Business World

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Irish firms should take the plunge and begin exporting to Germany

Despite the language barrier, there are many opportunities for expansion in Europe's largest consumer market

Thomas Molloy

Thomas Molloy

WHILE Irish people have traditionally looked west for economic salvation, times are changing and many companies and individuals are looking eastwards these days to take advantage of Germany's booming economy and the shared currency which reduces risk.

A survey this week by Deloitte shows that half of Irish companies expect most of their turnover to come from overseas by 2014. The companies said they are most likely to expand into the UK followed by Germany, France and the US.

While expanding into the UK is relatively easy because most Irish people know the place and speak the language, expansion into Germany poses linguistic and cultural challenges.

Despite these challenges, trade figures show that many Irish companies are busy chasing growth in Germany. While exports increased 10pc last year, exports to Germany rose 20pc and exports from Irish-owned companies soared 22pc. It is quite clear that the combination of a flaccid domestic economy and Germany's roaring economy has convinced many Irish companies to finally bite the bullet and belatedly begin selling into the continent's largest economy.

"It's the largest consumer market in Europe so if you are serious about exporting you should be there," said Helmut Clissmann, a Dubliner with German and Irish roots who has been doing business in both countries for almost 40 years. Mr Clissmann believes there are fundamental differences that must be understood by anyone who wants to do business in Germany.

"Germany is a much bigger country than Ireland and business is not done on a personal basis like it is in Ireland," said Mr Clissmann. "For this reason you really have to do your homework before you start talking. If you appear at a meeting and you don't know what you're doing you won't get a second chance."

With a market of 80 million people, Mr Clissmann cautions against trying to conquer the entire country at once. Most Irish businesses simply aren't big enough to supply a market of this size, he noted. Businesses should instead focus on a single region and try to prise open the market there. He also points to other advantages that may not be so obvious. Packaging is often much better in Europe than it is in the UK and the US. "The Germans have an abhorance of bad design -- and it can be a good learning experience."

One Irish company that has done very well in Germany is Kerrygold which sells six million packs of butter a week in Germany to post sales of around €175m last year. While Kerrygold makes its products in Ireland, the butter is packed in the Ruhr area to ensure that the brand can respond to local demands.

Dan Mulhall, Dublin's ambassador to Berlin, is busy these days convincing Germans that Ireland is not on the brink of collapse in speeches up and down the country but he is also a firm believer in the importance of Germany's markets for Irish business.

"The relationship with Germany is a vital part of the future success of Ireland," he told business leaders in a speech at pharmaceutical giant Bayer last week. "We do have a large number of Irish companies that have something to offer."

Ralf Lissek, the head of the German Irish Chamber of Commerce in Dublin which sells advice to Irish companies looking to move into the German market, highlights something that may sound trivial but marks a fundamental difference between his countrymen and the Irish. "Germans are more cautious. I need confirmation on paper, I need to be sure." Germans love paperwork. "In Ireland it's more emotional. "Where are you from?' or 'Who do you know'? That is the contract here. In Germany, we like paper."

At the heart of these differences is the German love of order -- what is known in Germany as Ordnungspolitik. Everybody who spoke to the Irish Independent about doing business in Europe's largest economy eventually came back to this theme and the importance of careful planning and preparation. Meetings do not lead to immediate results and even more patience than normal is needed to create ties. They also tend to be more direct than their Irish counterparts.

"Germans have very little difficulty with negative truths. If something can't be done, that's also useful information," is how German tax expert Donal Leahy at Baker Tilly Ryan Glennon puts it.

In a comment that has echoes for the State's negotiations with Germany and France over possible changes to the bailout agreement, Mr Leahy said he has come to respect Germans' ability to deal with reality. "Their ability to take news is useful because they deal with it."

While Sarah O'Keeffe, who heads IDA Ireland's operations in Germany, is tasked with bringing German business to Ireland, she also has useful insights into how the German business style differs from our style which could explain the Government's problems as well as helping individual companies. Germans simply are not driven by tax considerations to the same degree as many other companies, she said.

Their companies are much more concerned about talent and likely to go where there are well-trained employees.

Demographics

This focus highlights one of the biggest differences between the two countries; demographics. Germany's population is set to sink 19pc to 66 million by 2060 while Ireland's population is set to jump 46pc to 6.5 million, according to EU forecasts issued last week. If these forecasts materialise then Germany will slip from the largest country in the EU by population to the third largest within a generation. It is this aging population as well as the German love of order that makes Germans cautious.

"We Germans tend to over-insure," laughed Mr Lissek.

While the market is slowly shrinking, it still remains the biggest in Europe and Ireland's third largest. Companies wanting to enter it should make sure that they have people on the ground who speak German, cautioned Mr Clissmann.

"You have to have a local contact," said Mr Clissmann who has sold and bought from Germany.

"The three choices are a subsidiary, a joint venture or an agent working on commission." He favours joint ventures as the best way of entering the German market. "Very often the cost of setting up a subsidiary is prohibitive. In many ways the joint venture is the best idea."

While Germany is a mouth-watering prospect for many businesses, many companies are hampered by an age-old problem; this country's inability to speak modern languages. Deirdre McPartlin of Enterprise Ireland recently highlighted the importance of languages in an article on the decline of German in Irish schools.

She noted that Eurostat figures show us that only 21pc of German and 23pc of Austrian 25-64 year olds feel they speak English proficiently. This is the age group that makes the purchasing and business decisions in any German company and it is bad news if they are not comfortable or capable of communicating in English.

Parents who want to secure their children's future could do a lot worse than insist they learn German but for Irish companies the solution is probably to hire those students who have learned German, to form a joint venture as Mr Clissmann advised or turn to the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise Ireland for help.

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