Business Irish

Friday 19 September 2014

Interview: Enterprising chief who builds Irish business

Interview

Published 13/02/2014 | 02:30

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STATE PLAN: Julie Sinnamon, CEO of Enterprise Ireland

ON the face of it, it's a fairly daunting prospect. You take over at the helm of the agency tasked with helping indigenous Irish companies expand internationally, while job creation and the fostering of business is at the top of the Government's agenda.

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And you do it, one assumes, while being conscious, perhaps even haunted, by the legacy of your predecessor who achieved record results during the most difficult economic crisis the state has faced.

Intimidating? Julie Sinnamon doesn't think so.

The new head of Enterprise Ireland (EI) is quick to point out that behind every good man is an equally competent woman.

Frank Ryan's success as Enterprise Ireland's chief executive for the last 10 years may be lauded, but Ms Sinnamon was one of his key lieutenants. And now she's become the semi-state agency's first female chief executive.

"I certainly hope my appointment to the job recognises the role that I played over the last 10 years. I wasn't an idle bystander watching it," she says.

And she should rightly share in that success. Enterprise Ireland, like its sister agency the IDA, has a good story to tell.

In 2012, EI-supported companies achieved record exports, breaking €16bn for the first time, aided by the agency's 30 overseas offices.

Earlier this month, more records were trotted out. Full-time employment levels at these companies are now at their highest since 2007 and total employment is the best in more than a decade.

Who better to continue that success than an insider with an understanding of how to replicate those achievements, and even build on them?

"I don't feel I'm coming in from the cold not having been part of that success," she says.

"For the 10 years that Frank was chief executive, I was operating with him from the very start, leading the change management process within the organisation, the corporate development side and then being responsible for the global business development directorate.

"So the two of us worked extremely closely together and what I'm doing is continuing on that journey and trying to refocus it in terms of addressing the jobs dilemma."

That dilemma isn't a remote one. Like many of the companies it supports, EI has had to do more with less as the economic crisis ravaged the public purse.

An internal audit in the semi-state agency, made public in October, warned there was a serious need to address "the substantial staff losses" arising from the impact of the ban on recruitment and promotions.

The report claimed the agency had lost more than 16pc of its staff since 2009, with the most serious risk to Enterprise Ireland's effective operation being a shortage of employees and skills resulting from continuing losses. The Government has signed off on the recruitment of 20 new staff for its offices in emerging markets, but Ms Sinnamon says the agency will continue to have to make do with less.

"We have lost a significant amount of staff over a period of time. There's corporate memory loss with that and there's also a need to reallocate resources in order to be able address the needs of clients. I see that we will continue to have less staff than we have at present," she says.

"What we need to do is do things differently to respond to that."

EI may be an Irish success story, but it's not without its weaknesses. Irish Stock Exchange chief executive Deirdre Somers put it succinctly recently when she said Ireland's enterprise policy was aimed at start-ups and multinationals.

Essentially, the State may be good at giving a helping hand to companies expanding from a low base, but is it doing enough to replicate the success of global brand names like Kerry Group and Glanbia, that have helped make the Irish food sector so well known internationally?

Ms Sinnamon admits more needs to be done to help develop Irish global companies of scale. "The focus needs to be on not just increasing the amount of start-ups, but on taking the start-ups that we have and really working to scale them from the start. It's building the capabilities within the companies; it's accelerating their market development and growth."

But even on the start-up front, where EI can argue it has achieved considerable success, how easy is it to pick a winner? The agency invests in high potential start-ups, and was hit hard by media reports last year highlighting losses on investments.

"We're encouraging start-up companies but within start-ups there'll be failures as well as successes," she says.

Between 1999 and 2012, while €67m was written off on bad investments, the agency made a profit of €168m on investments in its portfolio of equity start-ups. Proceeds of sales amounted to €375m.

"Not only did we develop a great cohort of new start-up companies, but it returned a significant return in investment to the State. If we are going to encourage people to become entrepreneurs, there will be successes and failures in it, but in the whole we made a profit of €168m on that equity investment," Ms Sinnamon says.

"We need to encourage companies, recognising that they won't all be successes, and the key thing we can do is to get those companies that have failed to start again and learn and give it another go."

The agency is finalising its strategy for the next three years, but Ms Sinnamon remains tight-lipped. As well as developing global scale companies, greater focus on fostering entrepreneurship among firms outside of Dublin is another key priority, she says. Other weaknesses include global sourcing and helping small businesses in public procurement.

"We need to relocate and refocus resources internally to focus on the priority areas. There will be a change process to go through once the board signs off on the strategy, " she says.

"Moving staff around is one thing. It also requires developing skills sets within Enterprise Ireland. We've been successful externally with our clients in introducing lean principles, and a key focus is really to improve the process and effectiveness internally."

One can't help but be impressed by the agency's offices in Dublin's East Point Business Park, into which the agency moved in 2008 under Mr Ryan. Open plan is the dominant theme, and the chief executive isn't cosseted from that. "It's quite exposed," Ms Sinnamon says. "It's not an open-door policy; it's a no-door policy. It really did make a difference in terms of the communication side, and there are areas where people can have meetings.

"Initially, there wasn't a universal view that this was a great thing. It was quite a cultural shock because most people had offices in the other buildings."

She has a "very good relationship" with Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton and has a "high level of interaction" with him. Indeed, they are taking part in the first joint UK-Ireland trade mission this week to Singapore.

It's a demanding agenda for the new chief, who is normally at her desk by about 7.15am and spends many evenings "networking".

The role requires a diverse skills base, part diplomat and politician, with a deft ability to navigate the corporate world.

Asked if she was given any advice before taking on the job, she gives what I believe initially to be the rather banal reply about being true to herself. But she has a point.

"You can very often be pulled in all directions and the buck stops with me and I have to make a call that I think is right. You have to be able to understand what the stakeholders need," she says.

Then there is the pressure of being a top female chief executive, or at least, I believe it might be a pressure. Ms Sinnamon doesn't seem to think so. "Because there are less females . . . the impact of role models on females is very strong and I'm certainly conscious of the fact that other females are looking, as are other men."

When it's suggested other women must have been pleased with her appointment, she says: "My appointment was equally well received by men who have daughters and would like to see that there is career progression across the board based on merit."

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