Nation lost sight of export potential, it’s time to get it back

3 Apr 2009

The former chief executive of Enterprise Ireland Dan Flinter told SMEs and academics this week that the booming economy of recent years overshadowed the reality that small, open economies must grow exports and gain market share.

Flinter was speaking at the NUI Maynooth (NUIM) Connect event at Carton House, where he warned of the need to have SMEs establish meaningful connections with the research community to generate world-beating products.

The event focused on establishing greater alliances between SMEs and academics to generate new products, processes and, ultimately, world-beating companies.

Flinter said the current focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in Ireland is belated, but no less welcome.

“We welcome the focus on this agenda – it has enormous importance for this country’s well-being.”

He said the time is now to develop the right strategies and deliver on them. “This shouldn’t be just one single strategy. We must develop the capacity to learn and adapt to circumstances.

“The key to the success of a private company is to have a strategy that it sticks to, but it must also have agility.”

Highlighting a recent report in The Economist that said a vibrant university sector is vital to the creation of a strong economy, Flinter said that with the strong tide of multinational investment coming into Ireland, we skipped that chapter.

“That is no longer possible. In recent weeks, a lot of thought has gone into how we arrived at the current set of economic conditions. Now we should be thinking, ‘How do we re-emerge?’

“I am convinced that we will recover and get back on a sustainable growth path.”

In recent months, Flinter embarked on an exercise of re-reading documents from the Eighties, and came across a seminal report by ESRI in 1986 that outlined the road ahead for Ireland. But things were so bad at the time that it was hard for people to buy into the proposition that Ireland had a future.

“Yet, not long after Intel made a critical investment in Ireland, it had a conviction that Ireland had a future.”

Since then, he said, the educational standards of the population have deepened considerably by a factor of three, and our science and research infrastructure has evolved from being virtually non-existent in the Eighties to attracting global researchers today.

“Ireland’s physical infrastructure by 2010 will be impressive in terms of broadband growth and motorway routes. A substantial number of companies have emerged, and a small number of Irish multinationals are operating in a large number of markets.

“But during the growth years, we forgot that long-term growth was linked inextricably to export performance. The growth years overshadowed the reality that small, open economies must grow exports and gain market share.

“This realisation did not pass by some very skilled entrepreneurs, but, as a nation, we lost sight of it. It is now time to reassert the primacy of our exports.

“Many Irish companies exist with the potential to produce world-beating products and services. They must be helped to continue marketing and selling. And this time, they deserve our support.”

Flinter’s words echoed around the room of 200 people, 70pc of whom were SMEs.

By John Kennedy