Leeside high-flier

 

A career in IDA Ireland has led Gerry Wycherley to become one of Cork's success stories although this entrepreneur has gone about his business more quietly than others. It's not that he eschews publicity, more that he doesn't court it until one or other of his projects is up and running.

By far, his biggest undertaking has been the Cork Airport Business Park - an £80 million (#102 million) project which seems set to have a huge impact on the ability of an already vibrant economic region to expand further. The genesis of the project was the belief that in most developed cities with busy airport traffic, an industrial park adjoining the airport together with good hotel facilities on the same site were essential. It was a must if industrialists from abroad, conducting whirlwind tours of plants in various parts of Europe, were to be persuaded that cities like Cork were the place to locate. He travelled to several countries including England and the US to see how similar projects had worked in their cities. He was convinced that Cork could support and accommodate such a concept.

He worked with the IDA from 1970 to 1984, eventually assuming responsibility for the rescue and restructuring of companies in trouble. The first firm he turned around was the Black & Decker plant in Kildare which became a successful enterprise centre using the skill of local employees. This was Wycherley's first venture outside the IDA and his role was more or less that of manager/consultant. By 1989, he had his eye on other possibilities. At that point, the adjoining Ford and Dunlop plants in Cork were lying idle and many hundreds of workers were on the dole. The 25-acre site seemed unlikely to attract new investment - in those years, it was IDA policy to replace one big industry with another one if it could be found. But there were no takers until Gerry Wycherley came along. He conceived the idea of the Marina Commercial Park, offering space to as many small businesses as he could attract on the sprawling 500,000 sq ft site.

He persuaded the financiers that it could be viable and they trusted him. Now, some 120 separate enterprises are operating there and employing 1,500 people. A wasteland has become productive again.

But in the Cork Airport Business Park, Gerry Wycherley and the small team around him took a different approach. The marina project was for small, often traditional businesses, needing relatively modest accommodation at prices that would not break the bank. For the greenfield site at Cork Airport, he saw a different future. And he based his optimism on the fact that University College Cork, the Cork Institute of Technology and the National Micro Electronics Research Centre were flagship educators in a city producing thousands of highly skilled graduates every year in precisely the disciplines required by the new technology industries, including the computer and pharma/chem sectors. Mr Wycherley says he realised some time ago that we were educating the best and the brightest for other countries and the time would come when skill shortages would become an issue. Of course, that debate is raging now and the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, has said recently that the Government's strategy was to attract at least 200,000 young people - Irish and otherwise - back to this economy to help keep the Celtic Tiger purring. For some time, alarm bells have been sounding, he says, to warn that the major players in modern technology will look elsewhere if they perceive that the Republic cannot supply the expertise it needs. There has been evidence of that already.

The Cork Airport project, on a 45-acre site, was started in the belief that knowledge-based companies - growth companies - were the way forward and that if the facilities were in place, the attractiveness of a location could be enhanced. The issue of finding sufficient skilled personnel to take up the lucrative jobs on offer still remains, but if new Government strategies work, this problem will be solved. In the meantime, Mr Wycherley is convinced that centres of excellence in education like Cork remain attractive for industrialists to locate here. If you can add to that infrastructure what they know in other countries and now expect to find here too, the lure becomes even more attractive, he says. For example, a Dublin-based businessman can catch an early flight and be in the Cork Airport Business Park at 8.15 a.m. for a meeting. He can also be back at his desk in Dublin well before noon. Similarly, an executive jetting in from more remote locations will be able to stay overnight in the new Great Southern Hotel now under construction in the park, take early-morning meetings, and fly out again without the need for taxis or car rental. The check-in desk is literally across the road.

Some 15 high-profile companies have located in the park in the past year, taking up 280,000 sq ft. They include a research arm of UCC; Motorola; Analog Devices; Bio-Tech; Hibergen; Citco, the financial services operator which re-located from Dublin, and Warner Lambert. The park is expected to have reached full capacity by the end of the year and there will be at least 30 companies using the high-tech communications and customer-led buildings which are being provided there.

Part of the strategy is to entice companies away from Dublin and to Cork, another is to persuade mobile, growth companies that they can be happy in a city which has become a modern part of the Republic's infrastructure.

Prior to his departure from IDA Ireland, Gerry Wycherley had already seen business opportunities in his native west Cork. In 1978, he began a tourism venture known as Celtic Cottages involving the development of 50 holiday cottages in Rosscarbery and Schull. Three years ago, he developed the 67-bed Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery with its own leisure centre. It was, he claims, the first new hotel built in west Cork in 28 years.

Wycherley says he loves the cut and thrust of business and is enthused by the fact that the Cork Airport Business Park was a high-risk, high-flier notion that he took to the banks, notably, ICC and Bank of Ireland, who bought it from day one. He knew even before a drawing was put on paper, that the scheme would never work if quality hotel accommodation weren't available nearby.

His plan was to make a new hotel part of the Cork Airport project. He didn't have to. Great Southern Hotels are doing it anyway. Some people get the breaks.