Words like “Changi Airport” and “holiday” have only just begun to re-enter our vocabulary. But for Ameer Jumabhoy, they’re the light at the end of a harrowing two-year tunnel that players in the travel industry have jointly traversed, some never making it out the other end.
“I was just in Changi Airport and I heard somebody talking about our product – like: Hey, have you seen this? to his friend – and that gave me so much joy, that one download,” he recounts from a cafe in London, where he’s holding our Zoom call. “Running a travel tech company during a pandemic, you’ve got to have a lot of faith in your dreams.”
Travel is back
Ameer, 32 and a self-professed travel lover, is the co-founder of utu (pronounced “you too”), which offers an app and card that helps tourists claim more value-added tax (VAT) refunds than previously possible. Launched in 2016, it also allows you to skip the manual, paper-based application.
Such an app is mainly useful for shopping in Europe, which boasts the world’s highest VAT rates – meaning items like luxury goods can cost much less after refunds.
But between 30-50 percent of refunds are being absorbed by tax refund operators in fees, and they often hide this fact, Ameer reveals.
“I went to a place in France the other day and they were saying the VAT rate is 12 percent. But it’s not. It’s 20 percent. So where’s the 8 percent?” he asks. “Our industry has not been fully transparent with commissions. Instead of 40 percent, utu takes a fee that’s more consistent with other platform players, like Airbnb.”
This sounds like a better deal, and clearly, utu’s users – who number in the tens of thousands – agree. Ameer is quick to point out he’s optimistic this group will soar to tens of millions this year, now international borders have largely reopened, and the firm’s Covid-delayed marketing efforts can resume in earnest.
“This year is going to be transformational,” he declares, citing new initiatives like a partnership with Krisflyer, Singapore Airlines’ membership programme, which allows users to convert VAT refunds to Krisflyer miles. “I’m seeing cities come back, people on the streets, life return.”
But he’s careful to add that dampened demand from big markets like China and Russia mean they’re not out of the woods yet. “We are fully cognisant about the world situation, and trying to be as nimble as possible.”
Among utu’s biggest markets are the US, Middle East, Korea and Southeast Asia. Instead of just upsizing refunds, the firm aims to start directly managing the refund process as a full-fledged tax refund company.
Anyone of a certain vintage in Singapore knows the name Jumabhoy, the vigorously wealthy Indian clan that once owned Scotts Holdings and lost in in a high-profile family spat. Today, everyone’s moved on to their own thing – investment, hospitality, real estate – and for Ameer and his father Asad, 62, it’s tax-free returns.
The tech-forward platform comes from the son, and the concept from the father, who spent over two decades pioneering the growth of tax-free companies like Global Blue and Premier Tax Free (now Planet) in Asia.
The pair are utu’s co-founders. For Ameer, the idea dawned near the end of his MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Dad told me about the size of the tax-free market, the growth in Asian shoppers to Europe. But two complaints always pop up in the conversation. One, the lines are very long. Two, the refunds are too little,” he recounts.
“Dad said: technology is going to change all of this. And coming from a tech-centric university, I saw the opportunity. Phones now can do a lot more than they could three years ago. So that’s the huge exponential growth in technology that will allow us to deliver.”
With soaring traveller volumes, a tax-free returns startup could potentially impact the wallets of thousands of millions. This sheer scale was exciting for the master’s graduate. “That was the moment I realised: I’m in,” says Ameer. “I’ve been close to my dad throughout my life. And when we said we’re gonna do this, we just really jumped into it together.”
Today, they split the work with their nearly 60-strong team. CEO Asad takes care of strategy and expansion (“many products we’re releasing are based on what he learned over 25 years”) while Ameer is in charge of customer interfaces, like the website and app.
Utu may not be the sexiest company out there – tax-free is often associated with administration, after all – but the demand for travel experiences, both before and after Covid, provide the strong business case, says Ameer.
And he isn’t stopping there. Now that the firm has finally revved up to take off proper, the Jumabhoys’ sights have landed on a bigger goal.
“We want to build an ecosystem for tourists that solves pain points in the cross-border reward space. Tax refunds are just the entry point,” Ameer explains. Either way, the core concept is the same: “It’s about putting money back into the pockets of tourists, money that rightfully belongs to them.”
3 questions with: Ameer Jumabhoy
We ask the fourth-gen Jumabhoy about family.
What’s it like working with your dad?
My dad, he’s one of my best mates, and we have a very strong bond, we play sports together. We do have arguments, and sometimes that has spilled over into dinnertime conversation. But we have, over time, developed a very strong respect for each other’s strengths, learned how to develop that symbiotic relationship. Our work streams are fairly split up, but we always know what each other’s doing.
Tell us a funny memory.
The other day, dad sat me down and was like, okay, explain TikTok to me. He’s curious, and always thinking in young ways. I’ve always respected his desire to learn and reinvent himself.
Since utu is a family thing, are you hoping your son takes over?
Our challenge right now is figuring out which kindergarten to put him in (laughs).