Man in suit posing for photograph

Group CEO Tony Delaney speaks with The Irish Times about his career

From milkman to CEO, Tony Delaney offers The Irish Times journalist Sandra O'Connell an insight into his growth

Tipperary native Tony Delaney broke a leg at the end of fifth year in secondary school and never went back. Soon afterwards, while only 17, he and his girlfriend had a baby. By the age of 20 he had two children and was working as a milkman.

A talented hurler, all his spare time was taken up either playing, training or socialising with his team-mates. After 15 years together, he and his partner split up. He went on to marry and today has a five-year-old child. Those early years were hard, however, compounded by a lack of money.

“We were always on the breadline. We were living in rented social housing and I was always worried about not earning enough,” Delaney says. Though he doesn’t characterise himself as a confident person, his friends would have always described him as outgoing, he says. Then the father of a club team-mate asked whether he would consider working in financial services.

He joined New Ireland Assurance in 1992 at the age of 21. “I didn’t have a clue. I was lost, to be honest. All I could think about was that I had two children and a partner, and how could I earn some money?”

Delaney started as a tied agent with no salary, working on commission only. It took him a while to find his feet. On one occasion he remembers having to stay off work for three days because he couldn’t afford to put petrol in his car until a commission cheque came in.

Other than fretting over fuel, he loved making sales appointments. “I loved having a place I had to go to at a certain time, because it gave me structure. I started to do well and win sales awards.”

The key to successful selling is building trust, he says. You also need to know what you’re talking about, which by this stage he did. After a slow start he rose within the organisation, becoming manager and then regional manager.

In June 2014 Delaney left to set up SYS Wealth, a financial advisory practice aimed at wealthy individuals, working from a spare room in his home. His first employee was his sister, who looked after administration. Today it employs 32 people, with headquarters in Nenagh and offices in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. It has €200 million under management for clients. The SYS Group includes SYS Mortgages, SYS Private, SYS Tax and SYS Capital.

The biggest challenge he had in expanding the business was recognising his own weaknesses and taking actions to address them, including the hire of an executive coach.

“I also brought people into the business who had skills and qualities I didn’t have,” he says. Delaney credits his coach as having been invaluable, particularly in helping deal with personnel issues. “He told me to leave my emotions at the door and deal only with the facts,” he says.

Though he left school young, he says he never stopped learning. “I’ve never read a book in my life but I ask questions, and I listen.”

A poor sales professional is one intent on speaking rather than listening.

Delaney credits his ability to ask questions and to get people to open up as the keys to ensuring that clients get a financial plan that is tailored to them. It has also been critical to the success of his company.

“Our job is providing financial peace of mind. This is an industry in which too many products are sold. But people need advice, which is why ours is an advisory firm. I take pride in ensuring people are in a better place than they were before they came into us.”

He plans to hire eight more staff this year and, now aged 50, says the only thing that keeps him awake at night is planning the business’s future. His goal is to have €500 million under management within a few years. “I’m only getting started.”

Read the article in full, here.

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