Ciara Kenny

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

Emigrant entrepreneurs: the secrets of their success

Four Irish business people attending the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle today and tomorrow share their tips for success overseas

Fred Combe: 'The culture in Asia is much different to Ireland and it can take time to adjust.'

Fri, Oct 4, 2013, 00:01


Ciara Kenny

‘Go with an open mind, embrace the culture’: Paul Scales, managing director of Pacific Investments Ltd and chairman of the Irish-Thai Chamber of Commerce and a director of the Thai Board of Trade

Thirty years ago this week, I arrived in Hong Kong. I wasn’t looking to emigrate when I was offered a transfer, but the 1980s were quite tough in Ireland and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to advance in a large organisation like Jones Lang Wootton, where I had been working.

In those days, when you emigrated it felt like you would never be back. Going to Asia was a big step, not having been there before. Entering the office for the first time and seeing 98 per cent of the staff were Chinese was quite a culture shock.

But it was also a huge opportunity. I spent seven years there and became a partner when I was 30. I moved to Bangkok in 1989 to open an office, which had become the largest property firm in the city by the time I left in 1996 to start my own business, Pacific Investments, developing real estate for international companies.

I feel passionate about remaining involved with Ireland. I run the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, was one of the founding partners of the Asia-Pacific Irish Business Forum, and am the first Irish person to hold a directorship on the Thai Board of Trade. Having access to Thai government officials is a great opportunity to showcase Irish business.

The younger Irish population here is growing, especially in areas like teaching. Some Irish-run SMEs are also employing young Irish. But Thailand is not the easiest place to come to work: there are permit restrictions in most industries outside education.

Asia has huge potential for young people, especially Singapore, which can act as a gateway to work in other Asian countries. The most important thing is to go with an open mind and embrace the culture, because the best part of living somewhere else is the life experience. I come back regularly, and almost feel like I live in Thailand and Ireland. That’s the benefit of modern aviation. It is very different to 30 years ago, when you felt you were going down a dark hole, never to return.

‘Don’t come to a place like this because you have no other options’: Avril Conroy, director of regional sales for Rosneft Russia and president of the Irish Club in Moscow

After 10 years working in management for Dunnes Stores and Heatons, I got an opportunity to go to Moscow in 1994, working with a company importing footwear into Russia. I worked with a lot of other Irish, which was great craic, but I wanted something different, so I quit to set up my own supermarket with Nesco on the outskirts of the city.

I’ve taken on numerous roles since then, mostly in the oil industry for TNK-BP, which was bought over by Rosneft – the largest oil company in the world – this year. I’ve been a general director of retail, a brand and marketing director and a HR director, and am now director for regional sales, overseeing 54 regions, 2,400 retail sites and 180 fuel terminals across Russia.

Russia has a growing economy, and there is a talent gap, which provides great opportunities for young people. In Ireland, as in any developed country in Europe, you could sit in a role for many years before you are promoted. Here, if you have the drive and the ability to work, you will move upwards very fast.

If the job offers what you want and you believe it will forward your career, I would say: seize the opportunity. But don’t just make the decision to come to a place like this because you have no other options. Russia is not an easy country to live in, and if you don’t have the language it is very difficult. Seasoned professionals headhunted to come here will be able to get by without the language, but for young people arriving over with little experience, having it will be a prerequisite.

I would also advise new arrivals to reach out to the Irish Embassy. In places like Russia, the embassies will invite you to events and introduce you to people, which can help you to make friends and business connections. Irish social and business networks or clubs will also be helpful. You might be a young graduate just out of college and there will be an age gap between you and other members, but you should never be afraid to reach out. We all remember what it is like to arrive in a new place alone, and are willing to help.

‘There is a community of Irish business people willing to help’: Fred Combe is managing director of NATUS Pte Ltd in Singapore and chairman of the Farmleigh Fellowship

I met my future wife while on an export marketing programme the Irish government was running in the 1980s through the Irish Institute for European Affairs in Belgium. Irish companies sposored us to undertake research on business in Europe. It was a life-changing experience for me.

We have been living overseas for the past 25 years, 22 in Asia. My daughter was born in Singapore, my son in Venezuela. We are your classic global family, but still have a very strong connection to Ireland.

I was employed by British American Tobacco in the late 1980s, and moved up in the organisation to become regional director for southeast Asia in 2003. I was based mostly in Singapore, but worked also in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

Seven years ago I set up my own business, and now I am a consultant, entrepreneur and investor in start-up companies in southeast Asia and China, some with an Irish connection.

I came up with the idea for the Farmleigh Fellowship as a way to strengthen Ireland’s ties with Asia by developing a network of young Irish professionals there. I connected University College Cork with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, to start an MBA with a strong Asian twist. Over the past three years, 65 young Irish people have moved out there through the programme.

Asia is not a destination many young people would think of moving to. When they get here, they are often surprised to see how modern it is, and that there is a tightly knit community of Irish business people and families willing to help them.

The culture in Asia is much different to Ireland and it can take time to adjust. You have to respect their way of doing things, while also bringing your own professional experience to the table. But there are great opportunities here for ambitious young people.

Living a nomadic life like I have can create a sense of rootlessness, a homesickness for the country you come from, but overall it has been a very positive experience for me, especially professionally.

‘Do your research, roll up your sleeves and work hard’: Francis Grogan, chief executive of Zambeef in Zambia, and nominee for the Southern African Entrepreneur of the Year 2013

In 1991 I spotted an ad in the paper looking for a meat-factory manager for Zambia. I sent off a CV and got the job.

The set-up there was primitive when I arrived, but I could see great potential. By 1994, myself and my Zambian employer’s son had taken over the business and set up Zambeef. We went from 60 employees in 1991 to 5,500 now, with an annual turnover of $225 million.

We buy the cattle, fatten them, slaughter, package and retail ourselves. There were very few people we felt we could depend on at the beginning so we decided to do it all ourselves.

We started off with beef, followed by pork, dairy and poultry. There is much more competition now, but we have diversified into crops.

You have to be passionate about something to make a success of it, and I was passionate about this business and still am. There are great opportunities out there all over the world just waiting to be grabbed.

But you have to do your research properly and be prepared to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Do things properly and professionally, give it your all, and you will succeed.

I’ve never said I am in Zambia to stay, but I do really like it there. It has huge business opportunities, a beautiful climate and scenery, very nice people, and it is safe. People think of Africa and think of wars and famine, but it is not like that at all. It is a very secure and peaceful place.