IN 2015, IDA Ireland put forward a new five-year strategy which placed a renewed emphasis on attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the regions.
For the Border Region which includes Donegal, the IDA set down the target of a minimum increase in investment of 30% to 40%, which equates to a minimum of 61 additional projects, in the region by 2019.
Last week Mr John Nugent, IDA Regional manager for the North West, spoke to the Donegal News about the ongoing challenges in trying to attract to Donegal, and Letterkenny, companies seeking new opportunities and preparing to enter new markets.
The latest statistics show that overseas businesses in Donegal now employ over three thousand people.
That’s almost double the people who were employed in IDA backed companies ten years ago.
Almost two-thirds of that work-force are employed in two Letterkenny based companies, namely Pramerica Systems Ireland and US health insurer Optum.
“The current generation of employees within the IDA are standing on the shoulders of giants who helped to attract many of these companies to Donegal,” Mr Nugent explained.
“Men like Joe McHugh (his predecessor as regional manager) put in tremendous effort to win that investment and it is our job to support those existing companies, to help them grow and to win new investment,” he added.
In recent days, there have been positive IDA-related jobs announcements in different parts of the country but none for Donegal. Mr Nugent said that they remain fully committed to the region.
“We’re only half way through the current five-year strategy and we have to be very careful what we share publicly as we have a lot of competition internationally,” he said.
Letterkenny, which is now the most populous town in both Ulster and Connacht, remains the dominant location within Donegal for such jobs.
“Letterkenny is where we are putting our emphasis at present but that’s not to say that we’re disregarding the rest of the county. Letterkenny already has all the necessary infrastructure in place. Potential investors want to see schools, healthcare, business parks, similar companies and third level institutions and Letterkenny is the town in Donegal that ticks those boxes,” he said.
Working closely with Donegal stakeholders such as the County Manager Seamus Neely and Paul Hannigan and John Andy Bonar at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, and existing enterprises the IDA facilitate visits from prospective clients.
“We would love to see equal distribution of FDI companies around the country but the reality is that these companies decide on location based of their needs today and their future needs.
“What you see is the dominance of university locations mopping up most of the FDI coming into Ireland. We know that other locations, like Letterkenny, can also meet their needs and may indeed be more suited with lower prices and better quality of life but, ultimately, it comes down to the companies at the end of the day,” he said.
Many companies looking to set up a European base in Ireland want to be within an hour’s drive of an international airport and a population mass in excess of 500,000.
“That’s not a reflection on Letterkenny or Donegal but it just gives an idea of what we’re up against. In many respects we’re trying to push water up a hill,” Mr Nugent said.
Waving a white flag?
Does that mean that IDA Ireland are waving a white flag when it comes to attracting FDI into Donegal and the North West?
“Absolutely not but as wonderful and beautiful as Donegal is it’s not a metropolitan city region which is on the top of the list for many companies looking to come to Ireland,” he said.
That hasn’t stopped the likes of SITA, the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and IT solutions, moving to new state-of-the-art premises in Letterkenny.
IDA business parks in the town are also home to other multinationals including Zeus Industrial Products; Pramerica Systems Ireland and Optum, the US health insurer formerly known as UnitedHealth Group.
Pramerica, which launched its business in Letterkenny with eight employees less than twenty years ago, recently moved into a new premises than can eventually accommodate up to 1,800 staff members.
“They (Pramerica) have outperformed on every metric. Local senior staff like Gerard Grant, Andrea McBride, Henry McGarvey, Caroline Faulkner and Ciaran Harvey just knocked it out of the park and excelled in everything they did.
“They showed headquarters what they could do and we supported them in whatever way we could. We sorted out the location for them but it’s been all about the performance of their staff and the local eco system rowing in behind them. It’s probably the best example of its kind anywhere in Ireland,” he enthused.
“Both Pramerica and Optum have exceeded all expectations. They’re both terrific companies who started small and who have a lot of their original management teams still in place,” he said.
While there have been a decrease in the number of companies visiting Donegal, Mr Nugent said that site visits were not the “be all and end all” for the IDA.
“The number of site visits isn’t necessarily an accurate barometer of what’s happening on the ground. It could take a company two to three years to make a decision as to their future after first visiting a location.
“That said, we would like the number of site visits to be higher because if we got them up here to see the infrastructure and the ambition of companies already here we would be confident that we could attract more.
“We have a fantastic product. It’s a gateway location, a provincial capital town, and has the necessary infrastructure, including the LYIT, while we’re just across the border from Derry, a large population base and other universities located in Northern Ireland.
“We’re now seeing the fruits of the labours of the likes of Joe McHugh and the response of the IDA following the demise of the textile industry in the region. Please God we’ll continue to reap those benefits into the future.
“We’re up for the challenge. We know what success looks like and we want to see more FDI coming into Donegal. We won’t stop trying,” he said.
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.