In Focus South-West Ireland - Attracting Industry As Well as Tourists


The Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle and the Dingle Peninsula are not only attracting tourists to the South West of Ireland – some stars of industry find it irresistible, too. We examine what the region has to offer for business:

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  • Homegrown talent, tech start-ups and multinationals all reside side by side in the counties of Cork and Kerry
  • Cork is predicted to grow to three times its size in the next 20 years, with huge investments in infrastructure
  • IDA Ireland is setting up initiatives in smaller, less populated areas in order to attract businesses

Apple, Amazon, Pfizer, IBM and Siemens are just a handful of 158 multinationals to set up a base here. But it’s just as fertile a business landscape for local entrepreneurs – last year Cork produced 142 tech start-ups, which didn’t just top the list but created three times more businesses than almost every other county, with Kerry also in the top four for the most new businesses. Quite something considering the region is home to just 14% of Ireland’s Gaeltacht population.

All this has helped unemployment in Kerry and Cork to fall to 5.7% – well below the national average – and shows the region has recovered better than any other since the recession, according to the Central Statistics Office. With latest figures showing a GDP of €33.7bn and a GDP per capita of €50,544 and the region’s house prices up nearly 9% year on year, it’s clear that people want to live and work here.

Recommended reading: In Focus South-East Ireland - A Burgeoning Tech Hub

The lure of the land

“It’s easy to see why they come,” says Ray O’Connor, regional business development manager, south-west region, for IDA Ireland, which is responsible for attracting foreign investment to the state. “This is a well-established industry cluster: a strong university city, we have an expanding international airport and IT has really taken off here in the last decade – the whole region is ripe for further growth opportunities.”

Around 690,000 people live in the South West, with innovation and progress clearly going hand-in-hand with tradition. The region is built on the traditional industries of farming, textiles and trade through Cork port, and of course has always attracted tourists as the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way.

But as well as the techies, the region is a rich landscape of such diverse industries as pharma (the world’s first batch of Viagra was produced in Ringaskiddy), confectionary (45% of the world’s Tic Tacs are made in Cork) and brewing (it’s home to Murphy’s Irish Stout, owned by Heineken).

Recommended reading: Ireland Proves Fertile Ground For Fintech Sector

Changing landscape

But attraction to the South West is not without its challenges. The government’s 2040 Project predicts Cork will be the state’s fastest growing city in the next 20 years, with Tánaiste Simon Coveney predicting it could treble in size. A €850m upgrade of the Cork-Limerick M20, further investment in the region’s N-roads, a €200m scheme to improve the buses and a €90m redevelopment of the port will bring in thousands of new residents and workers.

“Cork’s growth can make it a second city of scale, a true compliment to Dublin”

Bill O’Connell, president, Cork Chamber of Commerce

“But these visions need to be matched with policy change for the region to continue to thrive,” says James Winters, Cork regional president for Irish business lobby group IBEC. “Housing, infrastructure, planning and sustainability are all key issues – if policymakers don’t get them right, the economic opportunities will be lost.

“For example, the regeneration of Cork is fantastic, but there is insufficient road capacity to take all the new talent we want to attract. Traffic congestion undermines the city’s attraction as a place to live and increases journey times, raising business costs and reducing productivity – unless these issues are addressed, it’s difficult for any regeneration to be sustainable in attracting investment.”

A tale of two cities

Cork Chamber of Commerce president Bill O’Connell agrees. “Cork’s growth can make it a second city of scale, a true compliment to Dublin, with a critical mass of talent, innovation, infrastructure, diversity and culture,” he says. “This isn’t just of benefit to the south west but will significantly strengthen Ireland’s metropolitan profile.”

There is encouraging investor interest in the region, too – IDA Ireland has brought 100 potential investors to site visits in the county of Cork in the past two years (although Dublin received 611 visits in the same period). In contrast, Kerry received just 12 visits, but the IDA hopes initiatives such as a 2,500 square metre manufacturing facility in Kerry Technology Park, suitable for pharma or high-value engineering, will boost that figure by the end of this year.

"It's hard to get companies to go anywhere that there isn't population density,” says IDA CEO Martin Shanahan. “Firms come with specific ideas of what kind of environment they want, and it’s our job to convince them they will get the skills they need in any particular location.”

The South West is a hit with entrepreneurs – particularly tech firms. A total of 582 start-ups were launched in Cork in just the first three months of this year, more than anywhere else outside the capital. And professionals from across the world are moving to the South West of Ireland for a combination of career opportunities, lower living costs and a high quality of life. The Cork Tech Talent Relocation Survey, carried out by recruitment firm Collins McNicholas, with Cork Chamber, the IDA and Cork City Council, found workers from 27 different countries had relocated to the city in the past two years, 84% of them in the tech sector.

There’s plenty of homegrown talent, too. Four years ago Mike Webster launched Killarney-based software start-up Mobacar, which uses AI technology to offer consumer-specific car rental accommodation. It now has 600 staff from Maine to Sydney, processes 2.5m bookings a year and, following investment from Auto Europe and Delta Partners, was recently valued at €20m. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Webster has turned down three offers to sell.

Home-based charm

But he’s determined that both he and the company will stay in Kerry. He says: “My aim is to make sure the business grows and our people have good careers. As for location, we’ve got one of the strongest intellectual teams in the travel sector, 30 of them in Killarney – or Silicon Glen, as we call it. The area is a real asset in attracting people. Would you rather live in a shoebox in the city or live in a nice house with a wonderful view of beautiful, affordable Kerry and no commute?

“There are great companies in Kerry,” adds Webster. “The idea that you have to be in an office in Dublin with a bunch of people on skateboards is not true. You can build a tech company anywhere, if you can attract the right people – and in this corner of Ireland, there’s a lot to attract them.” 

By Peter Taylor-Whiffen



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