Ghosts in a shell: Can start-up spirit be found in our industrial past?

12 Mar 2018

Image: Joe Dunckley/Shutterstock

Ireland’s industrial legacy in the form of disused factories should be used to inspire entrepreneurial hope, writes John Kennedy.

Do you believe in ghosts? I do. Well, not your conventional scary ghosts. More like spirits that come alive, or emotions brought back to life by pictures, sounds, smells and places. You know, when you visit a place you haven’t been for ages, or hear a tune, or stumble across an old photograph that takes you precisely back to what you were feeling, doing and thinking at a moment in time, long ago. These ghosts can be sentimental, romantic, or sad, even angry spirits.

I saw a ghost the other day, unintentionally. Flicking through Facebook, a local councillor posted pictures of a disused factory in a nearby village called Ballivor.

Future Human

When I was growing up, that factory, the former NEC semiconductor manufacturing facility, was the place to be if you got employment in the bleak Irish economy of the 1980s and 1990s. They said at the time that if you got in at NEC, you had a job for life.

When I saw the photographs – especially one of a disused boardroom and a factory floor – I was shuttled back in time to a beautiful, sunny morning in May in the mid-1990s. It was a poignant memory because not only was it one of my very first assignments as a tech journalist – covering the creation of new jobs at NEC Ballivor – but also because my dad, who passed away last year, drove me there himself as I didn’t drive at the time, proud to see his young son mingle with all the grandees. I’ll never forget it.

Sadly, NEC pulled out of Ballivor in 2006 with the loss of 350 jobs despite the best efforts of local community leaders, politicians and union leaders. Efforts to secure a future for the factory came to naught and ever since then, it has sat empty and unused.

It is a shell of a building now, and I see ghosts in that shell. They are memories of friendships, the tinkle or chime of laughter, and the hopes and dreams of gainful employment and prosperity for a village community.

Ballivor is in the news for different reasons these days. Locals are protesting the arrival of a drug rehabilitation centre in the village known as Narconon, a group with links to the Scientology movement.

My purpose isn’t to allude to those protests, but to point out that something ought to be done to salvage or make use of former industrial sites such as Ballivor that are strewn across Ireland, to hopefully create a bright industrial future for communities in this country.

Think start-ups combined with industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, driven by the maker movement, the internet of things and vibrant new possibilities on the canvas of software, e-commerce, electronics and the internet, mixed with old-school CNC machines, modern 3D printing and a lot more.

Even in my hometown of Trim, not far from Ballivor, a former primary school that I attended – a beautiful, stately, two-storey building – is sadly shuttered and boarded up. It has often crossed my mind how such buildings could or should be used to provide light, heat and connectivity for local entrepreneurs who could generate jobs in the community. There could be a myriad of other useful purposes for such a building.

All investment is mobile – never forget that

If you don’t speculate, you’ll never accumulate, they say. Mobile investment is exactly that: mobile.

The investments that IDA Ireland competes for used to be termed ‘mobile investments’. The term has gone out of vogue, but it is worth remembering that the battle for foreign direct investment (FDI) – a battle that will surely escalate in the aftermath of Brexit – is one for investments that suit a company in a particular place, in a particular time of its development. That will always be the case.

I got my first harsh lesson in ‘mobile’ investment in 1996 when I attended the opening of a massive hard-disk-drive manufacturing facility belonging to Seagate in Clonmel that could have employed more than 2,000 people.

The opening was more like a pageant. Local pipe and accordion bands, politicians, and grandees were all dressed in their Sunday best. American executives – who stood out from the crowd with their glowing tans and noticeably more tailored suits – glanced bemusedly at each other as the local parish priest bestowed blessings on the facility and all who would work there.

Just a few months later, Seagate pulled the plug on Clonmel, to the dismay and disappointment of the locals.

The thing is, investment priorities change as companies grow. An investment in state-of-the-art manufacturing today could be undermined by changing economic or technological circumstances tomorrow. And this was certainly very true in the volatile electronics business of the 1990s and 2000s.

This is the global economy in action. The battle for mobile investment or FDI as we know it today is constantly evolving, and it is no surprise that the IDA is probably the most astute, polished, globalised and accomplished sales operation Ireland has ever produced.

But things constantly change. We saw this with Dell when it pulled out of Limerick in 2009 with the loss of 1,900 jobs, turning the city into the country’s unemployment blackspot for a time as the nation reeled in the midst of the banking crisis.

And, even as things improve, companies are still shifting and changing. Last year, HP revealed plans to close its inkjet print cartridge facility in Leixlip, with the loss of 500 jobs.

But, as companies change, it is not necessarily the end either. Dell still employs around 5,000 people in Ireland, for example, focused on higher-end cloud, edge computing and IoT activities.

Apple is hurtling towards 6,000 people in Ireland but had struggled as its parent company struggled in the late 1990s and early 2000s, dropping to less than 1,000 at one point, before the late Steve Jobs corrected its trajectory, boosted its velocity and turned it into the iPhone giant it is today.

Build it and the start-up jobs will come

And don’t forget – there is a future for many former industrial sites that can be repurposed to fuel entrepreneurial hopes and visions.

One of the former Dell facilities at Castletroy has been turned into a film studio called Troy Studios, with 340,000 sq ft of highly specified film and TV production facilities. It will also become home to a media cluster of companies providing services to support film and TV production on site.

The former Dell facility in Castletroy is also the location of a new pharmaceutical plant belonging to Regeneron, which will employ 300 pharma workers.

IDA Ireland is currently working with Jacobs Engineering to identify further greenfield sites to build future facilities, such as life sciences campuses and data centre parks. The Athenry data centre fiasco that may have meant the loss of an €850m data centre project by Apple has prompted long overdue changes to planning decisions in our courts, and the IDA is also expected to be handed newly enhanced powers to compulsorily purchase land.

But what of the facilities that are still in existence and not being used?

While Ballivor remains a shell, a mere detail on a list of sites maintained and owned by the IDA, it is worth noting that such sites could and should have a vibrant future.

FDI and mobile investment trends are changing. There is a tangible link now between entrepreneurship and inward investment.

Digital and pharma giants are likely to pursue a strategy of acqui-hiring, whereby they buy start-up companies led by entrepreneurs to freshen up their product offerings, intellectual property and leadership teams.

If IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland got together with enterprising local entrepreneurs to turn many of these disused buildings into entrepreneurial hubs – much like the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen or the Building Block in Sligo – not only would it protect their property investment, it would create jobs and entrepreneur-led companies that would suit the acqui-hire tendencies of this era’s giants.

In fact, the very building I work out of in Dublin – a former Guinness hop store managed by The Digital Hub – is a former 19th-century industrial building that today hums with start-up life.

Instead of ghosts in empty shells, these buildings could once again chime with the laughter and hopes of living, ambitious and industrious spirits.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years