Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Eastern promise pays dividends

WILD GEESE: Matthew Connolly, MD of Eire Systems in Japan, an IT company started by two Irishmen which employs a new generation of graduate emigrants.

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00



WILD GEESE: Matthew Connolly, MD, Eire Systems, Japan

Matthew Connolly: 'If you're a foreign firm with a good product, Japan will love you.'

A TOKYO-BASED IT company started by two Irishmen employs a new generation of graduate emigrants. Like many from the generation that left Ireland around 1990, Matthew Connolly recalls life then being much tougher than it is today.

“There was no work in Ireland,” says the Dublin native, who graduated from the Institute of Technology on Kevin Street. “I was in a class of 60 electronic engineers and I think that about 55 of them emigrated.”

He still keeps in touch with friends from that class of 1990, now dispersed in Germany, California and Australia.

Connolly dipped his toes in London before arriving in Tokyo as part of the Fás scheme. He worked for camera-maker Minolta as a research engineer and software developer, then for a bank, while carefully testing the local business waters with partner and fellow Kevin Street graduate Paul Timmons.

“We were both working full-time and doing other evening and weekend work, seeing if there was a market for our work,” recalls Connolly. “We would be working late in the evening and early in the morning before our main jobs. Our clients were happy with what we did, but they were saying: ‘We can’t give you any more work unless you dedicate more time to us.’ So we made a decision to set up our own company.”

Eire Systems was born. Seventeen years later, the IT infrastructure services support firm employs 100 full-time staff in Tokyo and another 50 in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. Connolly’s start-up has thrived despite being a product of the so-called lost decades in Japan, the post-boom era of deflation and sluggish economic growth.

The recipe for success was a careful, frugal approach to business, says Connolly. “We grew organically, with no external investment; so no debts and slow, steady growth with all profits reinvested.”

Eire Systems serves mainly multinational clients, providing IT support, including building data centres and deploying the latest software. Much of its work for the past 16 months has been helping clients relocate offices or set up business recovery plans following last year’s earthquake/tsunami disaster.

“Our value is our Western mindset combined with the ability to deliver services and solutions locally. So most of our clients are multinationals from the financial, technology and pharmaceutical sectors, or Japanese firms that want to operate in a multinational environment.”

The firm employs about 15 Irish nationals and recruits a graduate every year directly from Ireland. “We have always found Irish graduates to be very good, level-headed people, both from a technical and communication perspective. And we can offer them good opportunities here.”

Connolly rejects the common view that Japan is reluctant to embrace foreign firms and products. “Well, we’re a services company and there are so many big Japanese companies that do what we do, so it’s a bit different. But if you’re a foreign firm with a good product, Japan will love you.”

He has spent so long in Japan that his approach to business is now closer to his hosts than the country he left 22 years ago, he says. “There’s a lot of planning, attention to detail and care about quality in Japan. There is none of this, ‘It’s okay’ or ‘It’ll do’. The job has got to be perfect. We drum that through our people so that’s probably one of the reasons why we get a lot of repeat business.”

But some of the firm’s corporate culture is imported. “Japanese guys used to hang around the office till late at night working overtime. We bring the eight-hour day to Japan. We believe in being efficient in your job. Work hard then split. There’s no point hanging around if there’s nothing to be done.”

That helps make his company a “little more efficient” than Japanese firms on the time side.

“Japanese firms sometimes say it will take a lot of time to complete something. But at least you know it will be completed by that time and it will be done properly. That is something unique between Japan and other Asian countries.”

After 16 years running his own business, Connolly cannot see himself returning to Ireland to work for someone else. He is married to a Japanese woman, has two daughters and has put down deep roots in Tokyo. “I’m not rushing to leave Japan.”

Despite the gloomy forecast for the global economy in 2012, he says Irish emigrants should think positive. “I think people with skills will find jobs anywhere, especially in big countries. I mean, Japan is still a huge country – it has only recently fallen to the third-largest economy in the world.

“The concern I have about Irish graduates at the moment is that they have only seen the good times. It is only in the last year or so that they have grasped they are not owed anything. They see their friends and family experiencing tough times. Prior to the Celtic Tiger there were plenty of tough times. It is just that there was a 10-year period when things were booming from the late 1990s.”

Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appears in the newspaper today, and in the Business section of the website here.