What happens behind the scenes when you buy something from Boots, Boohoo or Pretty Little Thing in the UK?
ave Field knows well. The founder, chief operations officer and chief executive officer of Coll-8, a parcel delivery and customs clearance provider, says it’s a complicated but easily automated process.
“We collect in the UK, export out of the UK, clear it into Ireland and then it’s handed to An Post or DPD as a domestic parcel,” he tells the Irish Independent from Coll-8’s headquarters near Baldonnell aerodrome in west Dublin.
“If the customer wants to return that, it is exported back out of Ireland and imported back to the UK. It could have gone through customs four times. But the customer doesn’t see any of that.”
After just three years in operation, Coll-8 is now Ireland’s largest broker, by volume, Field believes. It even acts as a broker for An Post.
Coll-8 started life in late 2019 primarily as a tech-focused parcel delivery service in partnership with BWG foods, which owns Spar, Londis, Mace and XL in Ireland.
The idea was to allow customers to track online purchases from the UK using QR codes, and pick them up at any Spar or Londis in the country. But that was put on ice in 2020.
“We were due to go live in March 2020. We had all the kit, we’d bought it all. With BWG, I think we had about 600 stores interested at the time. And Covid hit and it basically shut us down. We could do nothing for 10 months.
“It was the busiest e-commerce year ever in the industry because everyone was learning how to buy online. Even my mother was buying online. But nobody would move. Everybody was saying, ‘Talk to us in January.’”
Field had self-funded the venture, and had to continue to pay his staff of around 15 people for that year.
Although Coll-8’s bread and butter is parcel delivery, Field didn’t want to deliver parcels themselves, as he had in his previous life with Nightline and Parcel Motel, which he helped set up in his early 20s and which was bought by logistics giant UPS in 2017.
“Nightline was a huge business. I never wanted to be like that again. I was a busy fool for 20-odd years. I look back now and say, Jesus, I was a gobshite, you know.”
The UPS takeover was a turning point in Field’s life.
‘I was a busy fool for 20-odd years. I look back now and say, Jesus, I was a gobshite, you know’
“I was actually heartbroken leaving. We [he and his co-founder John Tuohy] brought it from nothing. I would have stayed, gladly. I loved it. I was man and boy there.”
He took two years off after the Nightline sale – it was a condition of the takeover – travelling to Portugal, spending a summer in Wexford, living the domestic life.
“It was great to get away from it. But I still got up every morning to bring the kids to school, even though I didn’t need to, just to get out of the house. The dog loved me because I’d bring him to Malahide Park every morning.”
The lifestyle didn’t suit, though.
He ended up working for a time for parcel management firm GFS, in the UK, which is what set him on the path he is on now.
I would have stayed, gladly. I loved it. I was man and boy there
It was there he got the idea to piggyback on BWG’s fleet and locations, avoiding much of the physical parcel delivery by specialising in the (virtual) paperwork.
As 2020 – and the pandemic – wore on and Brexit became more of a reality, Field decided to train his focus on customs clearance.
“I started in this business with DHL, in customs clearance, I was with FedEx. Although that was 20-odd years ago, 30 years ago, probably, the principles are still the same, although there are different systems. So I jumped on a refresher course.”
Coll-8 operates a “bonded” storage facility in Baldonnell (it has just opened a second near Blanchardstown in Dublin) that allows the firm to avoid hold-ups at Dublin Port. Field also opened a warehouse in Runcorn in the UK last year to help smooth operations on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Paying a customs “bond” to Revenue means that Coll-8 can take in goods from the UK without clearing them at the port, and hold them for up to 90 days while they do the paperwork.
He recalls the difficulties faced by Irish hauliers in Dublin Port in the early months of 2021, when Brexit came into effect.
“What happened in Dublin was a lot of the hauliers that came in had multiple customers on one truck, and you could have one customer whose paperwork isn’t right.
“If there is an issue, the truck is stuck at Dublin Port. There were companies down there with 20, 25 trailers stuck.”
Field is most proud of the IT infrastructure that Coll-8’s engineers have built, which allows them to file thousands of customs declarations at the push of a button, once a retailer is set up in the system.
The firm employs about 60 people now, but Field expects that number to rise to around 100 this year.
Coll-8 turned a profit in its second year after a tough start – “we never raised one invoice in year one” – and doubled its revenues to €11m in 2022. Field believes revenues are on track to grow 50pc this year to at least €16m.
The company has already had “two serious” takeover offers from multinational firms, but Field says he isn’t ready yet to consider a sale.
Expansion is the plan, albeit slow and steady.
They are not seeing any of the issues. It’s like it was pre-Brexit
Field would like to do for Irish companies what he has been able to do in Ireland for UK retailers. So far his clients are from the UK, China and the US.
“We’ve kind of taken the Brexit issue out of the equation for all these companies. It’s all done in the background. They are not seeing any of the issues. It’s like it was pre-Brexit.”
From 2024, Irish exporters – particularly those sending food, plants and animals – to Britain will face similar rules to what UK exporters do here, as London begins to roll out its full customs code.
There have been several delays over the past two years, but Wales became the first devolved government to announce that new checks will come into play from January 2024. Holyhead in Wales is Ireland’s main port of call into the UK.
“At the moment, they’re very lax,” explains Field. “So you can run a trailer in and you can clear it later. But it’s going to be like it is in Ireland now.
“As long as your paperwork is done, it’s all pre-lodged before it gets in there, I don’t see any delays.”
But is there a risk of tailbacks at Dublin Port next year, like there were in Dover in 2021?
“If the paperwork is not right, it will start causing us problems getting it out.
“But [the UK] take a common-sense approach to it. They haven’t stopped anything going in. They have kept business going, where we, as a country, if your paperwork is not right, it doesn’t get in. We can’t let it in.
“I guarantee you, where they introduce this and it’s a mess, they’ll delay it.”
He would like to offer a brokerage service into Europe in future, which will require outside investment.
Field is still unsure about Northern Ireland, despite a deal being reached this week on EU access to UK IT systems for goods trade.
He says uncertainty over changes to the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the UK’s 2019 EU exit deal – make the venture too great a risk for now.
“Nobody knows what they’re going to do. We’re quite open to open up a facility in the North, and we’ve been asked to do it, but there is a cost to set all that up.”
One of the things keeping Field busy at the moment is processing around €3m in Vat reclaims from UK retailers. One individual customer is due close to €2m back from the Irish Exchequer.
Vat overpayments were common back in 2021, Field says, when “everyone was just shipping” and not checking whether they were paying too much in Vat and duties.
“It’s mainly [because of] the returns on the likes of clothing and fashion,” he said.
“People say it’s 40pc returns. What’s happening with a lot of these [retailers] is they were sending the value of the goods including the Vat. They were paying Vat and duty on the value of the goods plus Vat. So they were paying Vat on Vat.
“So Irish Revenue got millions of extra revenue.”
With tax receipts as buoyant as they are, Revenue is unlikely to mind the refunds.
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