Dundalk has got back its business groove
Initiatives to bring jobs and investment to Dundalk have had some success in recent years
PayPal launch: Louise Phelan, PayPal’s vice president of global operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, shakes hands with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the recent official opening of the International Operations centre of eBay in Dundalk which includes PayPal and eBay. Photograph: Alan Betson
This month’s announcement that PayPal will be creating 400 additional jobs in its Dundalk base illustrates the strides that have been made in a region eager to cast off an image of industrial closures and reinvent itself not only as a home to high-tech but also a welcoming base for start-ups.
Away from the political pomp and ceremony accompanying multinational announcements, however, it has been a long and difficult road to renewal for the town.
Traditionally regarded as the industrial hub of the northeast such was the esteem in which big employers including the Great Northern Brewery and the Ecco electronics factory were held, supporters of the town’s football team still refer to them in their songs.
Across the road from the club grounds at Oriel Park, Clarke Station stands as a lone epitaph to the Great Northern Railway company that had employed an average of 1,000 locals before its closure in the 1950s in an ominous indication of things to come.
As the rising tide of the Celtic tiger years lifted all boats, however temporarily, Dundalk seemed to remain stuck in the mud.
“You had the Troubles in the North, the loss of the shoe, tobacco and drinks industries as well as heavy engineering,” recalls Paddy Malone, a former president of the chamber of commerce and veteran custodian of several businesses in the town. “There was little appetite in the rest of the country for supporting Dundalk and we had to stand by ourselves. It was a difficult time for everybody.”
Successive reports commissioned by the town council and Border, Midland and Western (BMW) regional assembly in 2011 and 2013 painted a bleak picture of Dundalk as one of Ireland’s most deprived areas, with soaring unemployment rates – which peaked at more than 7,500 from a population of 38,000 – during the worst of the decline served only to accentuate the misery.
Given the gloomy backdrop, few could have anticipated the flurry of job announcements from large multinational corporations such as PayPal, eBay, Warner Chilcott and Prometric since 2010 that have reinvigorated the ailing local economy along with creating much-needed employment for the region.
“There’s a herd instinct, and every time that people hear an announcement such as PayPal’s in Dundalk, they start thinking ‘Ireland must be good if they’re investing there’, and by extension ‘Dundalk must be good, so let’s have a look at it’,” says Glen Dimplex founder Martin Naughton, who is originally from the town.
Naughton, who now has an estimated net worth of more than €2 billion, is in no doubt as to what Dundalk’s most attractive attribute is for such organisations: location, location, location.
“If people are finding it difficult to find the space or the right people in Dublin, Dundalk offers a fantastic alternative,” he says. “Dublin airport is now within an hour’s drive. It’s on the east coast and so is close to ports and other vital infrastructure.”
There are huge potential spin-offs for the area in the wake of large-scale job creation from companies such as PayPay, according to Louise Phelan, the vice president of global operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
“PayPal and eBay combined will employ 1,850 people in Dundalk by 2018,” she says. “When you factor in that 0.71 spin-off in-direct jobs are created for every full-time direct job created by a company like PayPal or eBay, 3,163 jobs will be created by us in total in the economy.”
It hasn’t happened by chance, of course. The town has been particularly proactive in chasing foreign direct investment opportunities, which were worth €33 billion to the country last year, as evidenced by the establishment of the pioneering Louth Economic Forum in 2009 which sought to bring local authorities, Government agencies such as the IDA and Enterprise Ireland and business interests together to promote the county as a destination.
A noticeable trend is the decision of tech and software-orientated companies to call Dundalk their home and Prometric’s latest addition of 24 skilled IT jobs at its base there underlines the work being done in the Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) to provide a well-equipped workforce for what Naughton calls “the industries of tomorrow”.
Central to this has been the continued development of software-orientated incubator schemes in DkIT’s Regional Development Centre (RDC).
Celebrating a quarter of a century in existence this year, the development centre proved a visionary step in DkIT’s quest to reinvigorate the region with high-skilled, indigenous industries.
Aidan Browne is Incubation Centre manager at the RDC. As part of his job, he has seen dozens of tech firms flourish having completed the incubation process, many of whom choose to stay in the local area in order to avail of the expertise offered by the institute.
“We have developed lots of programmes that have been funded to help develop local enterprise in the region, not just start-ups but also established companies too,” says Browne. “We’ve seen a lot of people coming through that course who’ve become unemployed – solicitors, engineers, architects.
“The institute has a responsibility to contribute to economic development . . . We cater for any knowledge-intensive enterprise, and we’ve contributed significantly to enterprise in the northeast through doing that.”
A 2011 survey commissioned by the college indicated that it provided nearly 1,300 jobs within the county and that the RDC was responsible for nearly a quarter of those.
The same survey tracked a sample group of 130 companies that had developed in the RDC and went on to create 400 jobs between them, as a proliferation of knowledge-intensive SMEs continues to make an often unheralded contribution to an increasingly buoyant local economy. On the move Four Dundalk start-ups FERGAL CASSIDY Measuresoft Established 1989 “We specialise in real-time information systems. Basically, it’s acquiring information from sensors – ie temperature, pressure etc – in a building or an oilfield rig. We capture that information, record it and generate reports for the user.
“When I was coming back from the UK, the choice was to become a commuter in Dublin or set up on my own. Dundalk overall is a super location because of the border and three airports within 50 miles, plus the DkIT. We have a staff of 10 in Dundalk and within the next month or two we’ll be up to 13, and we’ve another six in Houston Texas. ” DEREK RODDY Climote Established 2010 “Climote is a remote heating control business. If you’re on the way home, you just take out your phone, open up an app and you can boost your heating from your phone.
“We’ve just negotiated our first really big contract with Scottish Power, who are owned by a Spanish utility company that has 32 million customers throughout Europe which is a big, big move for us.
“We have 12 staff at the moment, we’ll probably have another six or eight by the end of the year, and we hope to be growing two- or threefold per annum with probably up to 100 staff in Dundalk in three or four years’ time.” JOHN HAMILL Vennetics Established 2007 “We sell software to broadband providers that allows them to provide video on demand services, such as iTunes and Netflix.
A lot of broadband services are bundled with content, and the software we provide allows them to offer that content.
“We’re up to five full-time employees now, all from DkIT, and it should be seven or eight by the end of the year.
“The first few years were pretty hairy, there were several months where I was thinking that we weren’t going to make payroll for the month, but the grant aid provided by DkIT was absolutely invaluable.” RYAN KEELING Diaceutics Established 2005 “We work with pharmaceutical companies in order to help them develop strategies for their research and development, and commercialisation of new oncology drugs.
“Setting up in the Regional Development Centre was just a really easy way for us to get up and running without the massive costs, and we’ll look to move into our own offices a year or two down the line.
“There’s four guys permanently here along with two or three other guys who work from home, and overall we’ve around 35 people dotted over America and Europe who are close to our clients.”