Bright Horizons for Irish Innovators

Sean Burke of Enterprise Ireland describes the factors that enabled Ireland to achieve one of the highest success rates for the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument in Europe.

There are areas of innovation we excel at in Ireland and results that prove it. At 13%, Ireland has one of the highest success rates for the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument in Europe, compared to the EU average of 6%.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s €80 billion programme to support research and innovation, which launched in 2014. A 7-year programme, it is due to end in December 2020. Ireland’s overall success rate exceeds the EU average, with €475 million in funding secured to date for more than 1,100 successful applications by 536 higher education researchers and 430 Irish companies.

The SME Instrument funds the programme’s most commercial applications and is designed to support innovative companies to realise global ambitions and turn strong business ideas into market leaders. Its commercial focus helps companies to convert findings from cutting-edge research into a productised offering for international markets. Delivering grant funding in the range of €1-€2.5 million to support 70% of project costs, no repayment or equity dilution is required. Those conditions make the SME Instrument very attractive to companies with ambitions to internationalise.

The programme is highly competitive. Only 6% of the 31,000 European companies that applied were successful. Projects that succeed are truly innovative, with the potential to disrupt the marketplace. Approval has become a mark of pedigree on an international scale. A successful application can be transformative, elevating a company into the position of market leader. Successful companies span sectors, with big winners in areas including biotech, energy, agriculture, food sustainability, health and environment.

Eight Irish companies were among 210 European SMEs that achieved Phase 2 funding of Horizon 2020’s SME Instrument in 2017. Securing €15.45 million between them from a budget of €297 million, they include companies like AltraTech, Axonista, Soapbox Labs, and SwiftComply.

Axonista received €1.7m in funding in 2017 to develop its interactive video technology product, Ediflo, which enables customers to bring multi-platform interactive story-telling experiences to market faster. COO Dee Coakley explains, “Our product originally served large enterprises through direct sales made by the founders. Horizon 2020 allowed us to hire product development specialists and build a team focused on simplifying the enterprise product for a broader market. New verticals include media companies and brands that want to deliver interactive experiences, using existing video content to better engage audiences.”

The Instrument’s application process thoroughly assesses each company’s proposed innovation-led solution and its potential to achieve market penetration. Project support covers every stage of the business acceleration lifecycle, from business definition to planning and execution leading to full commercialisation.

Axonista’s Horizon 2020 proposal was strengthened by Research & Development work they had recently undertaken. Dee explains, “The R&D grant we received from Enterprise Ireland really helped. The application for Phase 2 funding asks if you have undertaken feasibility research. Being able to describe what you learned from an R&D project and how it helped to identify an opportunity or develop a solution delivers a robust proposal.”

Enterprise Ireland leads the Irish Horizon 2020 National Support Network, the expertise of which acts as a resource for new and seasoned applicants. Enterprise Ireland’s team helps companies to determine the best Horizon 2020 programme to meet their needs, prepare for their initial engagement, and provides feedback to improve the draft proposal. The objective is to build on Ireland’s strong track record and provide hands-on assistance to Irish researchers and companies that participate in the programme.

All innovative Irish companies with an eye on international expansion should apply. An award of up to €2.5 million and the mark of pedigree that Horizon 2020 brings changes a company’s prospects. As Dee concludes, “From an investor’s perspective, securing Horizon 2020 is a validation of the business and your ambitions. Investors know that an investment of nearly €2 million has been made to push your offering past the competition. That validation gives you a lot of leverage.”

Enterprise Ireland’s Sean Burke works with Jill Leonard to support the SME Instrument and Fast Track to Innovation actions in the new European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot in Horizon 2020.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent.

Frankfurt’s opportunity for Irish fintech

Frankfurt’s opportunity for Irish fintech

Jane Greene, senior market advisor for software and services based at Enterprise Ireland’s office in Dusseldorf, explains why Ireland and Frankfurt make for ideal fintech partners in a post-Brexit climate.

The result of the Brexit vote launched a conversation about the possible relocation of international banking services from London to other European cities. While Paris and Luxembourg have featured prominently, a leading narrative has positioned Dublin versus Frankfurt as location of choice.

It should not be a case of one city or the other, however. Regardless of the impact of Brexit, Frankfurt is too important a financial services hub for Irish fintech companies to overlook.

Frankfurt is the financial capital of the Eurozone, home to the European Central Bank, German Central Bank, and over 200 domestic and foreign banks.

The greater Rhein-Main region surrounding Frankfurt is home to one quarter of Germany’s fintech companies alone. As well as being the location for household software names such as SAP and Software AG, Frankfurt has seen international banks including UBS and Goldman Sachs announce the relocation of European operations to the city in the wake of Brexit.

Ireland is a globally-recognised centre for International Financial Services (IFS), with a 40-year track record in the fintech space. Fexco, which established in 1981, is now operational around the world. Newer success stories include financial services software company Fenergo and cross-border payments platform TransferMate.

The post-Brexit banking debate has shone valuable light on the strength of Ireland’s financial services sector and, particularly, its cohort of innovative fintech companies. As the debate has raised Ireland’s profile, it is now time to capitalise on that.

The biggest opportunity facing fintech companies is not Brexit but PSD2. The EU’s new Payment Services Directive is forcing traditional banks to digitise operations and open up to third parties, providing access to everything from customer data to payment infrastructure, to enable them to build innovative new services.

While initially fintech was viewed as a disruptor by banks, out to shake up “their” market, that view has changed dramatically. Today, legacy banks are in a race to source the best fintech innovators to help them improve services, not least in the face of challenger banks, such as N26.

The fact that this highly innovative, mobile-first bank is German speaks to the strength of the country’s financial services sector.

Niall Hogan, co-founder of Irish payments fintech Touchtech, comments, “While many older Germans are still quite conservative and use cash, the younger generation are like their Scandinavian and British counterparts and expect slick digital experiences. Our Germany headquartered client N26 has over 850,000 customers across Europe and is doing very well in Ireland. Our experience working with German financial institutions is that they take time to come to a decision, but once that decision is made follow-through is guaranteed.”

Enterprise Ireland tells Ireland’s strong fintech story in Germany, building relationships with innovation managers at some of the world’s best-known banks, and introducing them to innovative Irish companies that can partner with them to offer solutions in the areas of payments, security, compliance and data analytics.

The Irish Advantage website helps Enterprise Ireland to tell that story, encouraging international financial services buyers to source fintech partners established here.

With both banks and fintechs recognising that neither the “fin” nor the “tech” can succeed alone, Irish fintech companies that are serious about capturing global opportunities must consider Frankfurt.

However great your technology, building a strong value proposition and articulating the business problem you solve is key to securing time with buyers in the region. While using social business networks can open doors, Irish fintech professionals should be clear about the nature and purpose of their request or enquiry. While the fintech sector is international in nature, exceptional preparation for meetings is always a must in Germany.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent.

KTL Lean transformation

When KTL targeted growth, they focused on competitiveness

KTL Lean transformation

“..agility can come at a significant cost to the bottom line. Lean allowed us to optimise and standardise most key business processes.”

Niall Byrne, Director KTL

Key Takeouts:

  • KTL is a leading provider of engineering services to the telecommunications and utility sectors.
  • By implementing Enterprise Ireland’s Lean transformation programme, KTL has increased turnover by 30% in the last four years.
  • After standardising their customer acceptance process, KTL allowed customers to onboard solutions much faster and more efficiently, which vastly improved their competitiveness.

Case Study: KTL

Enhanced competitiveness has enabled engineering services firm KTL to achieve significant gains in both turnover and profitability. Since implementing an Enterprise Ireland-supported Lean transformation programme four years ago, turnover has increased by 30% to €40 million, while 1.5% has been added to net margins.

The Naas-headquartered company currently employs 300 people and is recognised as a leading provider of engineering services to the telecommunications and utility sectors, working primarily with mobile network operators, electricity network operators, and major equipment vendors. With operations in Ireland and the UK, KTL’s reach extends to projects in Europe and Latin America.

“We came from small beginnings,” says Director, Niall Byrne. “The company was founded in 1998, as a small civil contractor working out of a house and yard in Maynooth with 15 people. We started out just as the mobile networks were beginning to take off and we were well positioned to serve that market. I’m not sure if we fully realised that at the time. Digifone was our first mobile network customer and we added Vodafone shortly after that. We then moved into power infrastructure.”

Today, KTL works with leading blue-chip clients in the UK and Ireland, including Vodafone, Three, Telefonica, EE, ESB, Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE), and SSE Renewables.

“We see ourselves as a design and build partner for our customers when they are upgrading their networks or installing new technologies,” Byrne points out. “Our focus is on delivering value to customers. We have been an innovative company since we started and have always looked for ways to improve. We began working with Enterprise Ireland in 2008, when we were starting out on our international journey. We worked with them on market research and feasibility studies at that stage.”

Plans for growth inspired focus on operational excellence

In subsequent years, Enterprise Ireland also assisted the company in the implementation of growth plans.

These growth plans led the company to seek ways of improving its competitive position. “We stood back and took a look at the business and at our competitiveness and capability,” Byrne adds. “With the support of Enterprise Ireland, we embarked on a LEAN transformation programme in 2014. We had always tried to be an agile company. We have to be, because we work in a very fast-moving sector. But that agility can come at a significant cost to the bottom line. Lean allowed us to optimise and standardise most key business processes.”

The best example of the benefits of the Lean programme is the customer acceptance process, according to Byrne. “On the face of it, it’s different for every customer and project. It’s a highly complex, 100+ page document for each individual site, of which there are thousands in a mobile network. Anyone who has experience of it will tell you how challenging and time-consuming the whole process is. But when we looked at it and peeled the skin off, we saw how much of it could be standardised. We figured out an innovative approach to it and we also developed a software tool, Infratrack, to do it.”

That sped up the process greatly for KTL and allowed customers to onboard solutions much faster and more efficiently. Other benefits of the Lean transformation programme included a significant reduction in site visits, a 14.7% reduction in expenses through the introduction of a fleet management solution, a 13% reduction in employee turnover, and a 35% reduction in lead time in various processes within the business, including invoicing and purchase order generation.

“It improved our competitiveness, and that enabled us to acquire additional customers and improve our profitability at the same time,” says Byrne.

For the future, he believes that ongoing growth in the mobile market, with 5G coming down the line and continued network renewal by the power companies, will deliver opportunities for the company. “We will continue to develop our fantastic team,” he adds. “We are a service company and our competitive position relies on a talented, experienced, loyal pool of people. We are nothing without our fantastic team. Enterprise Ireland has also been a key part of the team, which enabled us to internationalise and expand the business.”

Learn more about Enterprise Ireland’s Competitiveness supports here.

Focus on Exports Helped Kirby Triple Turnover

“We’ve achieved growth in three ways, through strengthening our capabilities, going deeper into our chosen sectors, and through geographic expansion.”

Jimmy Kirby, MD Kirby Group Engineering

Key Takeouts:

  • Kirby provides full mechanical and electrical engineering contracting services, as well as specialist voltage design and construction services to clients.
  • Has achieved growth in three ways, through strengthening capabilities, going deeper into chosen sectors and through geographic expansion.
  • Enterprise Ireland has supported Kirby to develop its international operations.

Case Study: Kirby

Developing export markets has helped Kirby treble its business in just seven years.

Founded in 1964, Kirby provides full mechanical and electrical engineering contracting services, as well as specialist high voltage (HV) and medium voltage (MV) design and construction services, to clients across several key sectors. These include data centre, life sciences, industrial manufacturing, commercial, petrochemical, and substations and renewables.

With the support of Enterprise Ireland, Kirby operates in a number of markets including the UK and Northern Europe.

Growing international operations

“In 2008, we began our first overseas work in the UK, initially focusing on the pharmaceutical, industrial manufacturing and power sectors,” says Jimmy Kirby. “Originally, we were invited in by one of our large multinational power sector customers to deliver projects for them; then we successfully expanded into the other sectors.”

Kirby has continued to develop and grow its international operations.

“Over the past seven years, we have almost tripled our turnover, from €58 million in 2010 to €167 million for 2017. To meet our growth targets, we increased employee numbers significantly. We currently directly employ over 700 people.”

Kirby has strengthened its management team too. “Earlier this year we announced a number of key appointments at senior level to support growth and success,” Jimmy Kirby says.

The company has recently announced further expansion in its international operations to include the new geographical area of the Nordics. “Expansion into the Nordics market is proving to be a successful development for us, having secured a data centre project and with more in the pipeline. We have the capability to execute projects in Ireland, UK, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium, and are currently developing the capability to execute projects in Norway, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg.”

Preparing for further growth

The business is poised for significant further growth. “Kirby has excellent future prospects due to the strength of our management team, our staff and associated capabilities, our strategy formulation and implementation capability, and our customer value proposition.”

The company has developed an in-house, integrated project execution process called the Kirby Way. “At the core of the Kirby Way is efficient and successful project delivery” explains Jimmy Kirby, Kirby Group Managing Director.

“It involves understanding our clients’ needs, collaboration, building high-performance teams and supporting our clients through every stage of the project,” 

Strengthening its systems and processes is helping too. “Lean practices, such as standardisation, have become important components of our project delivery, bringing significant value to us and our customers,” says Kirby.

Staff members have taken ownership of continuous improvement. “We operate an Innovation Suggestion Scheme with participation encouraged among all of our workforce. This approach allows us to encourage a culture of innovation and continuously generate innovative and lean ideas from our site and office employees. The suggestions are focused around introducing efficiencies into the business through cycle-time reduction.”

Recent project wins include Gemini Data Centre and Substation in Dublin and Kilgallioch Windfarm Substation in the UK. Kirby is currently working on a confidential data centre site in Sweden, a biopharma facility in Meath, and Wembley Park Energy Centre in the UK, among many others.

Three ways to achieve growth

“We have achieved growth in three ways, through strengthening our capabilities, going deeper into our chosen sectors, and through geographic expansion,” Kirby says. “To ensure that there is a continuous pipeline of projects, it is important to track the investment levels in our selected geographies and sectors.”

Working with Enterprise Ireland is helping. “Enterprise Ireland has supported Kirby to develop its international operations over the years in a number of ways. It has done so by providing market research support, local market information and advice on new markets, providing access to its global network of contacts, and hosting networking events and seminars – such as a construction seminar held in Stockholm recently.”

Jimmy Kirby personally participated on Enterprise Ireland’s International Selling Programme in 2010, and went on to do a Masters Degree in DIT afterwards. The company also availed of a Market Access Grant, “which was a valuable support in our internationalisation efforts,” says Kirby.

Learn more about Enterprise Ireland’s Competitiveness supports here.

Ireland is becoming an agritech island

How Ireland is becoming an agritech island

James Maloney, a senior regional development executive at Enterprise Ireland, outlines how innovative Irish agritech companies are helping to combat some of the world’s toughest challenges.

One of the biggest challenges facing the world is how to feed a population set to grow from today’s 7.6 billion to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Irish agritech companies will play a key role in helping to meet that challenge.

Enterprise Ireland recently announced two initiatives that are part of its ongoing work to support agritech companies to innovate and win in international markets, from start-up stage to the point at which they become established international players.

Last month, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys officially encouraged Irish agritech and agricultural companies to apply for the Innovation Arena Awards that will be announced during the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan in September.

The Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena is a unique platform in which Irish companies display pioneering developments, with more than 100 international buyers attending in 2017. Last year’s competition attracted 200 entries, 69 of which were shortlisted as finalist exhibitors at the Innovation Arena.

Enterprise Ireland also recently funded the development of a dedicated agritech R&D facility in Tralee to further support agritech innovation.

The word ‘agritech’ tends to conjure images of drones patrolling farms, autonomous tractors and harvesters, robotic milkers, and other futuristic technologies. While those images are accurate, the most important agritech developments will be those that support sustainability and allow us to do more with less, as we continue to produce high-quality food for the world’s rapidly growing population.

Ireland might be a relatively small agricultural producer globally but what we do in the sector, we do extremely well. Ireland has the highest standard of agricultural education in Europe and has established a well-deserved reputation for innovation across the entire agricultural value chain.

Irish agri-engineering exports are now worth a quarter of a billion euro annually to the Irish economy. Machinery produced by Irish manufacturers harvests grass throughout the world and is responsible for feeding cattle on every continent.

With regard to food quality, Ireland competes with the very best internationally, thanks to extremely low rates of antibiotic usage, no hormone usage, very high standards of animal welfare, and full traceability from fork to farm.

None of these developments occurred by accident. Striking the right balance between increased production and high standards of animal welfare and sustainability requires a combination of best farming practice and the kinds of innovative agricultural technologies Irish companies are becoming increasingly known for developing.

Irish companies like Abbey Machinery, McHale and Hi-Spec are already world leaders in the specialised production of machinery, such as mixer wagons for feeding cattle, high-quality baling and wrapping systems, slurry spreaders, agricultural trailers, and handling equipment for grain.

Dairymaster also leads the way internationally, with significant investments in in-house R&D and a strong customer focus. The company’s latest innovation is a smartphone app that allows farmers to remotely control their milk tank.

Another innovative Irish business, Moocall, has developed a collar worn by bulls that detects which cows are in heat and monitors the bull’s activity.

Keenan Systems’ InTouch service uses telematics to connect its mixer wagons in the field to a data centre in Ireland’s County Carlow, allowing for remote adjustment of feed mixes to optimise yield or milk production.

Equilume’s technology, which was originally developed to manage fertility in horses, has been proven to boost milk yields by up to 9% per annum.

In another area entirely, MagGrow has developed a technology which magnetises the droplets from a sprayer, causing them to bind better with plants, thereby reducing the amount of liquid required.

The need for change in traditional agricultural systems is being driven by a range of powerful forces, including pesticide reduction initiatives, the need to reduce antibiotic use, increased scarcity of water, and the challenge to provide sustainable food production systems for the growing world population. As Irish companies develop innovative solutions to meet these challenges, the world is taking notice.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent.

Record food exports driven by Irish innovation

Record food exports driven by Irish innovation

Orla Battersby, divisional manager for food at Enterprise Ireland, outlines the factors driving the rapid growth of the country’s largest indigenous sector.

The value of Irish food, drink and horticulture exports increased by 13% in 2017, to reach €12.6 billion, a new record. This stellar performance marked the eighth successive year of growth for Ireland’s largest indigenous sector.

While many factors have played a role in the achievement, chief among them is the ingenuity and innovative capacity of Irish food companies. Successful exporters in this most competitive of sectors must by their nature be innovative. They must be capable of extremely rapid responses to changes in consumer demand, while at the same time remaining capable of meeting the exacting requirements of grocery multiples in relation to price, quality, and new product development.

At its simplest, innovation in food and beverage products is the market-led development of new or improved products to meet changing customer needs. But innovation is actually much more multifaceted than that. It is about embracing a culture throughout the whole business. Innovation means taking a customer-centric approach to all aspects of the company, from who is hired through to technology and processes utilised, the packaging of products and the way they are branded and sold.

Enterprise Ireland supports food and beverage innovation in numerous ways and has assisted approximately 100 significant in-company research, development and innovation projects for clients across the sector since 2013. These projects range from new, more efficient and lower-cost manufacturing processes to product reformulation and new product development, with the aim of breaking into new customer segments and markets.

Among the innovative companies supported by Enterprise Ireland is Keohanes Seafoods of Cork. They realised that many consumers did not like the hassle of preparing and cooking fish and were the first company in Ireland to produce a microwaveable skin film range of products, which means the consumer never has to touch the product. Keohanes used a packaging technology designed for other purposes and it has basically brought fish from the fish counter to the chilled convenience aisle.

Another Cork company, Dairy Concepts, manufactures hand-held nutritious dairy snacks for children, using patented milk casein technology. The key competitive differentiator of its Fruchee product is that it contains 40pc less sugar along with higher calcium, protein and Vitamin D than competitors.

Dublin-based Nuritas, led by Dr Nora Khaldi, is developing technology that combines artificial intelligence and DNA analysis to discover the health benefits of peptides in natural foods and is a great example of a food start-up company that Enterprise Ireland has worked with at feasibility stage and is now supporting to scale.

Large companies in the dairy, beverage and meat processing sectors are also highly innovative, as their export success demonstrates. In fact, the 2017 export performance was driven by a 19% leap in dairy exports to over €4 billion, and a 5% increase in sales of Irish beef. Dairy now accounts for one-third of all food and drink exports, with beef representing one-fifth of all exports at almost €2.5 billion.

There is clear evidence to demonstrate the role innovation has played in this success. Enterprise Ireland carried out a survey in 2016 which showed that firms who availed of innovation supports from us reported an average 67% growth in global sales.

These supports take many forms. The Agile Innovation Fund gives companies support of up to 50% of eligible project expenditure up to €300,000, which is very useful for projects which must happen rapidly. The approval process is fast tracked, enabling companies to get projects delivered quickly. In addition to in-company R&D, Enterprise Ireland also supports companies in collaborative innovation projects, helping them to access the insights of researchers working across Ireland’s third-level sector, and European expertise and funding under the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

But we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent when it comes to innovation. Food companies throughout Europe and beyond are competing for the same markets, while Brexit will create new challenges for Irish companies. A continued laser-like focus on innovation will be required in order to maintain and add to our success on international markets.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent.

Smurfit Kappa France

Thinking outside the box: how Smurfit Kappa succeeded in France

Opportunity comes to pass not pause – and right now it’s in France. That’s the message from Terry McGivern, Chief Operating Officer of Smurfit Kappa in France.

McGivern was speaking at Ambition France, an event recently organised by Enterprise Ireland which included a packed programme of talks, presentations and panel discussions. Ambition France featured companies already succeeding in the French market, businesses looking to do so and expert advisors who can help.

With 4,500 employees in 47 operating companies in France alone, Smurfit Kappa’s success in the market is significant. It made its first foray into France in 1990 with the acquisition of two small box plants.  Its first major deal came in 1994 with the acquisition of Cellulose du Pin, which doubled the size of the company.

France was Smurfit’s third export market at the time, after the UK and US, both of which had been chosen for the language, legal and cultural similarities. “France was down to proximity and market size,” McGivern explained.

“Our company had no specific knowledge of France. Our approach was to buy those two small paper mills and see what happens. It was very much a shot in the dark but it allowed the company to understand the market, the players, dynamics and opportunities. And without this initial investment there would not have been the will or the confidence to do the very large cellulose plant acquisition in 1994,” he said.

From 2008 to 2016 the corrugated industry saw zero growth in France, returning to growth only in 2017.

French market in a positive position

“France has come out of the downturn and is in a positive position,” McGivern said. The economic indicators are strong and the population is growing. Consumer confidence is at its highest level in over 15 years and the PMI (purchasing managers’ index) is at its highest level ever.

Those considering France must however recognise that there is not one France, but rather “a number of very different Frances,” said McGivern. These include the increasingly wealthy Atlantic region taking in Nantes, Brittany and Normandy, the traditional economic powerhouse of Northern France centred around Lille, and the Germanic influenced regions of Alsace and Moselle in the north east.

Heading south, Lyons is one of the most dynamic city in France, he said. Moving along the Mediterranean regions of Provence and the Cote d’Azur brings you to the great industry city Tolouse, centred around Airbus, and on to Bordeaux, “the most dynamic city in terms of population growth,” he said. At the centre is Paris and Ile de France.

“Each region is uniquely different and you need to be aware of those differences, their values and approaches to work. Depending on your market opportunity and where you want to set up, it’s important to tap into the local nuances of that region.”

Wherever you go, be prepared for bureaucracy. “It was created in France”, he said. “Things take longer. There is a form, a department and a process for absolutely everything. There is also a sequence of getting said form and submitting it and if you fall foul of the sequence you are right back at the start again.”

Be aware of social etiquette too. “French society is very hierarchical. This surprised me as a Republic but there are very significant differences to our own Republic,” he said, referring to the importance of what Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede calls “the power distance”.

“This is where Ireland and France are at the opposite ends of the spectrum,” said McGivern. “In France, people may disagree with the authority but they respect the authority. In Ireland, we like having a go at whoever is in power and bringing them down a peg if we can.”

Understand French support for unions, he advised. “French society has a very strong attachment to Les Syndicats despite the fact that only a very small proportion of the population are actually in unions.”

UK businesses can find there is “quite a stretch” to be made in terms of employee and industrial relations when they set up in France. “In Ireland, it’s not such a gap because the social partnership model we have had here over the last 20 years is very beneficial for dealing with union issues in France,” he said.

Indeed, “being Irish is a very significant advantage” in France generally, he said, quoting his former boss Dermot Smurfit. “We never invaded anyone. We have no historical baggage and so are rarely greeted with suspicion. Indeed, our cultural baggage is benevolent, associated with music and literature,” said McGivern.

Those planning on setting up operations there should bear the acronym FARM in mind:

F stands for French locals, or at the very least naturalised people. “To succeed in France you cannot have a leadership team made up of non-French people. France is a very proud nation, don’t lose sight of that.”

A is for advice. “Seek it from Enterprise Ireland and from professionals in France who can hold your hand through the bureaucracy,” he said.

R is for resilience. “At 66m people the size of the prize is very significant and growing. France is also our nearest EU neighbour from May 2019. There will be setbacks but double down and stick to your business plan.”

Finally, M is for Macron, France’s reforming new leader. “It’s not so much his policies but the confidence he is giving back to France that is of note. Channel that attitude of possibility and greatness to your own business and you stand ready to succeed in France,” he said.

“Remember, opportunity comes to pass, not pause and there is a great opportunity at this time to be trying to enter into the French market.”

For more information on doing business in France download our Going Global guide to France.

Construction Turns Tide on Ireland’s Continental Drift

Collen Construction

Unlike most building companies, Collen Construction grew during the recession by identifying opportunities in new, technologically driven sectors such as data centres and biopharma. In 2010, the 210 year old family business built its first data centre for a multinational client. Now, with close to 2 million sq. ft of high-tech space completed, it is one of the top Irish contractors in the ‘hitech/data hall’ space.

In 2014, at the invitation of the same multinational client, Collen Construction built its first data centre in Germany, and last April, the company opened an office in Frankfurt from where it plans to pursue further opportunities throughout Europe.

The European operations manager of Collen GmbH, Thomas O’Connor, stresses the importance of having a clear focus in order be credible overseas. Collen’s reputation in Ireland for being good at a wide range of construction activities will not open doors or win business in Europe, he says.

“We’ve made data centres our sweet spot and built a reputation for knowing how to mitigate the risks involved. These types of projects impose challenging deadlines and require us to produce volumes of technical information. Since 2010, we’ve really got to know the suppliers in this specialised field, and we’re comfortable in it.”

One of the secrets for managing the risk, O’Connor reveals, is treating all the sub contractors as partners and stakeholders. “For our clients, it’s all about speed-to-market, and, in that sense, it’s a very unforgiving sector. In this type of specialised project, therefore, if one fails, we all fail. It really is that simple. So we adopted a partnership approach in 2014, and the model has not let us down.”

PM Group

Like Collen, PM Group has followed its blue chip clients into continental Europe and has been active in the Benelux region, in particular, over the past 10 years.

Colm Fitzgerald, head of construction services at the engineering, architecture and project management firm, says there are a number of “bear traps” that construction firms need to be aware of. First and foremost is the need to respect other cultures. “Even something as simple as a turn of phrase that might be commonly used in Ireland could be misinterpreted,” he warns.

There are also differences in approaches to health and safety across Europe. “On the ground investigation and research is essential to identify exactly where the bar is set. In some countries, it’s not as high as in Ireland or the UK, for example.”

Fitzgerald also puts a strong emphasis on identifying contractors compatible with the Irish company’s own way of approaching business. “We do a lot of work in the life science sectors, and our clients demand and expect world class standards. We put significant effort into the pre-construction phase of our projects in mapping out execution plans. This is key to establishing best-in-class construction quality and health and safety programmes, so that everyone involved in the project knows exactly what’s expected of them and is both willing and able to deliver. We have worked hard in establishing a solid supply chain, and this has paid dividends in terms of our successful project delivery.”

“We have tended to enter a country in stages. Typically we would begin with concept design work, then expand our services from there.”

Colm Fitzgerald, head of construction services, PM Group.

Up until now, PM Group’s primary focus has been on Benelux countries, but the company is beginning to turn its attention to other opportunities across mainland Europe. “We have tended to enter a country in stages, first getting to know the people, understanding the companies and cultures, etc. It takes time to establish relationships. We’ll do it organically; typically we would begin with concept design work, then expand our services from there.”

Cork Plastics

Founded in 1969, Cork Plastics (CP) manufacturers a wide range of quality plastic products for the construction, building and agricultural sectors. Its main markets are Ireland and the UK, but the company is also rapidly expanding its European customer base, notably in France. CP’s sales and marketing director Seward Lynch says that identifying the right products for, and route to, each market has been crucial. “The hardest part was identifying potential customers, using similar products to those we produce in Cork,” he told The Market. CP chose France because it is large and the closest to Ireland after the UK, which is served by sister company FloPlast. “It has been a steep learning curve for us,” he confirms. “There are a lot of similarities, but a lot of differences, too. The French are slow to change, but there’s still potential there for us in the future.”

Freefoam Plastics

Another Cork-based company Freefoam Plastics began trading in 1990 and has grown into a multinational organisation, operating from sites in the UK, Belgium, France and Germany.

Freefoam entered the French market in 2002 with a trade offering of roofline and cladding products and expanded into the DIY sector at the beginning of 2009. For the last three years, the company has been selling a new cladding product developed specifically for the Dutch market and is developing plans for Germany. The continent now accounts for over 20 per cent of the group’s turnover.

“You need to find the right people to help you enter a new market and then integrate them into your organisation. You also have to find the right customers and distribution channels,” says managing director Aidan Harte. For Freefoam, innovation has been an essential core competency. “It’s important in new markets to adapt to meet the market’s needs, to find solutions that work there, rather than trying to force your existing solutions on them,” he emphasises.

Freefoam invests substantially in R&D, with support from Enterprise Ireland. “This allows us to grow our sales and stay ahead of our pan-European competitors,” Harte says. “Our end customers always expect us to come up with new products and innovations – anything that will help them get their work done more efficiently.”

Harte says that language is always something of a barrier, even though in Europe, in general, the command of English is very good. But Freefoam still sees real benefit in hiring people with multilingual skills that will suit its markets. “We have an inherent knowledge gap in language,” he says, “which is why we make sure we bring those skills into the company by direct hires.”

The Freefoam MD is also a strong advocate of doing homework on regulations and certification. Freefoam, for example, is the only maker of PVC cladding products with ATEC certification from the French building certification body, CTSB.

“It is very important for us to have a strong technical team, but you also have to be willing to tough it out to achieve the results you want,” Harte concludes. “It can take a lot of time and money, but it really is worth it.”

“You need to find the right people to help you enter a new market and then integrate them into your organisation.” Aidan Harte, managing director, Freefoam.

Second and third language skills key to European markets

One of the keys to getting traction in European markets is a sharp focus on the product or service, according to Stephen Hughes, head of construction markets at Enterprise Ireland. “As a rough rule of thumb, the further you are from home, the sharper your focus needs to be,” he says. “You need to be laser sharp in identifying the product areas or sectors in which you can make a major contribution. If you suggest you can do everything for everyone, you won’t be taken seriously.”

He also advises companies to be rigorous in their market research. “Too many companies don’t spend enough time getting to understand the dynamics of the market, the scale, the existing players and where their own offering might fit within that in order to be compelling,” he told The Market. “There is only one opportunity to make a first impression.”

Irish companies are doing well in the German and the Benelux construction markets, but all too often, they skip France and look further afield because of unjustified prejudices, he believes.

Tied up with overcoming this reticence – and getting to grips with European business culture in general – is the need for business leaders to embed second and third languages in their companies, he adds.

“Because English is so widely used as a common language for business in Europe, there is a sense that we don’t need to be able to converse in the language of a potential German or Belgian client. And even in companies that are able to speak to the client in their own language, there are surprisingly few with the in-house capability to really engage in the detailed business and technical side of things. After 40 years of being in the EU, we might have hoped for more.”

For Hughes, the language issue is all about demonstrating commitment. “Even if the customer has perfect English, it should be part of your culture to do business in the language of the country. Local hires can be a good starting point to demonstrate that level of commitment.”

This holds true even in construction, which may involve one-off contracts. “They may be one-off projects, but that does not necessarily imply one-off relationships, between contractors and sub contractors, for example,” he says.

Set the SatNav for France: Irish businesses guide the way

Desk research is important but sometimes the best way to find out about a market is to get stuck in, delegates at Ambition France, an Enterprise Ireland event were told recently.

The suggestion came from Shane Lyons, export marketer at Ei Electronics. He was speaking as part of a panel discussion on the theme of ‘Starting the Journey, from first customer to sustainable business’.

Today, Lyons has decades of experience in the French market but his first posting made a deep impression, taking place soon after leaving college and securing a position with an Irish agricultural engineering firm.

“Within a couple of weeks of getting the job I was in a field in the middle of France demonstrating farm machinery – with no experience of either farm machinery or of agriculture in France,” he said.

Get on the ground in France

“My philosophy since then is to get on the ground straight away, meet the customer, find out how they buy and what they are interested in. Then develop a solution that suits them,” he said.

“Get out there yourself. Use Enterprise Ireland, use their contacts, get to exhibitions and get a sense of where the market is going to go.”

Ei Electronics, originally a subsidiary of General Electric, was set up as a general components maker in 1963. By the time it was bought out by its management in 1988 it specialised in smoke alarms which it sold into the UK.

It made its first foray into France in 2004, a time when fire alarms were still unregulated and largely unknown. “People had no interest. The most common reply we got was ‘Je ne fume pas’, I don’t smoke,” he said.

Ei Electronics set about creating awareness of fire safety in the home through lobbying, “convincing firemen it wasn’t going to put them out of business,” and setting up an industry association that would help it access professional installers.

“That kind of work wasn’t creating sales so, in parallel, we went to Enterprise Ireland to identify all the buyers of different retail groups. By getting out and meeting them we generated around €1 million euro worth of business in retail channels, while at the same time developing the professional channels and trying to create a bigger overall market.”

There was an additional hurdle too, in that France had its own fire alarm standard, which took two years for Ei Electronics to secure.

The hard work paid off and is still paying dividends today, in so far as Ei Electronics is currently going through the same process in relation to carbon monoxide alarms.

Given that France has 30 million homes, compared with Ireland’s 1.5 million, the potential it offers is enormous. “There are 400,000 new homes being built every year in France and Macron is pushing through legislation to speed up their construction. That will benefit Ei Electronics and everybody in this sector,” he said.

Choose the right channel to market

Because Ei Electronics started off selling to DIY retailers, when its real target was the professional installer, it had to create different channels to market, pricing and communications strategies.

“From day one we had to employ a public relations company to hone our message to each of these channels. That’s a step I’d recommend to anyone looking to get into this market, to help you translate your documentation and your brochures,” he said.

An ability to build and maintain relationships is key to success in France, added Clem Garvey, director and chief financial officer of Escher Group Holdings.

“In France’s culture, you create a customer relationship. You do not get the business solely on the basis of having the best price or the best product but also by having a relationship forged over many years.”

Garvey has extensive experience of winning major public and private tenders in France. “It’s a massive market,” he said, pointing to 36,000 companies in France with revenues of between Euro 10m and Euro 500,000m. “There are more HQs of Fortune 500 companies in Paris than in London or New York,” he said.

This represents a massive opportunity for Irish businesses.  “But because it’s big, it requires multi-channel distribution. You will not achieve all your objectives simply by going with one channel over time. You’ve got to have your fingers across the country through different areas. And, regionally, you will not necessarily sell using the same people in, say, the Alsace region as you will in La Rochelle.”

Winning major accounts in France requires a layered approach, consisting of “some degree of direct presence, a network of distributors or wholesalers, and ultimately some form of web or phone selling for very low spend customers,” he said.

“Yes you will have channel conflict but if you don’t have channel conflict, you’re not trying hard enough,” he said.

Margins can be tight but revenues can be grown by adding additional, billable, services outside of the tender terms.

Irish firms can have an advantage when it comes to bundling, especially if it involves the intervention of personnel, because employers’ social charges in Ireland are a fraction of what they are in France, he pointed out.

But if you don’t have a direct relationship with a client, “integrate your offer with someone else who does,” he said.

“Look around to see who has a direct relationship and see how you can integrate your offer with theirs. Joint ventures can be a great way to start.”

Tips for Success in Germany

Caroline Kelly, sales director at Burnside Autocyl, shares her top pieces of advice for Irish companies keen to tap into the German market.

• Be confident about your product or service before going into the market. We have always been focused on the parameters of our product offering – we make hydraulic cylinders with a bore diameter of 32mm up to 200mm and up to eight metres in length. We offer a wide range of products, but it is still finite at the same time. Get feedback from market experts and existing players in Germany on your product – Enterprise Ireland can help to arrange this.

• You need to convince potential customers in Germany of the three C’s – i.e. that you are capable, competent and committed – and able to interface with them on all levels. Many companies are good at selling, but not so many are good at both selling and supporting clients on a technical level. After-sales service is hugely important as you are looking at a relationship that goes on for years – in our case for the lifespan of the machine incorporating our hydraulic cylinders.

• When you are lucky enough to win German customers, mind them like gemstones. They are hard to win so you don’t want to do anything to lose them. Bad news travels faster than good, so try to exceed what they might expect from suppliers on their own doorstep. Be as good, if not better, than local suppliers in terms of quality and consistency of service.

Learn more about doing business in the Eurozone with the support of Enterprise Ireland.

How Tenderscout is helping Irish companies to win business across the world

“We’ve had Irish firms win contracts in Texas – companies who never would have looked for business beyond our shores before they started working with us.”

While every business relishes winning new contracts, few share the same enthusiasm for the tendering process. It can be laborious, consuming valuable time and requiring considerable investment, with success far from guaranteed.

One dynamic Dublin-based company, Tenderscout, is working to change that. Established by seasoned software developer and start-up specialist Tony Corrigan, the online platform was developed for Irish companies competing for tenders around the world.

Delivering expert support and specialised software, Tenderscout helps companies of all sizes to transform their approach to winning tenders, giving them the best chance to capitalise on a rapidly changing business landscape in which international borders may be no more restrictive than lines in the sand.

“We sit at the hub of the activities a company needs to complete in order to compete for global tenders,” explains Tony, who was inspired to set up the company after becoming frustrated with the inefficiencies he faced during tendering processes.

“That includes sourcing initial requests for tender, qualifying the job to assess if the company is a good fit, and then putting the proposal together.”

Irish businesses can use the Tenderscout platform to quickly find quality jobs posted around the world. The team, which numbers 10 and is growing, applies innovative technology to determine which clients are best-suited to win the tender, connecting them with expertly selected partners or consultants who can help deliver the proposal.

“For example, if you’re a business that would like to compete in Poland for an IT contract, we list companies that can provide required services in that market. That’s a huge advantage when competing internationally,” says Tony.

“We’re also building out a network of bid consultants around the world who can put together tender documents. We do some of this ourselves but primarily the platform is used to source the consultant with the expertise the bidding company needs.”

Expert knowledge of markets and sectors

Making connections with these consultants can be extremely powerful, Tony explains – whether to bridge geographical gaps and provide insights on language and cultural matters, or to offer specific sectoral subject matter expertise.

“If you’re tendering for a project to implement an IT system into a department of education, we can pair you with someone who has experience implementing IT systems into departments of education,” he explains.

Learnings from 3,000 tenders in four years

Tenderscout’s tried-and-tested framework allows the cost of partnerships to be managed to great effect.

“We’ve learned that consultants and the companies they serve don’t always share the same interests,” Tony comments. “It may be in the interests of a consultant for a job to last longer than a client company would like, for example.

By curating the relationship and providing a framework for how the process works, tenders can be developed for 60% of the cost.

We can deliver that because we’ve carried out 3,000 tenders over the past four years. It leaves us with a huge bank of reusable material, which means consultants don’t have to invent everything from scratch, so they can start working more quickly.”

Open your business to the world

One of Tenderscout’s major motivations is to change the status quo, in which most contracts are advertised and awarded to local companies.

“We work internationally ourselves, and we see that Irish companies are, in many cases, better placed to provide certain services than those in the US or Europe,” Tony says. “Particularly in areas such as software development, smart technologies, smart cities, internal productivity solutions, such as meeting room software, and other areas.

The issue is that companies are not always ambitious enough to look beyond their own borders. When they do, results are compelling. We’ve had Irish companies win contracts in Texas, companies who had never looked beyond Irish shores for business before they started working with us.”

Tony insists that companies should not allow fears or concerns about the tendering process to inhibit ambitions for growth.

“The barrier to success is not as high as people think when it comes to tendering,” he adds.

“If you were to take a random selection of tender documents and independently evaluate them, they’d score about 60%. To win, you’d need to be in the region of 90%.

“If you’re good at what you do, scoring highly shouldn’t be a problem. But the process itself can inhibit otherwise great bids.

“In short, if you put the proposal together well, you will win more often than will miss out.”

Going global with ambition

Tenderscout has become highly adept at navigating the international business landscape for clients, partly because their own journey has focused on international expansion, supported by Enterprise Ireland.

“We first became involved with Enterprise Ireland through the New Frontiers programme, then succeeded in getting a grant through the Competitive Start Fund in 2014,” recalls Tony. “From there, we were assigned an advisor, and were supported in research missions to the US and UK by the West Coast and London teams.”

While grant support was helpful in the company’s early days, the most valuable help, as with the company’s network of tendering consultants, came from creating connections and developing insights around the international markets.

“Enterprise Ireland’s support in connecting us with the local business community within each market and helping us to establish our credibility, made a real difference.”

Tech visionary Tony hopes more businesses will put their faith in the Tenderscout platform and use it to transform their fortunes.

“Tenderscout is the tool used by companies that win contracts,” says Tony. “If you’re in a situation in which you’re pitching for business, having Tenderscout in your corner is the best way to aim for success.”

Strong Strategy Key to Combilift’s German Market Success


“Having Germany as a good reference has helped to build our credibility in other export markets – customers think if German companies are buying our product, it must be good.”

– Martin McVicar, Managing Director, Combilift

Key Takeouts:

  • Exporting proved easier than domestic sales from day one.
  • Selling direct before appointing a distributor was an effective strategy.
  • Europe has delivered more sustainable growth than BRICs.
  • Enterprise Ireland provided credibility and on-the-ground support.

Case Study: Combilift

German clients have been the easiest to convince and as a market, Germany has been one of the easiest for Combilift to crack and grow in – compared to Italy or Spain – according to managing director of the company, Martin McVicar.

“The reason for this is that Germans are very analytical and open to innovative products when they can see a visible benefit – for example, when it will make them more efficient,” he says.

“Having Germany as a good reference has helped to build our credibility in other export markets — customers think if German companies are buying our product, it must be good.”

McVicar established Combilift in Co Monaghan with Robert Moffett in 1998. Both were highly qualified engineers with decades of experience between them. Their expertise, knowledge of the market and practical experience led to the development of the Combilift — an innovative long-load material handling solution.

By the end of its first year, Combilift had sold 18 units — 17 of which were in the export markets of the UK, Norway, Belgium and France. To date it has sold 35,000 units in 75 different countries and has developed a range of customised handling solutions.

“In our first year, we did sell one unit locally in Co. Monaghan, but strangely we found it easier to sell into other markets as a start-up in development stage”

“Customers in Norway, for example, didn’t query how big or small we were – they just saw that our product was innovative and solved an unmet need.”

A traditional forklift drives backwards and forwards and is manufactured by major players such as Toyota and Mitsubishi. Recognising that they couldn’t compete directly with these manufacturers, McVicar and Moffett were focused on innovation from the beginning.

“One of the unique selling points of the initial model was that it was multidirectional – it could also move left and right – allowing customers handling long products to transport them in a sideward direction, like a crab movement” McVicar explains.

“Nobody had developed a product like this before — one that could operate both indoors and outdoors. Our forklift could handle any length of product in a small space and handle it with more safety.”

Combilifts’s Partnership with Enterprise Ireland:

  • Availed of Enterprise Ireland R&D supports since it was first established in 1997.
  • Benefitted from introductions to English-speaking distributors in Germany.
  • Participated in trade missions that helped secure new key customers.
  • Boosted management capability with the Leadership for Growth programme.

To see how Enterprise Ireland has enabled Combilift’s success, click here.

The direct approach

McVicar and Moffett recognised from the outset that as a manufacturer of materials handling equipment Combilift had to be focused on exports; the UK and Ireland alone would not sustain the business.

They were very targeted in terms of the type of customers they went for — specifically the segment of companies with long products, such as timber producers. “We knew the big players weren’t specialised in the long-load market. We started in mainland Europe; then went into the UK. We went into the US and Germany in year two, which meant we had broadened out to six countries,” says McVicar.

In the early years, Combilift entered countries quite quickly, directly targeting specific industries and customers and not actively looking for distributors. Taking this route led to distributors seeking the company out. “When distributors in a given market can see there are already a number of users of your product, it convinces them of its quality and they are much more likely to be successful in selling it than if you knock on their door,” notes McVicar.

“We made mistakes in some markets, taking on distributors that promised the sun, moon and stars and we went nowhere with them. Finding users first and appointing or looking for a distributor afterwards proved to be a much more successful strategy.”

In Germany and France, Combilift purposely appointed English-speaking distributors to speak to local clients on its behalf. It didn’t invest in language skills in Ireland, but placed sales people fluent in languages on the ground in different markets. There are currently three based in Germany.

“Germany has better spoken English generally than other European countries. If you can speak to the owner of a dealership in English you are more likely to make a fast impact in that market,” says McVicar.

Combilift is in the process of building a new €40m, 46,000 sq ft greenfield operation in Co. Monaghan, which will allow the company to double its production in a single shift. This is planned to be operational in 2017. Presently, Combilift employs a total of 440 people and recorded turnover of €200m last year.