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Plotting a sustainable growth path for Irish enterprise

Business leaders gathered at the Enterprise Ireland Summit last week to discuss the need for Irish businesses to grow sustainably in order to compete successfully in global markets

To mark the 25th anniversary of its creation as an agency in its current form, Enterprise Ireland hosted a four-day series of events in the RDS in Dublin to celebrate the success and growth of Irish enterprise over the period as well as to look ahead to what the next 25 years might hold.

During the week, hundreds of Ireland’s most successful businesspeople, start-up founders and other stakeholders in Ireland’s enterprise community gathered to discuss a range of topics affecting Irish enterprise and hear from a stellar line-up of speakers including Jamie Heaslip, Irish growth lead with Stripe; Kerry Group CEO Edmond Scanlon; Prof Philip R. Lane of the European Central Bank; Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist; Dr Andreas Mershin, MIT; Patricia Scanlon of Soapbox Labs; Prof Sinead O’Sullivan of Harvard Business School; Bianca Wong of Kingspan; Laura Costello, Strategy Director, Purpose and Planet, THINKHOUSE and Diageo Ireland’s Managing Director Barry O’Sullivan.

The Enterprise Ireland Summit culminated on Friday, April 21st, with the Business Leaders Conference which focused on the need for Irish businesses to grow sustainably in order to compete successfully in global markets.

Speaking at the opening session of the conference, Enterprise Ireland CEO Leo Clancy looked back on some of the achievements of Irish enterprise over the past 25 years. In 1998, Enterprise Ireland client firms had total sales of €21.8 billion; exports of €8.5 billion; and employed 130,000 people. By 2022, sales had almost trebled to €62 billion, exports had grown almost fourfold to €32 billion, while direct employment had exceeded 218,000 employed with around the same number employed indirectly.


“As the economist Tyler Cowen outlines in his book Stubborn Attachments, sustained and sustainable economic growth as a key priority in our futures and a driver of, not a threat to, sustaining our planet,” Clancy said. “This is what Enterprise Ireland is all about. Our core purpose at Enterprise Ireland is to support the creation of jobs and economic opportunity for the people of Ireland and, increasingly, to do so sustainably.

“Our client companies create jobs for real people and help drive the economy forward. We are supporting these brave and ambitious companies located across the length and breadth of Ireland as they continue on their growth journeys.”

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney addressed the need for government and agency interventions to assist business to take advantage of the opportunities of the twin transitions of digital and green.

“Climate adaptation and mitigation brings opportunities for our SME sector through leveraging our green transition as a core element of our proposition to overseas investors,” he said. “This in turn will help to strengthen the linkages between our foreign-owned and local firms, including High Potential Start Ups, where we can help to embed these businesses in FDI value chains, further strengthening our domestic economy.

“Climate action should not be seen as a burden for businesses, but rather an opportunity to be seized,” he continued. “In this period of transition and transformation, we can rely on our agencies to encourage the early movers to gain competitive advantage.”

European Commissioner for financial services, financial stability and Capital Markets Union Mairead McGuinness pointed to the need to provide Irish businesses with greater access to capital. “The US has four times as many scale-up companies as Europe and venture capital availability is four to five times greater,” she noted. “Too many Irish companies have to move overseas to scale up. That’s a trend we have to reverse. One of the aims Capital Markets Union is to allow companies based in Europe have easier access to the capital they need to scale in Europe.”

Minister of State at the Department of Finance for Financial Services, Insurance and Credit Unions Dr Jennifer Carroll MacNeill also addressed the event, and said that sustainable finance, especially for companies in transition to a green model, is central to the future growth of Irish companies.

The conference heard from a number of business leaders with direct experience of the global scaling journey. Dr Steve Cutler, CEO of clinical trials specialist Icon, pointed out that it would not have been possible for the company to have played a pivotal role in the delivery of the Pfizer Covid vaccine if it didn’t have global scale.

“You need to have a presence in all the key markets and our founders recognised that very early on,” he explained. “Our customers expect us to be able to do trials anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat. We need to have the scale to be able to cover the globe.”

But there can come a time when the founders’ direction is no longer what the business needs. “You need to take the vision and passion of the founder and imbue it into the culture of the organisation,” said former Verizon Consumer Group CEO Ronan Dunne. “But the business should not have too much dependence on the founders. The skills that got the business to where it is today are not necessarily the skills needed to get to where it needs to go next. Sometimes recognising that can be next step in the scale-up journey.”

An element of caution when expanding overseas is also advisable, according to business advisor and former Flex business group president Caroline Dowling. “You need to apply multiple lenses to look at what’s going on in a market. You need to take time to understand if the talent is there and if the resources and the skillsets exist for you to work there. And if a market is really there for you.”

Stripe head of global sales Eileen O’Mara agreed. Pointing out that there is a greater emphasis on profitability now than in recent years, she said companies need to be choosy when selecting new markets. Customers can often get excited when they are entering new markets and want Stripe to move into that market with them.

“Stripe looks like the easy bit, but it can take 12 months talking to regulators and so on before we can proceed in a market,” she added. “We would not prioritise certain markets just for one user. You need to be cautious when entering new markets.”

No matter how cautious a business may be, there is still the chance that things will go wrong. “If you have an ambition to triple or quadruple the size of the business there are going to be areas where it won’t go as well as expected,” Caroline Dowling noted. “You need to plan for that. You need to imagine what success looks like. And you need to prepare for epic failures and imagine what they look like and the impact they could have.”

Ronan Dunne advised business leaders to focus on what makes a new market different rather than on similarities to existing markets. “You need to understand if the product market fit is portable or not. If it is genuinely like for like you can be reasonably confident of replicating your success in other markets. The fact is the product market fit is usually not exactly the same. Sometimes, people may not look at the right things. They look at what they have done to be successful in the past. But you need to look at the markets you are considering. You need to focus on the stuff that’s different, not on doubling down on what you do know.”

Sometimes caution can be overdone, of course. “Irish companies can be over-cautious about the Eurozone,” Leo Clancy noted. “There is a lot of potential to do more there. It’s on our doorstep, there are no trade barriers, and we have a common currency. I’m pleased to say that 154 client companies expanded into the Eurozone for the first time in 2022.”

He believes the future is bright for Irish enterprise. “Enterprise Ireland is on a journey with our clients,” he said. “We are growing, learning, and evolving together. As we reflect on 25 years of progress and success, we need to look at what’s coming in the next 25 years. I believe the best is yet to come. Irish enterprise will become the prime driver of the economy over the next 25 years. This won’t happen by accident. We will need to have a laser focus on building the infrastructure required for start-ups to grow and thrive as well as on providing the supports needed by Irish companies to become global leaders. Enterprise Ireland will be here to help our client companies in every possible way to realise their full potential for the benefit of the people of Ireland.”