Ciara Kenny

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

Leaving for the lifestyle, staying for business

WILD GEESE: Andrew Woods, Silvertree Properties, Cape Town: The recession meant there was no better time to leave Ireland and one Dubliner has found his feet in property in South Africa

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00



WILD GEESE: Andrew Woods, Silvertree Properties, Cape Town: The recession meant there was no better time to leave Ireland and one Dubliner has found his feet in property in South Africa

Andrew Woods: "Listen, we haven't put all our eggs in the one basket down here . . . But I see real opportunities here in different sectors"

WHEN THE phone stopped ringing at Andrew Woods’s Dublin-based management consultancy firm in 2008, the former hotelier and his wife, Jackie Howell, decided to seek out new opportunities abroad rather than face into a recession at home.

Having liked what they found during a number of visits to South Africa over the past decade, the Malahide couple decided to relocate to Cape Town, which offers a lifestyle they were keen to experience on a more permanent basis.

“There was no better time to leave Ireland, and we had nothing to lose really as we have no children to worry about,” he says as we chat in a city centre bar.

“We came here for the lifestyle rather than to make a fortune, but once we got here we had to work out how to make a living. This can be difficult because career opportunities are not easy to come by in South Africa if you are not a resident. So with an entrepreneurial spirit and some money to invest I set about investigating the various business sectors to see what was going on, and thankfully I found there are plenty of opportunities here,” he recalled.

Throughout the 1990s, Woods (52) worked in the Caribbean and Britain, opening hotels for different resort groups. He later moved back to Ireland where he established a business in Swords that focused on retail management consultancy and training.

After a few months travelling back and forth to Cape Town from Dublin in 2008, he met a local estate agent, Carl Witten, who was working for one of the larger property agencies in the city. Witten wanted to start up a business of his own, but did not have the necessary seed capital to get it off the ground. After formulating a business plan the pair set up Silvertree Properties, a real estate agency in Milnerton, one of Cape Town’s northern suburbs.

“My wife and I then moved here in 2009. I had no real experience of the local property industry, but I brought project management experience, money to invest in the enterprise and international contacts for the promotion of property investment to overseas clients.

“My partner has the local contacts and experience, so between us we make a good team,” he explained.

In terms of adapting to the South African business environment, Woods says South Africa is fairly easy to get to grips with, given the country’s British influence, which means most people speak English. Cape Town’s culture is similar to the ones found around the Mediterranean.

“The legal and banking systems are similar, but here they are quiet strict when it comes to ensuring people don’t cut corners or overexpose themselves to massive debt when it comes to securing house loans. When you look at how a lenient banking system adversely affected Ireland, you get to appreciate their approach.

“The only real downside I find with business practices in Cape Town is people have this incredibly annoying habit of not writing information down, which inevitably leads to people forgetting things and procedures going wrong,” he said.

That aside though, Woods believes that if you have some money to invest and are keen to branch out beyond Irish shores, there are a lot of hidden opportunities in South Africa.

“Listen, we haven’t put all our eggs in the one basket down here. We still have properties and other interests elsewhere, as you never know what will happen in Africa. But I see real opportunities here in different sectors.

“The property market in South Africa has withstood the global economic recession remarkably well when compared to the sector in other less fortunate countries, like Ireland.

“And there are also opportunities in the retail banking sector, which includes access to a large number of unbanked individuals in need of well designed, cost-effective products,” he said.

However, for people looking to build a career in a large company, the situation in South Africa is less accommodating, believes Woods.

“Unless you can get an intra-company transfer it would be very difficult to just travel to South Africa and get a good job. There is very high unemployment here so jobs are kept for the locals unless you are offering exceptional skills that they need.

“But if you want to build your own business in South Africa, and you are creating employment for people and contribute to the economy, then the situation is very different. South Africa wants this kind of immigrant,” he concludes.