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Ready for a new world: How Irish businesses are adapting and surviving

Enterprise Ireland’s International Markets Week went online – and was a huge success

Julie Sinnamon, CEO of Enterprise Ireland, at the launch of International Markets Week, which saw more than 700 taking part in 2,000 virtual meetings to  plan their Covid-19, Brexit and market diversification strategies. Photograph: Maxwells

Julie Sinnamon, CEO of Enterprise Ireland, at the launch of International Markets Week, which saw more than 700 taking part in 2,000 virtual meetings to plan their Covid-19, Brexit and market diversification strategies. Photograph: Maxwells

 

Forced to shift to an online format by Covid-19, Enterprise Ireland’s International Markets Week flagship event has succeeded beyond all expectations. During the event, which ran from October 5th to 10th, 720 Irish companies participated in more than 2,000 meetings with Enterprise Ireland advisors from its network of 40 offices around the globe.

“The response from companies was phenomenal,” says Tom Cusack, Enterprise Ireland’s divisional manager for international sales and partnering. “It was great to see companies stepping up like that. More than 1,700 companies tuned in for the launch event. We would normally have had 300 clients in the RDS. Going forward we will look at organising it as a hybrid, blended event. We’ve all learned a lot from it. All the meetings were held online, with companies showing an insatiable appetite for growth and information on what’s happening on the ground in their key markets.”

The meetings provide an opportunity for companies to set goals for the years ahead and agree action plans to achieve them with the Enterprise Ireland advisors.

“The company gives us their agenda in advance and our team does some preparatory work on that. Actions are agreed during the meeting and we go to work on them afterwards. It’s a really well-oiled machine at this point.”

This was just the latest piece of Enterprise Ireland activity to move online. “We have 200 staff working in 40 offices around the globe and they all had to go virtual from early March,” Cusack explains. “As our staff went remote, demand from clients increased. We moved everything online. Buyer events and interactions went online. We moved to webinars and e-zines for our clients to give them information on what’s happening on the ground sector by sector and region by region, often on a weekly basis.”

A lot of confidential information is shared between clients and advisors, so we needed a very secure platform

Travel restrictions prevented Irish companies from visiting overseas customers and potential customers. “Our people on the ground helped with that,” Cusack adds. “We made sure Ireland maintained a level of presence and visibility in overseas markets. We upped our digital marketing activity through the Irish Advantage campaign in key markets.”

‘Panel discussion’

Trade missions went virtual as well. “We typically do a trade mission led by a minister or senior official every week. We moved them online, and last week 20 cybersecurity companies met with 25 senior US executives and held a panel discussion which was tuned into by more than 300 senior executives from around the US.”

Planning for the virtual International Markets Week began four months ago. “We were still hoping at that stage that we could have a live event, but we had to make decision to go online. It was a mammoth task. We started searching for a platform to enable us to do the face-to-face meetings online. A lot of confidential information is shared between clients and advisors, so we needed a very secure platform. We selected the b2match platform which is already used by the EU. It worked incredibly well.”

Indeed, it brought additional benefits. “Companies were able to invite their overseas reps to the meetings. That meant we could have company representatives from Ireland and overseas meeting with Irish and overseas-based Enterprise Ireland advisors. That wouldn’t really have been possible at the live events. In a lot of cases, the quality of the interaction has actually been strengthened.”

Speaking at the International Markets Week launch event, Minster for State for Employment Affairs and Retail Businesses Damien English acknowledged the challenges facing businesses at the moment.

“Some companies and sectors are struggling more than others, and they will be targeted for supports in the five-year economic recovery plan to be announced in November,” he said.

Prepared

Turning to Brexit, English said the majority of companies have prepared for Brexit as best they can. “Some have not, and they should use the remaining time to get ready,” he added. “They should engage with Enterprise Ireland and ask for help while there is still time.”

Also speaking at the launch event, Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon said Irish companies were fortunate to have entered into 2020 and the Covid-19 crisis in such a strong position.

We want to change the mindset for Irish companies to see the euro zone as an extension of the domestic market

“We are now in the final year of our five-year strategy. By the beginning of the year Enterprise Ireland had created 55,000 new jobs, ahead of schedule to reach the target of 60,000. Exports were €25.6 billion, also ahead of the overall target of €26 billion. Spending in the economy had reached €29.3 billion, far in excess of the €27 billion target. R&D spending was €1.1 billion, a bit behind the €1.25 billion objective, and we still face some challenges there. These firms are creating wealth and prosperity around the country.”

Export performance was also very strong in 2019. “Exports were up 8 per cent overall,” she said. “That was a very good performance. The UK market was up 2 per cent. A particular focus of ours in recent years has been the euro zone, and that was up 15 per cent in 2019. It is now our number two export market and we want to change the mindset for Irish companies to see the euro zone as an extension of the domestic market.”

On Covid-19, she pointed to two specific supports introduced by Enterprise Ireland earlier in the year.

“The Business Financial Planning Grant offers companies up to €5,000 to pay 100 per cent of the cost of putting together a financial plan. More than 800 firms have availed of it since April.”

Repayable

The Sustaining Enterprise Fund offers up to €800,000 in a mix of repayable finance and non-repayable grants to fund the implementation of their financial plans. The grant element is a recent addition to the scheme.

“The feedback from clients was that they didn’t want to take on a lot more debt,” Sinnamon explained. “We introduced the non-repayable grant element of up to 50 per cent of the advance subject to a maximum of €200,000. We’ve been able to do that as a result of the relaxed state aid guidelines which expire in December, so companies should apply as soon as possible for this valuable support.”

One company to benefit from the fund is Connemara Marble.

“Sustaining Enterprise Fund support has meant we can sustain our business, stay afloat and stay in the game until the recovery comes,” said managing director Stephen Walsh.

Other contributors to the launch event included Nicola Mitchell, CEO of Life Scientific, Tim Houstoun, CEO of Global Shares, Kevin Brennan, CEO of Modubuild, and John Power, CEO of Aerogen, who spoke of the role innovation has played in their companies’ success over the years.

“Our client survey shows that while many companies are being impacted by the dual challenge of Covid-19 and Brexit, their main strategies to mitigate the impact include moving to virtual selling, enhanced digital customer engagement and diversification,” said Enterprise Ireland head of communications and marketing Conor O’Donovan.

The Irish Advantage campaign is a global digital shop window for Irish innovation

“Enterprise Ireland has also enhanced its digital engagement with clients through a range of new market and sectoral intelligence communications, and our international digital platform IrishAdvantage.com, which showcases Irish sectoral innovation to buyers across 40 markets 24/7. Our new ‘Ready for a New World’ international digital marketing campaign, launching this week, is about ensuring that global buyers are engaged and aware of the innovation, reliability and resilience across a range of Irish sectors including digital construction, life sciences, agritech, cybersecurity and fintech, and are made aware of the advantages of sourcing from Ireland, especially during Covid-19 and Brexit, which we call the Irish Advantage.”

Innovation and market diversification will be critical to Irish companies’ success in meeting the challenges presented by Brexit and Covid-19, according to Sinnamon. “The Irish Advantage campaign is a global digital shop window for Irish innovation,” she said. “It is showcasing Irish businesses around the world and supporting them as they diversify into new markets. We are also supporting client companies as they innovate to adopt new digital sales methods. More than 1,000 companies have participated in sectoral webinars, over 2 million buyers around the world have been reached by our digital communications while hundreds of business owners have taken part in virtual sale masterclasses.

“This is the most important International Markets Week we have ever had and it is marvellous to see so many companies participating.”