Irish businesses generated €1bn in new export sales in 2007. As Frank Ryan, CEO of Irish state development agency Enterprise Ireland (EI) said at the end of the year: "Irish companies are adept at pursuing new market opportunities—their tenacity has resulted in a third year of export gains."
This year will prove more of a challenge. Economists are talking seriously about the prospect of a recession and consumer confidence is starting to dip. So Stephen Hughes, whose role at EI is to help companies grow sales through international sales and "win business in appropriate markets" has his work cut out. "The UK market will still be robust, but globally things that are beyond our immediate control will affect portions of the market here, and that's a challenge," he says. "You've got to make sure you're fighting harder for the sectors facing difficult times." He reckons that the financial services and general consumer sectors will probably be those to face the most strain this year.
EI works with companies in five main areas: achieving export sales; investing in research and innovation; competing through productivity; starting up; and driving regional enterprise. "Our role, strategically, is critically important to Ireland Inc in terms of growth and its continued growth," says Hughes. "We receive €220m a year from government and industry to spend on investments and activity that we believe will bring growth to Ireland's economy in a balanced, regional way—not just in Dublin."
Ireland has seen a sustained period of growth since the mid-1990s. According to Hughes, "the Irish economy is probably one of the most attractive in the world from an entrepreneurial perspective. We have good support systems for existing and start-up entrepreneurs and have a very favourable corporation tax, which is a key driver at the end of the day."
But with global competition fierce, Hughes says innovation and good leadership are as important as ever. "After a lot of hard work by a lot of people through tough times we have become known as the 'Celtic tiger economy', but now the model has changed," he says. "In the mid-1990s we were a low-cost economy in terms of labour and business. Today, we're a high-cost economy. So our companies need to offer increased added value, which takes the emphasis away from just cost, in order to win new business."
In terms of export growth, Hughes says established sectors such as food, software and industrial products continue to thrive. He also thinks that products related to the environment will become critically important over the next few years. As he says: "Sustainability is driving change in the construction sector, and there will be opportunities, especially with the 2012 Olympics, for companies willing to adjust."
Hughes is clear about his own ambition: "Market and trade sales have become complex, so I want a win for the Irish company and a win for the UK-based buyer. It's an exciting place to be."