Enterprise Ireland CEO: ‘We will never go back to where we were’

5 Nov 2020

Julie Sinnamon. Image: © Connor McKenna/Siliconrepublic.com

Speaking at Future Human, Enterprise Ireland’s Julie Sinnamon talked about how Covid-19 has changed the business landscape and what the future holds.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, SMEs across Ireland have been massively impacted. In March, companies had to suddenly shift to remote working, some had to pivot business models and others had to shut their doors and re-evaluate their situation.

Throughout that time, Enterprise Ireland has been working tirelessly to help SMEs through this situation. Speaking at Future Human 2020, Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon described some of the challenges of the last few months.

“We were dealing with a big crisis for Irish companies, liquidity issues for companies, issues in terms of getting into markets and trying to develop new business remotely, issues to do with customs and logistics in particular, supply chains.”

Internally, staff members in Enterprise Ireland also had to adjust to doing all of this while working remotely, which Sinnamon said can be difficult particularly for some of the younger staff members.

“The whole camaraderie, sense of community, the impact of working remotely and not necessarily being in accommodation which was designed for people to work remotely, so people who are in small flats and things, [it’s] probably a little bit claustrophobic.”

However, she added that the sense of community across the Enterprise Ireland team was the strongest she has ever seen it. “We’ve learned a lot in terms of how to deal with this remote working and I think when normality returns, we will never go back to where we were. Because actually we have got better at some of the things in terms of more efficient use of our time and communicating better as an organisation.”

Helping companies through Covid-19

Sinnamon also spoke about the financial supports that have been available to companies in Ireland. “One of the bits of feedback that we were picking up quite a lot from companies was there was a reluctance to go for a debt only, and we were putting in the money by way of either repayable advances, or preference shares, or convertible loans, or loan notes, etc, and companies didn’t actually want to take that product as much as we might have thought that they should be taking it.”

She said a change was then made so that companies could get a non-repayable grant of up to 50pc of a funding package up to a maximum of €200,000. This meant that if a company receives €400,000 of support, €200,000 of that is non-repayable money.

“Many companies also have availed of the Financial Planning grant and that has been absolutely brilliant,” she said. “It’s 100pc funding towards putting together that financial plan and that has been fantastic.”

Sinnamon said she would advise any company who isn’t sure whether they’re eligible for such supports to contact Enterprise Ireland’s dedicated Covid response hub. “We will tell you whether it’s us or somebody else that can provide that support to you.”

New talent opportunities

However, while Covid-19 has presented many struggles for companies, Sinnamon spoke about the positive sides, and specifically how remote working has opened up new opportunities.

“It has opened the eyes of many really traditional companies to what is possible,” she said. “We’ve all been engaged in this massive global social experiment for the last six months and suddenly people have realised that jobs that you didn’t think could be done from home can be done from home.” She added that not only has this widened the talent pool for many companies, but it is breathing new life into regional hubs.

‘Covid-19 has opened the eyes of many really traditional companies to what is possible’

In the marketplace, companies are living on the strengths of the past relationships, so there are deals being done, particularly for, say, new deals being done for people who have solutions in the context of Covid, be that work with products that support the virtual world or cybersecurity, to products in the Covid-19-related sectors.”

However, the lack of face-to-face meeting opportunities means that some companies are struggling to develop new business relationships. However, Enterprise Ireland is also running a number of development programmes for companies around building relationships virtually and how to transact online.

Looking ahead

Having been appointed as CEO of the Government agency in 2013, Sinnamon announced in February of this year that she plans to leave Enterprise Ireland, but Covid-19 pushed out that departure. Now that the dust of the crisis has somewhat settled, she told the Future Human audience that she expects those plans to be reactivated in the coming weeks.

“What I had said in February is, I would stay until they have found a CEO and that there’s an orderly transition and that’s still my intent. So, it won’t be this year, it’ll be some time, I suspect, March onwards.”

Looking ahead from the point of view of SMEs in Ireland, Sinnamon said she’s “really optimistic” about the future and thinks that CEOs and founders will be in a better position to “stay with it longer”.

“That’s something which I would love to see, more Irish companies being controlled from Ireland for a little bit longer. It doesn’t mean that they will never sell out, but at least they will have kept it long enough to get the real value out of the company so that when they do sell out, they make a good return for the massive risks that they’ve taken to get it to that stage,” she said.

“The biggest pleasure I ever get is sitting watching them succeed in the global stage and that’s what I think that they’re going to go from strength to strength.”

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic