Flying the flag for Ireland: meet the IDA overseas
The staff at IDA Ireland’s overseas offices work tirelessly to secure foreign direct investment. The bureau chiefs of Japan, India and Australia detail what their average day entails
The IDA’s Tokyo office has a small but effective team of three. Photograph: iStock
Foreign direct investment doesn’t land in Ireland by accident. It’s often the culmination of years of painstaking work, building networks, researching companies and meeting senior management. Much of it is done by IDA Ireland’s overseas bureaux.
Derek Fitzgerald heads up IDA’s Japanese operations, based in Tokyo. A mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Limerick, his first connection with Japan came when he was hired straight from college by Alps Electrical. Based in Millstreet, Co Cork, it is one of the biggest Japanese-owned companies in Ireland and employs 840 people here.
Part of his work entailed moving to Japan to be trained in such world-leading manufacturing techniques as Lean. He liked the country so much, he stayed. “It was in a very rural part of Japan and I really liked it,” he says.
In 2011, he joined IDA Ireland, based in Tokyo, and now has a family there. “Japan is an extremely safe and clean place to live,” he says.
The IDA’s Tokyo office has a small but effective team of three. “Just as with the IDA generally, we have our target sectors – currently financial services, pharma, medical devices and ICT. Within that we target certain customers,” says Fitzgerald.
“On a typical day, I will have a meeting with a client. If so, I will have prepared for it the day before, doing research to see what their company strategy is. I’d have a value proposition for the sector which I would tweak for that company. I’d have prepared my presentation materials and hopefully found a hook to attract them. It’s all about meetings and site visits and, ultimately, conversion to projects.”
The challenges are significant. “What is unique about Japan is that there is generally a low awareness of Ireland. I give PowerPoint presentations that start with a map of Europe with a circle around Ireland, then I tell them where it is, what our population is, the fact that we are English-speaking and an EU member. I give them demographic information, including Ireland’s high birth rate, low age of population and information about our GDP [gross domestic product].”
Often, numerous meetings are required. “The fact that we are representing the Government makes it easier to open doors. Of every 10 companies I’d contact, I’d typically get to meet with six or seven. The difficulty is converting that into projects.”
Attracting FDI starts with a relationship of trust between the prospect company and the IDA employee. These are big investments, “they’re not going to give this project to someone who just walks in the door. They’ve heard of France, Germany and the UK, but not Ireland, so we have to start out playing catch-up.”
Confusing Ireland with Iceland is common, as is thinking Ireland is part of the UK. “Part of it is that they think they know us but then will ask you about Scotch. And people will still ask about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and you have to explain – that was 20 years ago.”
Ireland currently has about 70 Japanese-owned companies here, which helps. Of those, 29 are IDA client companies.
The scope of the task facing IDA’s overseas staff can seem enormous. Tanaz Buhariwalla is the IDA’s director of India for example. Based in Mumbai, where she is from, she heads up a team of four people. She also handles Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Like Derek Fitzgerald, her day is a mix of research and company meetings, as well as cold calls and follow-ups. It isn’t just the size of the geography that poses challenges here, it’s the size of the companies. “A lot of companies in India are large companies, so meeting with one or two people isn’t enough. You have to meet with a number of people.”
Simply identifying the decision-makers is hard, and made harder by a corporate culture of collective decision-making.
To help, she has built up an extensive network of influencers. “I work with accountants, solicitors, lawyers. It’s a lot of coffees but it’s all part of what I do.”
The advantage Ireland offers is the fact that we speak English and have common law, which is a very important point. We also point to Ireland’s cost competitiveness, and the clusters of companies we have
Awareness of Ireland is growing there. “In the beginning, I used to bring a map with me, but it has got better. I still need to get invited to speak at a lot of events though, to raise awareness. In the tech sector, however, awareness of Ireland is very high,” says Buhariwalla.
There are currently 40 companies in Ireland recognised by the IDA, including ICT and pharma companies, with a large footprint in Ireland. “India’s top five ICT companies are all in Ireland,” she says.
“The advantage Ireland offers is the fact that we speak English and have common law, which is a very important point. We also point to Ireland’s cost competitiveness, and the clusters of companies we have. For an Indian company, it’s also about talking about other Indian companies, that are the same size as them, and easier to do that now. The slight struggle we have is getting them to visit.”
The lack of a direct flight can be off-putting. “But once we get them to Ireland, we organise a special IDA itinerary for them, to showcase what other Indian companies are doing here, to see the universities and to meet with professionals. If we do that, it’s magic.”
Kathryn O’Shea flies the flag for Ireland in Australia, from her base in Sydney. She lived in the city in 2012 when she was doing a masters degree at university there. When she saw a vacancy to work in the IDA office in 2014, she jumped at the chance.
The IDA has had representation in Australia for 25 years. Today, O’Shea is part of a team of just two. “But because we work alongside the Irish consulate and Enterprise Ireland here, it feels like a much bigger team,” says O’Shea, who also looks after New Zealand.
What she loves most about the job is that no two days are the same. “Every day is different but the core of our job is to do our research and then get out and meet companies. We’d have certain sectors we’d be very strong on and we keep an eye on what tech companies, for example, are raising capital for international expansion, and we go to a lot of tech events,” she says.
There are currently 56 Australian companies in Ireland, 23 of which are IDA clients.
For O’Shea, very often the best way in to a target is to identify an Irish person already working in it. “If there’s an Irish person in that company we will approach that company and in that respect we are very lucky. There are hundreds of Irish people here and, even if they are not a decision-maker, we will sit down and talk to them about who the decision-makers are. We are very lucky too in that Ireland tends to enjoy a very open door when it comes to meetings. Over the decades here, people have had a very positive experience of Irish workers.”
The value of that can’t be underestimated back home either. “In the last few years we’ve had quite a number of Irish people returning home from Australia to Ireland, whose bosses have said to them, will you set up an Irish company for us? That’s a great testament to how highly these people are regarded and how well they have done here.”
IDA director of India
"There are many things I love about my job. Of course, it gets manic, but it’s worth it all. Meeting new people, learning new things and having unique experiences almost every day. There’s always new things to learn, places to travel, opportunities to capture. In recent times I have worked with a tractor manufacturer, companies developing autonomous driving tech, wearable devices, sensors for cars; pharma and cybersecurity."
IDA director of Japanese operations
"The main thing I love about my job is that I get to meet so many people, a lot of them in senior management positions across lots of global industries, including banking, the Internet of Things, pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, finance and more. So in a single day I get to learn about so many different strategies and business models."
IDA director of Australia & New Zealand operations
"Representing IDA overseas lets me experience situations I never anticipated. For example, we had a number of New Zealand businesses visit Ireland for the National Ploughing Championships and from that I spent two days in New Zealand learning from Maori technology entrepreneurs about Maori culture and the opportunities to bring their business to a global stage. I have met so many fascinating people through this role. No two days are the same."
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