Business Irish

Tuesday 16 January 2018

How a Kilkenny firm thrived back home and at the Oscars

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominated 'Song of the Sea'
A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominated 'Song of the Sea'
Thomas Molloy

Thomas Molloy

In a different life, I happened to know a few of the people working for Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, which carries Ireland's only real hope for an Oscar this Saturday night.

Cartoon Saloon is many things; a group of talented individuals who run a creative company in a sometimes glamorous industry but it is also a typical SME in a small Irish city struggling to make a profit.

Cartoon Saloon has brought a certain flair to Kilkenny, and some of its cosmopolitan animators can often be seen leaning against the old stone-cut headquarters smoking cigarettes with a certain Gallic insouciance.

Owners Paul Young and Tomm Moore may be heading to Los Angeles for the second time this weekend in hope of an Oscar but their firm has grown the hard way and is a testament to both founders as well as Kilkenny's sometimes far-sighted city fathers.

Cartoon Saloon could undoubtedly be located much closer to the film industry's heart but Young and Kilkenny native Moore chose Kilkenny for sentimental reasons just like taxback.com founder Terry Clune who is another of the city's (adopted) success stories.

Like taxback.com, Cartoon Saloon makes money from exporting services in many languages and countries around the world and is fast becoming a major employer. The 16-year-old studio recently announced the creation of an extra 50 jobs after it won $10m financing from Telefilm Canada, the Irish Film Board, private investors and other organisations. The funding will allow Cartoon Saloon to produce a film about a young girl living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy to support her family when her father is unfairly imprisoned.

Things are going well for Cartoon Saloon these days but life was a struggle for the company for many years and I remember meeting employees in the street who worried openly about whether the company could survive as it lurched from contract to contract in the precarious world of animation.

While the company's future sometimes seemed doubtful, the self-belief exhibited by the founders was never questioned by colleagues.

That determination is one of the hallmarks of successful companies right across Ireland and in all sectors but it was some years before the majority of Kilkenny's citizens came to share the belief that a small city of 20,000 people was the logical location for a maker of children's television programmes with global ambitions.

Cartoon Saloon has a lovely headquarters located bang in the centre of medieval Kilkenny in an old malting house restored by the council and home to various organisations including the local chamber of commerce.

In many other towns, the malting house would have been turned into a museum or some other celebration of the past.

Kilkenny, which has a fair amount of heritage but no museum, did things differently. Many councils bleat endlessly about 'heritage' while destroying their areas with ring roads and bypasses, but the Kilkenny council, which included until recently many commercially-minded councillors, has always reserved some of the best buildings for business rather than for mausoleums for the past.

While Kilkenny has several industrial estates on the edge of the city, it has traditionally made an effort to encourage business and retailers to locate in the Medieval core. That deters some businesses such as Tesco, which has has a shop in every county in Ireland bar Kilkenny, but it encourages creative industries where people often care desperately about their surroundings.

Towns and cities all over Ireland complain regularly about the failure of IDA-sponsored companies to locate their businesses outside Dublin.

Kilkenny is no exception; it has been almost completely ignored by the large financial services companies and pharma giants with the exception of Banking 365 and State Street.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, it remains a wealthy city and I predict it will become wealthier in the decades ahead.

All the ingredients are there for Kilkenny to become a cluster for interesting companies; home grown tech companies, high-end creative industries, and interesting festivals such as Kilkenomics.

We tend to think of technology hubs as places like Portland, San Francisco or London but not everybody wants to live in these expensive hives of creativity, which creates opportunities for much smaller towns if they are prepared to grab them. Europe is already dotted with charming places that reinvented themselves and refuse to trade on the past. Tallinn in Estonia is one example. Malmo in southern Sweden or Brno in the Czech Republic are others.

Kilkenny could follow but it is no slam dunk. What these cities all have, and Kilkenny lacks, is a university.

The closure of the Smithwicks brewery in the city now offers a real opportunity to rectify this, while also creating the sort of technology parks full of business accelerators that are also common to Tallinn, Malmo and Brno. Cities like these have always been hubs for commerce. In the 21st century they have also become hubs for technology.

This will be far from the minds of the founders of Cartoon Saloon when they attend the Oscars and hopefully pick up a gong. Tomm Moore and Paul Young did not set out to become the nucleus of a potential cluster of tech and creative companies but they have laid the seeds for something big.

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