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The Canadian invasion: Ireland has become a hotbed for Canadian business

Monday, January 15, 2018

Philip Lee consultant, Chris Collenette interviewed by the Independent, 14th January 2018.

A century and a half ago, a band of Fenians conducted raids on Canada in an attempt to strike a blow against British rule in Ireland. Needless to say, the effort was a failure. John O’Neill — a key leader of the Fenian band — wanted to make it clear however that he had no quarrel with the Canadians. “We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland,” he said. “We are here as the Irish army of liberation.”

Today that spirit of Irish-Canadian camaraderie endures as Ireland becomes something of a hotbed for Canadian business. In a speech to mark the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Ireland last summer, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said trade between the two countries was worth €2.75bn. Canadian investment in Ireland was valued at €10bn, he said. Perhaps the most high-profile component of that investment is insurer and pensions provider Irish Life — bought off the State by Winnipeg-based Great West Lifeco. The deal saw Irish Life combined with Great West’s Canada Life business — which has had a presence in Ireland in 1903. There was, said the then Great West boss Allen Loney, a “good culture fit”.

And culture is the word that keeps coming up when you speak to Canadian businesses operating here. “A lot has been written about American multinationals in Ireland – that’s been ongoing for 50-60 years,” John Riordan, director of support for Ireland at Canadian ecommerce business Shopify. “But there are a lot of similarities between the Canadian culture and the Irish culture. In my experience the two countries seem to gel. From a business culture perspective, they’re very similar in nature. In the same way that we’ve always been the scrappy kid brother to the UK, Canada has been the scrappy kid brother to the US. And there’s a similar mindset as a result of that.”

Shopify’s operation in Ireland is primarily focused on customer support. It’s an area that has been growing in Ireland in recent years, despite the perception that these jobs are all being outsourced to low-cost countries in Asia. Part of the reason, says Riordan, is that Irish people are perceived as being empathetic — they are good listeners. Shopify has more than 200 people based in Ireland but has no office — every single person works remotely. “We handle customer queries from all countries around the world — we’ve been in Ireland almost three years. We looked at a couple of different places outside of Canada. Ireland was one of the more attractive places because of the talent pool that was available.”

Another Canadian business getting involved in the customer support business is Telus, which bought a majority stake in Dan and Linda Kiely’s Voxpro in one of the most high-profile Irish deals of the year. Telus CEO Jeffrey Puritt said his Toronto-based company and the Kielys’ Cork operation were “like-minded organisations”.

“Together, we provide a truly differentiated offering in the marketplace designed to meet our fast-growing partner demands for more locations, flexible and agile support structures, and highly engaged multilingual team members committed to customer service excellence,” he said.

Chris Collenette is a Canadian consultant working at the Irish law firm Philip Lee. He works to increase the firm’s Canadian business and encourages Canadian companies to come and locate in Ireland, in tandem with Irish and Canadian government agencies. Previously an adviser to former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. He has a good handle on how to persuade a Canadian company to locate here. “There are a number of things we would highlight. There’s geography. Ireland is the closest geographical country in Europe to Canada and there are now weekly direct flights from Dublin to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Two, the linguistic similarities. Three, the legal systems are quite similar. Four, there are shared values – 14pc of the Canadian population claim themselves as having Irish background,” Collenette says.

“Talent is a big part too. There’s a huge hub of international companies in Ireland, and if you want to scale into Europe, you are going to need a talented workforce to do so. Companies might have a great idea or a great product, but they also need people to drive the business forward.

“We would also talk about tax advantages such as the competitive corporate tax rate and the Knowledge Development Box, but we would lead with the similarities in language, the legal system, geography and of course talent.” Another person who’s been impressed by Irish talent is Alan Fullerton. His company Teknicor, based in Toronto and a specialist in data centre architecture, has just embarked on a recruitment campaign here. His aim is to employ 70 to 100 engineers in Ireland within the next three years. “It’s a very accommodating environment for business. We’ve been impressed by the skillsets that are there,” Fullerton told the Sunday Independent.

“We’re finding it a very educated, experienced workforce to draw from for what we do. The culture is very similar to a Canadian culture in a way and we’re pretty excited to get the team on board to start speaking to our customers globally.” Fullerton’s business operates in a number of other countries and he singles out the IDA as a strong promoter of what this country has to offer. “There’s a massive difference between what Ireland does to attract business versus the other geographies that we operate in.

“The IDA are very interested in bringing investment to Ireland and in my opinion the approach works. There’s a spectacular hub of technology businesses in Ireland, they’ve been there a long time. “There’s a great group of support services, whether it’s the IDA or others, that make it a lot easier for us to come over and get going.” Canadian capital is also flowing into Ireland in a manner that perhaps you wouldn’t expect. The country is a major hub for the minerals exploration industry, and with the price of zinc booming there’s been a significant upsurge in activity in zinc exploration in Ireland. Leading the charge is Group Eleven Resources, run by Canadian Bart Jaworski. That company has been on a fundraising spree and has just completed a stock market flotation in Toronto as it seeks to develop its prospects. Among the company’s backers is MAG Silver, another Toronto-listed business that has had success exploring for silver in Mexico. Some of Group Eleven’s biggest prospects were bought from Teck, a Canadian mining giant that has been active here.

Other Canadian-linked companies active in the sector here include Hannan Metals, which has been doing some drilling at a prospect at Kilbricken in Co Clare.

Elsewhere in exploration, the oil and gas explorer Nexen — Canadian in heritage but recently bought by the Chinese state national oil company — took a stake in a prospect located near the Corrib field last year in a deal that industry sources regarded as perhaps the best farm-in deal in the Irish offshore of 2017. And speaking of the Corrib field, one of its new owners is Vermilion Energy, headquartered in Canada. Canadian businesses are involved in the oil business here, right the way through from exploration to putting petrol in your car. The Whitegate refinery in Cork is owned by Canada’s Irving Oil, while petrol station business Topaz was sold by Digicel chairman Denis O’Brien to the Quebecois business Couche Tard in 2016.

When Trudeau came to visit Ireland last year, a lot of the focus was on the telegenic Ottawa native’s choice of socks. His colourful choices in that regard have become something of a branding point, and of course Leo Varadkar tried to get in on the trend too with a pair of maple leaf socks. “The economic ties between Canada and Ireland are strong … we worked hard together with our other European partners to create good jobs for our citizens by ratifying [EU-Canada trade deal] Ceta,” Trudeau said in a speech during the visit. “Throughout the lengthy negotiation process Ireland was a steadfast supporter of this historic trade deal, and I know that all of us are looking forward to the good jobs and the greater opportunities it will afford both our countries,” he added.

With the deal now provisionally in force, there’ll be more scope for Canadian businesses to come and operate here. That’s what the IDA is hoping anyway. The State agency is planning to establish an office in Canada, citing Ceta as well as the Nafta renegotiations, Brexit and the introduction of the GDPR. The IDA’s stats say there are 35 Canadian companies approved in Ireland, with an employment base in excess of 3,790 people. That’s an increase of more than a third since 2014. “The IDA has adopted a highly diversified cross-sectoral approach in the development of new business across the Canadian market. Our strong performance demonstrates the resilience of the Irish offering,” an IDA spokesperson said. But for Trudeau, the most important connection between Ireland and Canada was a shared set of values. And judging by what the Canadian businesses operating here have to say, it’s the cultural links, the values relating to people, that will have the most important part to play in securing future Canadian investment. This time around, there’ll be no invasions required.


Chris Collenette