Irish companies expanding horizons in Far East

Financial crisis and impending Brexit pushes firms to seize opportunities in Asia

Singapore’s tallest building, the Tanjong Pagar Centre, towers over the Central Business District, elegantly illuminated by its reduced-energy usage lighting system created by the Dublin-headquartered Cylon Controls.

Developer Guocoland enthuses about how "the brains of this building are Irish" and the numerous opportunities for Ireland in Singapore. Increasingly the deals are matching the enthusiasm. Last year, the State's exports rose 16 per cent to the region to €1.82 billion.

Over in Mandai, Cavan-based insulation maker Kingspan is completing Singapore's first three-dimensional roof, an eagle-shaped structure that will sit atop a new wildlife zone.

The talk of the town in the ultra-hip Keong Saik dining area is Butcher Boy, the latest eatery by Mayo-born chef Andrew Walsh, who became a mainstay on the culinary scene with his first solo outing in Singapore, the highly popular Cure.


“People love food in this region and I feel the pace of growth is immense,” says Walsh.

“Investors and entrepreneurs are generally more open than in Europe, and not afraid to take risks if they believe in the idea or the talent behind it. I’m very humbled to be a young Irish chef with two beautiful, successful restaurants, achieved within five years. I’m even more excited by the future and what it holds.”

Home to two of the world's three largest economies in China and Japan, Asia-Pacific is expected to make up 60 per cent of the world's middle class in the next decade. This is the potential that led to Minister for Enterprise Frances Fitzgerald heading up a trade mission of 60 Irish companies to the region this week.

At an Irish business lunch in the Fullerton Hotel, the Minister took to the stage accompanied by Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon and IDA Ireland's head of growth markets Eileen Sharpe. The sight of these three influential women made a strong impression on the overwhelmingly male audience.

There are massive opportunities for Irish companies, especially in a post-Brexit world, a fact underlined repeatedly by the Minister.

“The time is right for a whole variety of reasons, not least the post-Brexit environment,” she said. “Diversification is something companies will want to do and need to do. The focus has really come on to this area [Asia] in the past number of years but you see the investment going from zero to 20 per cent in a number of years.”

The Minister suggested Singapore could be a gateway to Asia in the same way that the Republic is to Europe for many US and Asian businesses.

Well established

Irish firms such as PM Group and CRH are well established in Singapore but opportunities exist across a range of industries, including aviation and aerospace, digital technologies, medical technology, education, healthcare, construction and engineering, electronics, financial services and agritech.

“Companies coming out say the big challenge in going into new markets is cost, market information and language,” said Sinnamon. “We don’t have the language issue here in Singapore, cost we [Enterprise Ireland] can support you with and information is what Enterprise Ireland and the network of contacts can help you with.”

“We have 600 [Irish] companies active at present in Asia-Pacific, and 300 of those are in this region specifically [southeast Asia],” she said, “so what we’re seeing is growing success and a better fit between us knowing what the opportunities are.

“We’ve set a target to grow exports outside of the UK by 50 per cent by 2020. Exports into Asia-Pacific last year grew by 16 per cent, into Singapore by 12 per cent, so we are really keen to keep that momentum going.”

Local agencies such as the Green Building Council are keen to meet more Irish companies in the energy efficiency industry.

Colin MacDonald, chief executive of Fine Grain Property and founder of the Irish Chamber in Singapore, has noticed a strong increase in the levels of trade and investment between the two countries in the past five years, in both directions.

“Asian real estate investors tend to take a longer-term view of investments in property and Fine Grain is not alone among established Singaporean property companies who have chosen to invest in the Irish growth story,” says MacDonald. Fine Grain has a team in Ireland providing work spaces for employers in Galway, Dublin and the midlands.

He believes the similarities between Singapore and Ireland as destinations for foreign direct investment mean there are opportunities for Irish companies, especially those with strong relationships with multinationals, and also for Singaporean businesses that want to establish a foothold in Europe.

The Asia-Pacific market is dominated by China, and it is notable how many Irish companies use Singapore and Hong Kong as a way into that market.

Among them is Aero Inspection, whose main business is as an independent surveyor doing technical management for the return-off-lease phase, inspecting engines, airframes, technical auditing and some design modifications.

"We use Singapore as a platform to operate into all of China," says Peter Bagnell, managing director for Asia. "China is our main market but we are operating in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. And in China, we are operating in Chengdu, Xiamen, Jinan, Urumqi, Shanghai and Hong Kong and Taipei."

Clients include Bank of China, Boeing Capital Corporation, China Development Bank and Aercap.

Bagnell came out to Singapore in 2015 to set up a local office with a team of local engineers. This initially meant a representative office, which does not allow a company to trade but does allow for market research. It grew it into a private limited company after 10 months.

“If you’ve a market in Asia for what you do, for SMEs especially, I’d highly recommend it out here. While the infrastructure can be based in Ireland, it’s very easy to mirror what you have out here. Singapore especially is very business friendly,” says Bagnell.

‘Air-conditioned nation’

The island state is known as the "air-conditioned nation", but the chill of the cold-storage warehouse operated by Sinwa Global is still a shock after the heat outside. Monaghan-based Combilift has signed a deal with Paves Asia Pacific for its multi-directional forklift and there is a demonstration of how the space-saving technology works for loading pallets in a new facility belonging to Sinwa.

The company, which reported turnover of €200 million last year and exports 98 per cent of its products, is well established in markets such as the US and keen to establish a greater presence in Asia-Pacific.

The region still accounts only for a small percentage of overall turnover but Combilift's Philip Condell anticipates strong growth. The group aims to have bases in every major industrial city around southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The pace of expansion in Singapore is furious. The country is putting the finishing touches to Jewel Changi Airport, which is due to open in 2019, and is starting to plan a new Terminal Five. It is expected to open towards the end of the next decade and will be bigger than the existing three terminals put together.

Against the backdrop of this kind of expansion, insulation specialist Kingspan has opened new offices and is already expecting its sales to double to €20 million next year.

"We are looking at Vietnam and Bangkok and the next stage is the new terminal at Changi," says Kingspan's southeast Asia general manager Chong Park Cheong. "Singapore is always looking for the best and upgrading and, when they are upgrading, they use our products, which is good for us," says Cheong.

Manuel Furer, Kingspan's regional managing director, believes expansion for the company will be first and foremost in Asia-Pacific. The flurry of infrastructure building in Asia means the continent provides even more potential than Europe.

“Markets are changing. People are more concerned about the greenness of the building, the speed of build. People move to more productivity in the construction sector and quality of materials, with more prefabricated materials. All that leads to growth for us,” he says.

He recommends that smaller Irish companies looking to come into Asia need to be selective about where they want to be in terms of geography, market products and segments.

“It’s not that people here are waiting for brands to arrive. What people want are real solutions and real value-added,” says Furer.

“And have patience. Mr Cheong here has built his business over the past three years. It takes time. And having one representation in Asia is important.”

When the global economic crisis hit, construction consultants Linesight, formerly known as Bruce Shaw – the firm behind most of the office blocks in the International Financial Services Centre – had to look overseas for growth.

"Everything fell dramatically and quickly, so we started to look overseas. We set up in the Middle East, then, in 2010, I set up in Sydney initially, then in 2013 we set up in Singapore for our international clients," says Linesight's Asia-Pacific head John Butler.

“We shocked ourselves. Eighty or 90 per cent of our business was Ireland and the UK and because [the economic crisis] hit us so hard we said that will never happen again. The idea was to get that business to 30 or 40 per cent and we are very close to that,” says Butler.

From a standing start, Asia now accounts for about 5-10 per cent of Linesight’s business.

“We follow clients’ needs, they asked to be supported in Asia and we said yes. We decided to set up our Asia headquarters in Singapore, following the same clients. We are now going to move into a full set-up in Shanghai and probably Japan,” says Butler.

“China will account for 25 per cent of all construction spend by 2030.

“So if you’re not part of that, if you’re not even a fraction of that, you’ve probably missed a trick somewhere along the road. A lot of people don’t understand the size, the population, the demographics in the region.”

He understands concerns about Asia being a long way away but says new developments such as the Cathay Pacific direct flight to Hong Kong and the expected direct flight to Beijing coming soon, will make life easier.

“A lot of very successful Irish firms have set up in Asia. And it’s a great revenue stream. A lot of clients are asking if we can help in other countries. If you don’t have a geographic footprint, you can lose business. And at the end of the day it makes money. It’s about making that leap of faith and saying ‘let’s go’.”