Avenue was probably my favourite because I really liked the décor, it was so light and airy with a lot of brick and leather and it had lovely windows looking out into the street.
"The thing that surprised me with Clements was that we were selling more food than coffee.
"I felt like I had ended up in the food business more than the coffee business, which wasn't my strength, although I feel like business has to follow its own path.
"The food business is tough because you're always making everything fresh and there is the quality control.
"Ultimately I ended up selling the business."
Like Clarity Telecom and Clements, Water Wipes came about because of a desire to do things better, to create a superior product to those already on the market.
The aim of the original product, which was launched in 2008, was to address the fact that many wet wipes dry out.
"We were actually looking at improving the packaging, but things evolved," adds David.
"Once again we were listening to the consumer and thought we could improve on what was already available.
"While trying to fix the problem of baby wipes drying out, we realised there was a requirement for something that was really sensitive."
Water Wipes is now made with 99.9% water and a drop of fruit extract, meaning it is suitable for sensitive, newborn and premature baby's skin.
They are even recommended by midwives for use on babies with nappy rash or skin allergies and are sold in over 100 countries.
David says: "I think where marketing can be so great is you are always asking what does the customer need, that's a constant.
"I'm struggling to think of a business where it doesn't change, everything is changing, and you should constantly be asking yourself the question, what does the customer need and can I meet that need?
"That gives you great agility, you have to question yourself all the time what you could do better."
So, how does David make sure he is aware of his customers' needs?
"We have guys hard at work developing products while I take off to various places," he said.
"You've got that hard slog of going and visiting customers, that's how I know what they're looking for. It's so important that you are constantly talking to your customers."
Looking to the future, there are plans to launch Clarity Telecom products in North America in the next nine months, although the priority currently remains the market in Great Britain.
This week, the company announced that it had won deals worth over £3.5m for its internet-based business phone platform within just a year-and-a-half of its launch.
The Byphone platform, which has been developed with just over £600,000 financial backing from economic development agency Invest NI, gives businesses more control over their calls and improves inbound and outbound call handling.
It uses a voice over internet protocol platform (VoIP) to cut costs and support multiple types of media. It's sold through 50 Voxbit partners around Great Britain generating contracts worth £3.5m over the last year.
"There is actually more of a sense of satisfaction out of getting an idea right rather than the skill of it," David says.
"For me, getting the product that people talk about and use is what is exciting, it's not just about selling something, it's about creating a vision, I think that's what is satisfying.
"The really interesting part is listening to people about what they want and trying to figure out how to address that or come up with a solution or service.
"I think you can bring that to whatever business you are in."
It is clear that David isn't afraid of a challenge - and that is the case at work and at home.
When he isn't working in the office, David can be found tending to his garden or, typical of his adventurous spirit, he also enjoys sailing.
Most recently he has completed an ocean sailing challenge on a tall ship, where he was the carer of his severely disabled friend.
"I think it takes you out of your comfort zone," he says.
"We did it three months ago and we're planning our next challenge already.
"I was with him when he had an accident, we did a lot of walking and we were going to do the Camino de Santiago three years ago when he fell and he is now quadriplegic.
"He had two years of rehabilitation and this year we decided to go out on the boat and complete this challenge.
"It absolutely was a challenge, I do sail, but to do it while acting as a carer was quite an experience, particularly as my experience as a carer was limited.
"When you see someone go through something like that, it really does make you assess your priorities and look at what is important."