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Wanted: eyes and ears to bring jobs back home

Entrepreneur plans to fix our unemployment crisis by simply getting people to ask businesses to come to Ireland. And there's a €1,500 reward for every job created. By Thomas Molloy

TERRY Clune doesn't rest on his laurels. Most people would be happy to found a company that employs 630 and led him to being named the Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year in 2009, but the taxback.com founder has recently started a new company with even bigger ambitions.

That company is Connect Ireland, which aims to replicate the IDA's success by attracting smaller companies to Ireland that don't show up on the IDA's radar.

To do this, Mr Clune has persuaded the Government to pay a finder's fee to anybody who helps to attract a new company to Ireland.

The fee of €1,500 per job will be paid in two instalments to those who contact Connect Ireland with the name of a company that eventually sets up an operation here.

Mr Clune, who will pay for the costs associated with the new company, will be paid somewhere between €1,000 and €2,500 for each job he helps to create.

The father of four has been wrestling with the idea ever since it began to germinate in his mind about 18 months ago.

"In the past I read about Israel -- a country about the same the size and population as Ireland. I was really shocked that Israel is wealthier than we are despite being mainly desert and surrounded by enemies," he remembers.

"The reason for that success is that they use their diaspora to crate business."

While interested in Israel for years, it was a chance remark at a talk he gave in Kilkenny Castle last year that set the ball rolling.

Kilkenny

At a meeting about how to revive Kilkenny's economy, Mr Clune asked for a show of hands to discover how many people in the audience had relations living abroad who could possibly bring business to the city.

One of those putting up their hands was a woman in her 70s who was related to the Callan-born founder of Coca Cola who left the Kilkenny town to set up the fizzy drinks company in Atlanta back in the 1890s.

Her connections with one of America's great icons reminded Mr Clune of the potential business links that Ireland still enjoys.

A chance conversation with a Stetson-wearing Texan at a dinner in New York a few days later was the next piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

The Texan employed 8,000 people in Europe but told Mr Clune that he had not set up in Ireland because nobody had asked him.

"Nobody thought to ask him," Mr Clune says in a voice that still betrays disbelief. "One way we are going to solve our unemployment crisis is to ask people."

Mr Clune, who decided to live and work in Kilkenny for quality of life reasons, is a big believer in the idea that companies often decide on a location for emotional reasons.

"Henry Ford, who was the biggest private employer in the State for decades, picked Cork rather than Germany or the UK because his dad came from Cork," Mr Clune says as he rattles off half a dozen examples.

He also highlights credit card company MBNA.

"That was one of the biggest employers in the north-west, but it was located in Carrick-on-Shannon because the chief executive's grandmother was from Leitrim and she asked him to do something for the county."

Mr Clune's concept is simple enough, but like many other business ideas, it has been a hard slog to get it over the line.

The idea is that anybody, anywhere in the world can phone Connect Ireland if they know that a company is thinking of expanding into Europe.

"We don't need you to know the CEO of a colossal organisation -- the IDA has probably been there. It could be a girl who works in the reception of a fast expanding medical devices company for example."

The tipsters don't even have to work for a company. They could read about expansion plans in a local newspaper and then ring Mr Clune's brainchild.

People who contact Connect Ireland can leave it there or help make introductions within the target company. "We don't need you to sell Ireland; we need you to be our eyes and ears."

At the GAA's Congress in Tullamore this month, the sporting body added its weight to the idea by encouraging club members to get in touch with former members who have emigrated.

The finders' fees will be used by clubs to help rebuild clubs and keep players from emigrating.

While the idea is relatively simple, Mr Clune had to work hard to convince the Government and then tender for the contract to operate his own idea.

While that may sound strange, the State will pay a fee for every job that's created, which means that the contract had to be put out for 'everybody tender'.

It is still early days for Connect Ireland, which only opened for business six weeks ago and employs just 31 people.

There are no official figures for the number of people who have signed up or the number of leads generated.

Mr Clune is tight-lipped about how things are going but plans to release figures to the media every month or two months detailing what is going on. The first bulletin is due early next month.

There are obvious parallels between Connect Ireland and the much larger and more profitable taxback.com; both companies use a model that only charges if it succeeds and both companies must use the internet to talk to an audience that lives dotted across the planet and is hard to reach.

Mr Clune has come in for some stick from some quarters, but the longer he talks about the idea, the more it seems like a quixotic crusade to do something for the country at a difficult moment in our history.

Whether it works remains to be seen, but there is no doubting Mr Clune's enthusiasm for his new idea, his determination and a track record that means he has the experience to turn an idea generated on a cold winter's evening in Kilkenny into one of the mechanisms that gives people all over the the country the chance to work again.

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