Investment crucial in Wexford businesses’ Brexit strategies
The UK’s departure from the EU brings great challenges, but it is also a time of opportunity for firms to grow new export markets. By John Meagher
Brexit may be looming on the horizon but Mary Walsh is not deterred. She founded her pallet manufacturing company in 1990 when the recession that had scarred so much of the previous decade was still biting and she survived the challenges of the most recent downturn too. Brexit, she believes, is an opportunity to turn disadvantage into advantage and for Ireland to grow other export markets.
"I think we have been too reliant to the UK market for too long," she insists. "And I don't believe that trade will simply cease with Britain. They will still want to do business with us, and us with them. It will be different, though, but I don't think we should panic unduly."
Her company, Gorey-based Ire Well Pallets, employs 50 people and, she says, it has experienced month-on-month growth since June 2016 - the month Britain voted to leave the EU.
"A lot of the companies we supply have been actively looking to develop other export markets," she says. "Brexit may have been a shock, but they're refusing to rest on their laurels."
She is enthused about Project Ireland 2040 and its promise to grow the regions. "I think it's a really good plan for Ireland and I hope it's something that will benefit all parts of the country, including the south-east. It's ambitious and forward-thinking and that can only be a good thing."
The commitment to improve transport infrastructure and broadband capabilities is to be welcomed and she says both can make an enormous difference when it comes both to business and quality of life.
Despite complaints about poor broadband outside of Dublin, she believes that the service she has at home and work is often better than she experiences "in major cities in the UK and Europe".
Of course it could be better - and should be - but I've been struck by how poor it can be elsewhere," she says.
Significant road improvements - including the development of the M11 motorway - has brought north Wexford within an hour of Dublin. And there have been significant upgrades to the broadband network in recent years.
"It's aspects like that that might help people decide that the can start a new life elsewhere," Walsh says. "They can still work in Dublin for instance, but live a quieter pace of life somewhere like here. I can be in Dublin in no time for a meeting and yet I can live just three kilometres from the sea. There's a lot to be said for that."
She is convinced that the focus on growing the regions in the plan is good news for Ireland as a whole.
"It's important to spread investment and to support the regional cities in order to maximise their effectiveness. You'd hope that would have a positive impact on the areas surrounding them and I think it can only be a good thing for Wexford that Waterford city is strengthened. Already, in this county, we can draw from expertise there such as the Waterford Institute of Technology."
Walsh is also involved as a mentor with the Acorns initiative, which stands for Accelerating the Creation Of Rural Nascent Start-ups. "It's about helping young entrepreneurs and it's something I'm passionate about. I think it's important to give something back and for business people in rural Ireland to help each other," she says.
More businesses means more employment and, she insists, it can help ensure the future of rural Ireland.
It is a sentiment echoed by John Walsh, the managing director of the Irish Country Meats operation at Camolin, Co. Wexford.
For businesses of all sizes to prosper off the beaten track, they are certain variables that are essential for their success, especially when it comes to the recruitment of employees.
"One of the biggest issues for us here at present is the accommodation shortage," he says. "That can be a significant problem when it comes to attracting staff. We need to build enough houses throughout the country."
Walsh is heartened by Project Ireland 2040's commitment to a top-line nationwide broadband network and says major improvements need to arrive sooner rather than later.
"It's a substantial issue at the moment," he says. "I hear staff in the canteen say the broadband isn't great. And that's particularly an issue to the large numbers of staff we have from overseas - it's not good if they can't Skype home to family as easily as they would like. The National Broadband Strategy is key."
North Wexford's proximity to Dublin has helped business in the area, Walsh believes, and he says the development of regional hubs makes sense. "[Developing a hub in Waterford city] will probably have greater impact in New Ross than here, but it's something I'd definitely welcome."
Brexit, he says, has been a topic of conversation among business associates for the past 18 months, and he says as a sheep-meat processor, Irish Country Meats isn't as impacted as beef factories. "Seventy five per cent of what we do is exported," he says, pointing out that little of that is to the UK.
"There's a potential positive in Brexit for us in that the UK is currently the third largest exporter of sheep-meat to the EU and when they depart that situation may well change and there's an opportunity for Irish exporters to exploit that.
"But on the other side, the UK may negotiate a new trade agreement with New Zealand - a huge exporter of sheep-meat - and that could have a knock-on effect."
Like many general managers of major regional companies, John Walsh believes Brexit will have an impact on their business, but it's virtually impossible to predict just how significant it will be. "It's the uncertainty of the uncertainty of Brexit right now."
For more information on Project Ireland 2040 visit the official website