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Cloud CEO resignations: Twilight of the Titans


In the past month, two pioneers of UK cloud accounting have announced their departure from their founding companies: FreeAgent’s Ed Molyneux and Gary Turner from Xero’s UK subsidiary.

21st Jul 2021
Editor in Chief AccountingWEB
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In June, Ed Molyneux revealed his plans to leave FreeAgent and explore new avenues. Having overseen the company’s £53m acquisition by Royal Bank of Scotland (now NatWest Group) in 2018 and transition to operating within the banking group, Molyneux was perhaps in a position to pursue a more relaxed lifestyle as a tech investor and consultant.

“After nearly 15 amazing years spent immersed in every facet of FreeAgent, I’ve done everything I want to do as CEO and now is the time for new challenges,” Molyneux blogged as he handed the reins over to co-founder Roan Lavery.

The underlying factors for Gary Turner’s surprise announcement are a little harder to fathom. The announcement that he would leave Xero at the end of the year arrived out of the blue earlier this week and set tongues wagging throughout the cloud ecosystem.

“After 12 incredible years, I have decided to retire from operational duties at Xero. I’m not disappearing completely though. Once my successor is in place later this year, I’ll be sticking around in an advisory capacity working with Xero’s global team,” Turner blogged on LinkedIn.

In the 12 years since he joined Xero, Turner built the business up from three employees and £50,000 annual revenues to a behemoth claiming 750,000 users and annual revenues of £115m. While he’s obviously keen to build a new portfolio career based around his passion for supporting small businesses, the lack of an obvious and immediate successor seems like a managerial oversight.

A tale of two executives

The contrasting career paths of Molyneux and Turner offer a neat insight into the world of software entrepreneurs. In 2005, ex-RAF fighter pilot Molyneux was working as a freelance software developer and was frustrated with the lack of effective bookkeeping tools for people like him.

That frustration led to the formation of FreeAgent, which grew into the accounting program of choice for 30,000+ freelances and software contractors. Then RBS came calling, effectively turning FreeAgent into a free accounting companion for its business bank account holders – significantly expanding its user base.

Turner, meanwhile, was a seasoned accounting software veteran. He rose through the sales ranks to become managing director at Pegasus after a melodramatic sequence of events during the 2001 dotcom boom and subsequent bust.

After the company was acquired by Infor in 2006, he faithfully informed AccountingWEB readers: “Pegasus is at the point where we are looking to invest in a longer term road map. Infor is totally committed to maintaining the Pegasus Opera II culture.”

Less than a year later, Turner had moved on to Microsoft as UK product marketing director for the US giant’s Dynamics family of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

For someone so immersed in the old, client-server world, Turner could sniff the opportunity when New Zealand-based cloud startup Xero turned up with an invitation to lead its UK operation in 2009. AccountingWEB was surprised to see the Microsoft executive turn up at New Zealand house for Xero founder Hamish Edwards’ UK farewell party, reveal himself as the next country manager and use his iPhone in an industry setting for the first time in several years.

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Replies (7)

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Dennis Howlett
By dahowlett
21st Jul 2021 16:58

I remember when I put Gary Turner's name up for the Xero job on Hamish Edwards' request. It was a case of ‘Are you interested?’ to which he shot back: ‘Hell yeah!’

He intuitively understood the central role that the profession plays and quickly developed the ‘What’s in it for me?’ factor that allowed Xero to position itself as an enabler of professional innovation. It allowed the development of a new class of accountant, differentiated by service in fresh ways not seen before.

The key trick he pulled off though was to match both the professional requirements with the needs of small business users at the same time.

He really did make a dent in the universe. A remarkable achievement in a market dominated by Sage. It’s a legacy that will be hard to follow.

Thanks (1)
By Carl Reader
21st Jul 2021 18:13

Ha, if I remember correctly John it was Hamish's leaving do where I first met you and Dennis. Seems like a lifetime ago, but I do remember The Haka and the view of London being so much nicer from New Zealand House, rather than being obstructed by New Zealand House!

Gary's made a huge impact on the tech adoption throughout the profession - look forward to seeing what's next for him.

Thanks (1)
By FirstTab
22nd Jul 2021 00:10

Gary best of luck in the future.

I understand you will still advise Xero in some form.

My request is the first item on the agenda to be for Xero to reduce its ridiculously high monthly subscription. This can be easily funded by reducing the marketing budget.

At the time, when you were not so well known, you mentioned you will come over to my office to see me. You have the time now, let me know what time fits with you.

Thanks (0)
Heather Townsend - accountant's coach
By Heather Townsend
22nd Jul 2021 08:33

I remember meeting Gary at an ICAEW special interest group event where we were both speaking. Xero had just moved from operating out of home offices to a small serviced office in Milton Keynes.

Gary leaves big shoes to fill. Not just in the world of cloud, but also his advocacy to make the workplace a more inclusive place.

Thanks (2)
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
22nd Jul 2021 10:56

Thanks for all the flashbacks down memory lane, everyone. The quote that stands out for me came from a senior executive at another software company who complained, "Whenever Gary Turner farts, you write about it."

He has been so ubiquitious in recent years that I can see where they were coming from. But it also reflects how Gary successfully followed the Dennis Keeling principles of software media relations:
1. Have an opinion, preferably fresh and interesting
2. Be willing to stand up in public and express it.

It's surprising how far those principles can take you, and how few technology execs apply them. If some of us are waxing a little nostalgic, it might be because there will be fewer quotable sources to turn to in the near future. But I'm sure Gary will still be around to dish out morsels of his unique wisdom for a long time to come.

Thanks (5)
By benkepes
22nd Jul 2021 20:36

Ahhh, the three muskateers! I first came across Gary before he jumped to Xero, but it was after his ascension that I really took notice. Hamish had been sent to the UK to pretty much leave Rod alone to drive the Xero train and, his OE completed, he was coming home. There were a few suggestions about potential Xero UK leaders (including one from me to Rod, as I recall) but Gary was the successful party. (As an aside, nice to see you giving some limelight to Hamish, he has largely been expunged form the annals of Xero history and that's pretty unfair.)

As you point out, John, these three are very different people. Duane is, was and always will be the fesity one. The king of guerilla marketing and the one least worried about getting into a punch up within the industry. There's some stories to tell but luckily for some they've dissolved into the mists of time. Suffice it to say that Duane brought a streetfighting mentality to the world of SaaS and, if nothing else, he made it a hell of a lot more interesting.

Ed was always the dapper one, who came across very much in the mould of an RAF pilot - cool, calm, slightly clinical and pretty unemotional. I always got the feeling that Ed was executing FreeAgent the same way he'd execute a bombing mission.

Which leaves Gary. True, Gary wasn't a founder and so, in some ways, isn't in the "cloud pioneer" camps. But, that said, of all four vendors, Xero was and is the most successful, so while pioneers might have the idea, it's those who build the settlement who really execute upon it - Gary has done a superlative job of this. As Dennis points out, he did a great job of balancing the various tensions, and sold a story to accountants that could well have been considered tricky for them (turkeys voting for Christmas and all that) - he built a high-perfromance team and, to be honest, without the huge success of Xero UK, there is every chance that Xero as a company would have failed. I remember a huge number of calls I took from financial analysts, not to mention funds that invested in Xero over the years, where my assessment of their ability to actually deliver was primarily based upon what Gary was doing successfully in the UK.

The last thing I'd say is that Gary always struck me as someone who held himself about all the petty arguments and dramas of the industry. I had a few battles with Rod over the years, and regardless of whether I was persona non grata with the company, Gary always treated me decently - something I appreciated. In an industry full of huge egos, and people who use their success to behave badly (and generally get away with it) Gary strikes me a decent bloke.

Thanks (3)
Replying to benkepes:
By FirstTab
22nd Jul 2021 21:56

Few exchanges I had with Gary, in his early days with Xero, I too found him decent and down to earth. I do not think power changed him as a person. At the same time, I have not worked with him of a day day basis.

He had to do what he had to do for the organisation. I disagreed with the way Xero moved forward. I am only a small practice accountant . I do not have the stress and responsibility of being in charge of Xero UK. That does not hold me back in giving my views and express my disappointment with Xero. I was one of the early adopters of Xero.

My comments about some aspects of Xero are about the organisation and not directed at the person in charge.

Thanks (0)