The New Face of Irish Business

James Quinn (left) takes over from Tom Morgan (right) as the new Chairman of the Smurfit School of Business, University College Dublin's North American Board.

Looking at a cross section of Irish businesses today, you would think that the Irish are the masters of invention. Whether they are companies taking symbols as traditional as the Claddagh into new and modern designs, teaching medical students surgery online, or creating new tests that could impact the spread of HIV, Ireland’s business community is diverse, savvy and capturing markets of the present and future.

Solvar, based in Dublin since 1943, is the largest exporter of Irish jewelry. The majority of Solvar’s line is traditional Celtic style jewelry, such as the Claddagh and Celtic geometric figures. But recently, some new, young designers have reinterpreted the traditional Claddagh, renaming it Claddagh Icon. The new design breaks out the basics of the Claddagh, in the heart, the hands, and the crown, and treats them in a sleek, almost abstract style. Said Nicky Obernik, director of sales at Solvar, “I want this new style to appeal to the young people; it’s giving them something new and different, but based in our traditional symbols. I want to see more Irish designs in the mainstream jewelry market.”

Although working in a completely unrelated business to Solvar, Bantry Bay Seafood is approaching its customers in a similar way. Ireland has always been known for its delicious, fresh seafood, and Bantry Bay, which was only established in 1991, is now Ireland’s largest shellfish processor. The company’s line currently consists of frozen, microwavable mussels, which have been flavored for the modern palate. The mussels are available in various garlic, tomato and white wine flavors, and soon will be offered in Mexican and Thai styles. Bantry Bay first started stocking its tasty delights in North America through Trader Joe’s two years ago and has been a hit in the U.S. ever since. The company’s farm-raised sustainable fishery has the capacity to harvest 50 tons of mussels daily, which is extraordinary considering mussels take one and a half years to mature before they can be harvested.

In keeping with Irish seafaring traditions, Dubarry Shoes has built its business on the need for people to be properly equipped out on the water. Many America’s Cup sailors swear by Dubarry, which calls its line of shoes `performance marine footwear.’ Based on the West Coast of Ireland, Dubarry is the world’s only dedicated performance marine footwear brand, producing moccasins and nonslip deck shoes. Dubarry began exporting to America in 2001 and it has been steadily increasing its share of the market, which is vital for the only footwear manufacturer left in Ireland. As a way to show its pride in being the last Irish shoe company, Dubarry named its waterproof boot The Shamrock. Dubarry produces a unique product, and much of the work on the shoes is hand-stitched by women in Galway looking to earn extra income from their homes. But although this may seem a very old-fashioned method of cobbling, the Dubarry product is very modern, featuring Gore-Tex and other modern materials that make the shoes fit for tough weather conditions.

Just outside of Dublin in Bray, County Wicklow, some amazing scientific breakthroughs are hatching. Trinity Biotech, a homegrown Irish company, has created the first rapid response HIV test, which gives test results in minutes. Called UniGold HIV, the test needs only two drops of blood and within 10 minutes gives a highly accurate result. Already the product is being used by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) in some African countries and India. It took Trinity Biotech eight years to develop, manufacture and begin distributing UniGold HIV. Brendan Farrell, president of Trinity Biotech, said, “In order to reduce the number of new infections of HIV, it’s crucial to make an early diagnosis.”

To further stem the tide of HIV infections, Trinity Biotech has also approached the U.S. government for FDA approval to introduce the product across America. The company is also using its technology for other diseases, and is currently developing a rapid response test for the flu, hepatitis C, and cancer. Said Farrell, “In Asia, there is a large demand for a test for nose and throat cancer, so Trinity Biotech is going to work on a project for that.”

Intuition is another Irish science and technology company. Located in Dublin, Intuition considers itself an education company, but that description doesn’t do justice to the highly complex courses that it offers. BEST, Intuition’s life sciences education program, teaches medical students how to perform surgery through online courses. Developed with assistance from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Harvard Medical School, the course helps students feel more comfortable in a surgical environment by familiarizing them with the kinds of decisions they will need to make when they actually practice surgery on patients. The success of BeST in the medical field has led the company to develop a course for pharmaceutical companies, dealing with their needs to comply with corporate ethics guidelines, as well as sales, marketing and product knowledge.

These companies are just a few examples of the diverse and modern enterprises that Ireland is becoming well known for. They are all reaching into the North American market for their sustained success, and the Irish government agency Enterprise Ireland has assisted them in making waves over on our side of the Atlantic.

Business Briefs…


The Irish drug maker Elan Corporation, which is making changes to address concerns about its past accounting practices, reported a second-quarter net profit of $17.3 million, in contrast to a net loss of $719.7 million in the period last year. Revenue fell 46 percent, to $245.5 million from $451.6 million, as the company shed noncore products and terminated 37 of its 55 joint ventures, But it is said that earnings from retained products increased 7 percent, to $148.4 million. Elan faced bankruptcy this summer when it failed to file its annual report on time, with the Securities and Exchange Commission, potentially starting a run on its $2.3 billion total debt, but it now has $973 million in cash to cover obligations of $634.5 million due this year, it said.

— Brian Lavery (New York Times)


The Royal Bank, of Scotland has agreed to buy First Active, Ireland’s fifth-largest bank, for 887 million euros, or $1.03 billion, in cash.

The merger, reported in the New York Times, of First Active and Ulster Bank, which is owned by Royal Bank of Scotland, would bring together 263 branches and 1.3 million customers across the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

According to the Times article by Brian Lavery, the Royal Bank of Scotland has grown through aggressive acquisitions to become Britain’s second-largest bank by assets, spending more than $4 billion on the purchase of National Westminister Bank in 2000.

First Active’s board has recommended the deal to its shareholders.


James Quinn, president of Tiffany, has been named as the new Chairman of the Smurfit School of Business, University College Dublin’s North American Board. His role, along with the 30 other business leaders who sit on the board, will be to enrich Smurfit School’s programs and international development with their practical insights into the North American market.

Founded in 1992, the North American board ensures that Smurfit School produces an international education experience for its MBA students. Two new chairs in e-Commerce and Organizational Behavior were recently financed thanks to the North American Board’s fundraising activities.

Quinn takes over from Tom Moran, President and CEO of Mutual of America, who on October 1 hosted a U.S. Benefit Dinner at Mutual’s headquarters honoring Dean O’Hare, the retired president of the Chubb Corporation.


Aer Lingus will buy seven short-haul A320 planes from Airbus and lease 10 more as it repositions itself as a low-budget carrier to compete with the Dublin-based Ryanair and easyjet of Britain. The deal will allow Aer Lingus to convert to an all-Airbus fleet for its operations in Europe, where it plans to add 15 new routes over the next two years, the company said.

— Brian Lavery (New York Times) 

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