Ellen Lunney reports from the annual ISME Conference, held at the RDS last month.
The annual conference of the Irish Small & Medium Enterprises (ISME) took place in the Concert Hall of the RDS, Dublin last month, hosted by Matt Cooper. The conference, entitled ‘SMEs: The Key To The Future’, opened with a heated discussion on the realities of the Croke Park Agreement, with the Chairman of ISME, John Ryan, arguing for the need of an independent body to oversee the agreement’s renegotiation. Dr. Eddie Molloy, Director, Advanced Organisation and Shay Cody, General Secretary of IMPACT also took to the stage, fielding questions and impassioned comments from the floor.
In the next segment of the conference, ‘I Did It My Way’ (or, alternatively, to steal one of the speaker’s phrases, ‘Getting A Chance To Survive And Taking It’), three high profile Irish SME leaders – Frank Mulrennan, CEO of Celtic Media Group (CMG), Bobby Kerr, Chairman of Insomnia Coffee and Mary-Ann O’Brien, founder and Chairman of Lily O’Brien’s Chocolate - discussed how their respective SMEs have survived the past few difficult years, and (with tactical modifications to their approaches), how they have thrived.
One of the key themes to emerge from the three presentations was the value of teamwork. Kerr emphasised that it was “better to be in a business where burden is shared, where success is shared and challenge is shared,” while O’Brien stressed: “There is no I – we – Lily O’Brien’s – are getting through the recession.”
Adapting Their Business
Following an announcement made in the week prior to the ISME conference that he would not be appearing on Dragon’s Den again, Bobby Kerr discussed his approach to guiding Insomnia’s progress over the years, leading the coffee chain’s expansion from 17 to 50 shops in his previous capacity of CEO, and increasing turnover from €5 to €13 million. In terms of tailoring the product to the current market, Kerr made reference to the expansion of the Insomnia brand to Spar convenience stores, the growth of the company’s network of Bean-To-Cup machines and to the fact that bundles now represent 50% of Insomnia’s sales. Meanwhile, Mary-Ann O’Brien, also co-founder of the Jack & Jill Foundation (as well as a recent appointee to the Seanad), tracked the confectionary company’s huge upward trajectory since she established the business in a small kitchen of a Kildare flat in 1992. She spoke frankly about her company’s struggles during the recession, which was brought to the brink by problems in the airline sector, where demand for her duo-boxes fell from 7.5 million in boom times to a mere 750,000. Summing up the company’s recent reorientation, necessitated by the recession, O’Brien stated “we are all in the same boat: what we can do is evolve and change”, and pointed to her customers as a key strength to the brand.
After a short break, Dr Don Thornhill, Chairman of the National Competitiveness Council took to the stage, to argue that “competitiveness is absolutely essential if we are to have any chance of economic recovery,” describing the Council’s view of ‘competitiveness’ as being a “race to the top” for citizens. Pointing out that electricity for SMEs in Ireland is the fourth most expensive in the Euro area, Thornhill asserted that “we need to underpin recent competitiveness gains with enduring structural changes in the economy.”
Similar themes were raised in the panel debate (entitled ‘SMEs – The Key To The Future’), by Dr Constantin Gurdgiev, Adjunct Lecturer, TCD, Pat Leahy, Deputy & Political Editor of The Sunday Business Post, Anthony Foley, Senior Lecturer, DCU Business School and John Ryan, Chairman of ISME, with debt, the continued attractiveness of Ireland to multinational corporations, corporation tax, and The Gathering all up for discussion. The topic that was of most interest to the audience, however, was that of the role of SMEs in Ireland’s economic recovery, with Foley declaring that “the government is schizophrenic about its support for SMEs”, while Ryan identified the fact that the government’s “mindset and thought process is completely different to ours”. The last word of the day, however, went to Gurdgiev, who received a round of applause for his fervent exhortation to the country’s SMEs: “We’ve got to stop making ham and start making prosciutto; we’ve got to stop making cheddar and start making cheese that people will be happy to spend €30 on. What the country needs is people taking responsibility for what they produce and for how it is produced.”