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Going native

What is the secret of doing business in Ireland? We asked four companies to reveal their strategy.

Bovis Lend Lease is one of the few major international construction firms to go it alone and establish an office in Dublin. Its setting in a bungalow in a P&O yard in Dublin Dock would do MI6 proud as an undercover headquarters, but perhaps in an unintentional way, its low key lodgings somewhat mirror the contractor's approach to its operations in the Irish market.

Bovis' man in Dublin, Ian Salley, worked for the company in the construction industry in the UK before returning to his native city to establish the firm's operation in 1994. A sister office works out of Belfast. He stresses that firms intending to operate in Ireland now should show that they have long term intentions, but should seek to co-operate with the local industry.

'There is a considerable time lag just to establish yourself. But it's best to show that you are here to support, interface and interact with local firms. Companies from outside can bring a wider array of expertise not locally available, but the way to do business is to support local firms, and let them front everything, ' says Salley. 'It's a smaller market and less liberal than the UK. But it's less litigious and operates to a large degree by consensus.

'Cherrypicking is not liked by Irish industry. Companies should show that they are in for the long haul, become as Irish as possible, show commitment, adopt or accept local practices, and offer help and expertise where appropriate and welcome. You must support rather than dictate, ' he adds.

'However, UK firms coming in will need to bring something with them. The Irish have as much expertise as the English in many fields - we have the knowledge to build roads.

What's needed is people with shovels to do the work, ' he says.

Firms which decide to adopt their own rules and ignore those of the market would find the going tough and be unlikely to succeed. 'For example trade unions are very active in the industry, but here we talk to our unions. This has led to a broadly stable industrial relations environment, which has been a key factor in underpinning the country's economic success.'

Salley says that Bovis' primary interest was in the spin-off in private sector work from state investment. He estimates that for every pound the state spends, up to three will be spent by the private sector. With £31bn earmarked for the National Development Plan, that means a staggering £90bn of private sector work could be up for grabs.

Bovis has already won a range of contracts, including an IR£375M scheme to build a biotechnology plant with Irish consultant Jacobs Engineering.

Consultant Gibb's Dublin office, situated in a homely but elegant Georgian building, has an air of settled calm, as if the operation had been up and running since those in charge of it were born. Registered only last August, the atmosphere of the office is perhaps down to the fact that many of the team are Irish, some returned from abroad.

The man heading up Gibb's 30strong team is Steve Burgess, a Belfastman who left Ireland to graduate at Imperial College in 1986. He joined what was then Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, which took him to places as diverse as Istanbul and North Wales, including a stint on the Cardiff Bay Barrage.

He welcomed the chance to move back to Ireland, because of the challenges brought by a booming market with a varied workload.

'We are not just renting a building. We are registered here, and are making a big investment here for the long term, ' says Burgess. 'The only way to deliver solutions effectively is to be in the marketplace. You have to understand the problem and have that local knowledge and presence, because you can't do it from a distance. But because we're a large international consultancy, we bring the skills and resources available to us to bear on the local market.'

Gibb operated a small branch office in Dublin for a few years before taking the plunge to establish a more permanent and high powered presence. International connections through the firm's US parentage brought the first foothold in the Irish market.

Environmental projects came first, when Gibb started picking up jobs for US multi-nationals working in Ireland, such as site surveys for due diligence. Then came projects for Iarnrod Eireann (Ireland's railway company), the Irish National Roads Authority and county councils.

The work is varied. 'With Iarnrod Eireann for example, we're working as its advisor on the Dublin Port Tunnel project, on a feasibility study for freight and yard development throughout Ireland.'

'We bring in expertise from our people with specialism in the field and are not looking to replicate what's already there. There are many local firms which have plenty of experience and good reputations, ' says Burgess.

Finding niche areas while providing expertise across a wide range of activities is the thrust of the office's work.

'Consulting engineers are often seen as detailed designers, which we're not. Our job is to develop the consultancy side of the business, because that's where we believe we add value, ' Burgess explains.

A lot of time is spent meeting potential clients and business partners, with a joint venture established in Sligo with consultant Jennings O'Donovan.

New methods of construction procurement such as the Public Private Partnership (PPP), Ireland's private finance initiative, have also brought opportunities.

The 30-odd staff are a mix of senior people and those with specialist skills on assignment from the UK, but most are local to provide a workforce whose parent office is in Dublin. 'We've found it better to recruit locally in Ireland because we need people who understand the market and clients, ' says Burgess.

Home grown

It is now in the top three of Ireland's engineering firms, but few would have relished a job in the engineering department of Ireland's Electricity Supply Board in the late 1980s. The semi-state company did not seem to relish having an engineering department either, since after a programme of power plant expansion the previous decade, the work simply dried up.

The ESB has arguably Ireland's proudest civil engineering legacy, stemming from construction of the country's first major civils project, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric dam. Built by 5,000 men and a team of young engineers led by Thomas McLoughlin from 1925-29, the harnessing of the Shannon river provided electricity for the fledgling country, blinking in the first years of independence from Britain in 1921. Thereafter, the company attracted the cream of the country's civil and electrical engineers.

But by the late 1980s, recession had bitten and the state coffers were bare. The ESB hived off its engineering arm in 1989 with 300 staff and ESB International was born.

'We had huge capability but no work. It was a difficult time to be set up. The ESB wanted to cut costs - were told to go it alone and make our own way, and not to expect to be bailed out, ' says head of ESBI civil and structural group Con Sheahan.

Overseas work was the only hope, with initial forays built on a smattering of overseas contracts won by the ESB in the 1970s.

Twelve years later the index to the company's project file reads like the contents of a world atlas, with projects in 88 countries ranging from Azerbijan to Zimbabwe.

The secret to this dramatic expansion has been adaptability.

Contracts range from power projects to environmental assessments and standard civil and structural work.

'The Irish are particularly effective at ingratiating themselves with the local community when abroad, ' says Sheahan. Once a foothold has been obtained in a market, it has helped other work to follow on. 'People from smaller countries seem to identify with Ireland which has helped, ' he adds.

As overseas work boomed, Ireland followed suit, putting the firm in a key position to capitalise from the country's boom.

The change in fortunes has not gone unnoticed, with one multinational consultant embarking on a failed courtship of the once unwanted engineering group. But with the around 650 staff now and a turnover of £80M in 1999, not surprisingly the ESB is keen to retain ownership of its prodigy.

Engineering consultant Project Management started from humble roots in 1974 from when its two founders set up an office in the suburb of Ranelagh. Steady but slow growth continued until the early 1990s when staff numbers touched 100. But as a measure of the good times rolling for Irish engineers since the mid-1990s, the firm has rocketed in size, with turnover quadrupling from IR£16M (£13M) to IR£67M (£54M) with a staff of over 1,000. But Ireland is only one dimension of the firm's business, with offices in the US, Singapore, Poland and the UK.

'We decided to double the business five years ago. We looked at the areas we weren't involved in, and grew our overseas work from nothing, ' says director and civil engineer Michael Shelley.

Close co-operation with firms in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors, engines of Ireland's recent economic growth, has brought partnership arrangements with giants such as Intel and Xerox, with project management contracts on some of Ireland's largest private sector work, with a range of £100M plus projects. The key to success here too appears to be diversity and adaptability. 'The aim is to provide a one-stop shop to clients, where we have expertise across a range of disciplines inhouse, ' says Shelley.

Staffing is a universal problem, with a multi-national complement including Polish workers at the firm's Dublin headquarters, some of whom have been given help in finding accommodation. 'Because opportunities outside are quite significant now, you have to look at the best way of attracting staff.

Money is not enough - you have to interesting work and a good package, ' says Shelley. This includes plans for share options in the company, presently owned 75% by its management and 25% by Foster Wheeler.

Success has not gone unrecognised, with the company beating off competition from all sectors to win the prestigious Irish Times/PA Consulting management award for 2000. Presenting the award, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said: 'This [company] is a great example which many Irish firms would do well to take notice of.'

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