Last week, entrepreneurs from 47 countries gathered in Monte Carlo to vie for the honour of Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Over four days, they were lauded for their achievements in establishing businesses that employ an aggregate 204,000 people and generate a combined $40 billion in revenues.
Many of these people have genuinely changed lives. Ugandan finalist Emmanuel Katongole has a company involved in the treatment of HIV/Aids and malaria – the country’s two biggest killer diseases.
Switzerland’s Riccardo Braglia runs a company called Helsinn Holding, which is involved in products to control the awful side-effects patients endure from cancer treatments. Much of this work is conducted from its facilities in Mulhuddart in Dublin.
Austria’s Guger Technologies is involved in “brain-computer interface” systems, which have allowed paralysed people to communicate via Twitter by using their brain signals.
It’s amazing stuff, although it would be naive not to recognise that they are also motivated by making money.
Ireland's finalist in Monaco is a good example of an entrepreneur. Edmond Harty runs a family-owned business called Dairymaster in Causeway, Co Kerry. Dairymaster makes some of the most modern milking machines available, using software and techniques developed locally. Harty claims his machines milk cows more quickly than rival products do and are designed in such a way that they minimise the risk of udder infection, which is common.
Causeway is a small village near Tralee in a remote part of the country with a population of about 600. Dairymaster employs 300 staff. While some commute from neighbouring areas, a huge number of staff are locals.
Dairymaster is an unlimited company, so we don’t know how much revenue or profit it makes, but we do know that 75 per cent of its turnover is generated from exports, of which Germany and Russia are key markets. It’s impact on the local area is enormous.
In Ireland now, much of the focus of our recovery efforts is on attracting foreign direct investment. Yet it’s clear that we need to generate a lot of jobs locally if we are to reduce our 13.7 per cent unemployment in a meaningful way. As part of its Action Plan for Jobs initiative, the Government last month initiated a consultation process towards framing a national entrepreneurship policy.
Governments don't create jobs, a point acknowledged by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton when launching the policy. However, they can create an environment that is supportive to entrepreneurs as they seek to build their businesses.
Our 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate is a good example of this. Seed funding for new start-ups from agencies such as Enterprise Ireland is another.
In its submission to Government, accountants Ernst & Young, which has made the entrepreneur space almost its own over the past 15 years or so, has advocated that more education and training be targeted at students from primary school upwards. Harty designed his first circuit board at 10 and was a category winner in the Young Scientist awards in 1990.
Ernst & Young also advocates that the Government do more to enhance access to funding, both for fledgling businesses and for existing SMEs. Its recommendations include further credit guarantee systems and banking sector support, and for the Government to simplify registration and taxation procedures.
Ernst & Young has 310 alumni in its extensive Entrepreneur of the Year programme. Frank O’Keeffe, the partner in charge of this, told me last week that these businesses generate €15 billion in combined turnover and employ 145,000 people between them. Last year alone, they created 12,600 new jobs.
These are impressive figures. However, it seems that Irish people are less entrepreneurial than their counterparts overseas.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor of 2011 found that 8.5 per cent of people in Ireland aspired to be an entrepreneur, down from a high of 12.5 per cent in 2005. The OECD average in 2011 was 15.1 per cent, 15.3 per cent in the EU and 16.5 per cent in the US.
Maybe we’re just not as entrepreneurial as we like to think. Or maybe the economic crash simply knocked the stuffing out of a lot of people and they’re still struggling to stand up straight. Either way, something needs to be done to address the issue quickly if this country is ever to get back on its feet economically.