IDA chairman Ryan is still selling Ireland four decades on
Enterprise Ireland and FDI stalwart backs strategy, writes Ellie Donnelly
Frank Ryan knows more than anyone else about the business of selling Ireland.
At the IDA, the Dundalk native oversaw massive inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) that helped transform the country and he was CEO of Enterprise Ireland from 2003 and 2013, working with domestic firms to crack the export market.
Ryan, the winner of this year's All Ireland Marketing Champion award, rejects the idea that Ireland's reliance on mainly US investment has led policymakers to overlook home-grown potential.
Growth might have been slower, but sales and jobs generated by indigenous exporters hit record levels during the economic crisis, notes the IDA chairman. "Enterprise Ireland at that time offered leadership in terms of growth and the ambition to grow. Irish companies were increasingly investing in R&D and innovation, and they had the products and services that would be in demand in overseas markets, and I think it was a good bringing together of both competencies that allowed us to make progress in export markets."
Ryan believes a major change was greater confidence among Irish businesses to go overseas.
"That was probably the key ingredient, both our confidence and our competence levels were very high. Irish companies were bringing solutions to a problem or challenge that a customer actually had, not just selling products or services."
Having worked at both the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, Ryan maintains that there is a need for both to exist.
"IDA Ireland focuses its activities in about eight to 10 different business sectors, such as software, pharmaceuticals, financial services, ICT - key sectors.
"Enterprise Ireland has a much wider portfolio.
"At Enterprise Ireland you are involved in entrepreneurship and starting from scratch and the companies require a different type of engagement and a different range of supports and assistance to grow.
"An established internationally trading company (that comes to the IDA) has an awful lot of those competencies already in place, so I would argue that it is a completely different type of work."
Ryan doesn't buy the argument that too much emphasis is placed in bringing in FDI, to the detriment of home-grown industry. Other countries and jurisdictions would "give their right arm" for the level of FDI Ireland gets, in particular from the US, he says. "We don't see that as a weakness, we see that as a positive - and we want to hold on to that positive."
When he joined the IDA in 1978, Ryan says there was a different mindset to FDI in most countries. Most big economies were focused on developing their own national champions.
"Ireland and the IDA along with say Singapore, Holland and Belgium and perhaps the UK, were probably the key competitors for FDI. Fast forward to today and the last estimate in the IDA's view is that there are at least 200 either countries or regions within countries that are in active competition with the IDA at any given time."
FDI now comes from a wider pool of countries too.
Over the last three to four years the IDA has increased staffing in Europe and in Asia. "We are now starting to see investments from both" he says. Chinese drug maker WuXi coming to Dundalk and Tata entering Ireland from India are good examples, he says.
Going global is a big theme, but does it grind to a halt when it gets local, as Apple found when it went to build a data centre in Athenry? Are planning laws up to the task of facilitating firms that do come?
Ryan says his views haven't changed in 30 years; companies that seek planning permission should get a decision quickly.
"Whether that decision is yes or no is a matter for other authorities not a matter for the IDA, but I think the answer should come much more quickly so that companies can plan accordingly."
Ryan says that in 2019 the IDA will close out its current five-year strategy - so far it is going "very well".
The new strategy will reflect the changing market. Externally Ireland faces three main challenges, he says: Brexit, changes in the US including tax, and "the growth of maybe protectionism, a protectionist mindset".
Winning business from the US specifically is getting more competitive, he notes.
Three areas are key to continued economic growth, he says - technological change, education and training, and capital investment. "We could talk about infrastructure, broadband and all the rest - but as regards key enablers of economic growth, I would say technological change brings opportunities if you move fast."
In the late 1980s, Ireland moved very quickly with Intel and Microsoft, then much smaller than they are today. After that have come Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
"In that regard we are strongly focused today on artificial intelligence and robotics, we are also very focused on having the advanced manufacturing plants of the future."
Education, he maintains, must now focus on being able to work with knowledge and data. "As opposed to being confused by huge amounts of data, you have to be able to analyse and evaluate it."
He also points out that big capital spend remains important. "Its important that we attract into Ireland companies that are going to spend a lot of capital here.
"If you can build and maintain those type of bio pharmaceutical facilities, then you can build anything. It establishes your international standing, and then think of the Irish suppliers to those projects, now you have indigenous world-class services companies."
Those domestic firms are internationally competitive, he insists. "Irish companies have the imagination, the intellect, the creativity, they need that funding to get going and Enterprise Ireland can then help them sell to multinationals in Ireland or overseas as well."