When two former fishermen and a friend quit their jobs to start a whiskey business in Ireland’s moribund economy, they knew straight away their future lay in selling their wares overseas.
The whiskey makers targeted Europe and America just six months after their first blend was in Irish supermarkets and as Asia’s consumption of the spirit booms, the trio expect 90% of everything they produce to be sold abroad.
West Cork Distillery is just one example of how Irish companies are looking overseas, rallied by a Government which is vying to reposition the country’s long-term business model on more labour intensive industries to help spur a recovery that it desperately needs to bring its debts down.
“I think everyone in Ireland is looking to export at the moment, it’s the only show in town,” said John O’Connell, co-founder of the drinks company.
While local exporters are dwarfed by larger multinationals in terms of output — accounting for less than 15% of exports — they employ the same number as the rival juggernauts which include tech and pharma A-listers such as Google and Pfizer.
“They (small companies) are very important. Individual employers may not create massive jobs, but when you add them up, they are quite large... Every job is more taxes coming in and less money being paid out in social welfare,” said Alan McQuaid, economist at Merrion Stockbrokers.
The interest from firms trading exclusively in the home market and wanting to get into exporting has grown “exponentially” over the last few years, according to the head of the Irish Exporters Association.
The rise comes at a crucial time as buoyant pharmaceutical exports — driven by eight of the world’s top 10 pharma companies which operate here — may soon sag as the industry faces its biggest-ever wave of patent expiries.
Shepherding domestic companies to the export market is one of the approaches the Government is taking to spur enough economic growth to make inroads into a debt pile set to peak at 120% of GDP next year.
Similar programmes have helped over 40 start-ups in recent years with almost three quarters now exporting, and nearly a third have gone on to secure private sector investment.
The drive to push artisan food and drink products abroad has led to a revival in the agri-food industry, prompting Taoiseach Enda Kenny to take 20 loaves of Irish bread with him when he met Barack Obama this year.
A short drive from Limerick, a city where the high street is dying as locals struggle with the downturn, Willie Wixted is turning former pig feed into a lucrative export of protein supplements for athletes.
The manufacturer, who employs 13 people and is targeting 50% growth per annum, said reducing costs further — such as wages and rents — must be a priority.
One silver lining to Ireland’s crisis is its burgeoning reputation as a country that faced up to its problems, something that has helped the whiskey men from Union Hall when cutting deals from Germany to the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s allowing you to open the door a bit. There is an emotional goodwill towards Ireland. Though it won’t sell, it will help your case,” said West Cork Distillery’s O’Connell.
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