Fine Grain’s Colin MacDonald on championing Ireland’s FDI future

Changes to the workplace brought about by the pandemic means multinationals have the freedom to locate hubs across Ireland, says Fine Grain Property CEO Colin MacDonald.

In recent days IDA Ireland revealed that foreign direct investment (FDI) for the first half of 2021 has returned almost to 2019’s record levels despite business uncertainty caused by the pandemic. In the first six months of the year142 investments were won, with associated employment potential of over 12,530 jobs.

While much has been debated about the future of work and how hybrid workplaces and workplaces will function, Fine Gain Property CEO Colin MacDonald believes that the idea of of having a place in the workplace needs to be stronger than ever as we face the ‘new normal’ of a post-Covid world.

“The post-pandemic workplaces of the future will need to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, not just to shareholders and investors but most importantly to their employees”

He believes this can only be achieved by having an innovative and collaborative workplace community. MacDonald says Ireland is in a leading position in creating this change.

Seeds of change

With over 15 years’ experience and a portfolio of properties across Ireland, Fine Grain Property is an Irish-owned international commercial real estate investor and operator. Its portfolio consists of almost 1m square feet of commercial real estate hosting clients from large international and domestic businesses.   

“Fine Grain Property is an Irish-owned, international commercial real estate investor and operator. We seek to champion Ireland as a location for multinational investment and jobs by providing facilities throughout Ireland to attract some of the most promising industries to our shores – including pharma, tech, digital design and other highly skilled sectors.

“Our business park property portfolio consists of almost 1m square feet of commercial real estate, worth in excess of €220m, and we host more than 60 clients from large international companies and domestic businesses.”

Fine Grain Property was established in Singapore in 2007 by Irish founders and launched in Ireland in 2016.

“We saw an opportunity to meet the needs of employers across Ireland, by providing great workspace solutions in key employment locations across the country, where decades of sustained government and private sector investment had created the ideal conditions for burgeoning innovation clusters, with excellent third level education, first class infrastructure, clusters of like-minded businesses, and a deep pool of educated employees,” said MacDonald.

Vibrant innovation

He pointed out that with the establishment of the IDA in the late 1940s, and the Shannon Free Zone in the 1950s, Ireland was a global pioneer in pursuing the development of an export-led economy through the attraction of multinational companies to bespoke business parks.

“Having productive, modern and health-centric work environments helps these businesses attract and retain talent, boosting employee engagement to drive collaboration and business success”

“This model has been mimicked by economies worldwide since. Today, Ireland is positioned to lead the next phase of business park development, by creating vibrant innovation clusters across the country, where domestic and multinational business collaborate to drive growth. Fine Grain is positioned to lead this next phase.”

He said the company’s first Irish property was the development of a new 45,000 square foot LEED Gold sustainable office building at the IDA Business Park in Parkmore East, the first offices developed in Galway after the global economic downturn of 2008.

“In addition to the greenfield development of new buildings, Fine Grain Property invests in overlooked or underinvested properties which have the potential to be repositioned to meet the needs of employers, for example through design-led refurbishment or enhancement of environmental sustainability.

“We pride ourselves on partnering with our clients to create great working communities. Having productive, modern and health-centric work environments helps these businesses attract and retain talent, boosting employee engagement to drive collaboration and business success.”

Fine Grain’s investment partners represent long term, stable capital, and include individual pension funds, the NTMA through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), and institutional as well as family office investors.

Lessons from lockdown

Man in suit standing on a stairwell.

“The pandemic hasn’t so much induced a change in the workplace as accelerated a change that was already underway”

Lockdown, and the associated shift to universal remote working has precipitated a period of reflection over the future of work, with much discussion of ‘revolutionary change.’

“In our view, lockdown has simply accelerated evolutionary change, which was already ongoing,” MacDonald said.

“The digital tools which facilitated the astonishingly rapid move to remote working over the past year were already present, and gaining traction before Covid-19. Acceptance of digital communication, along with the related drive towards remote working, was already well underway, and office design had long been shifting away from the traditional office towards an open, collaborative, social environment designed to foster a healthy, flexible innovative workforce. Today, those digital tools are ubiquitous, and we are seeing an exciting acceleration in the evolution of office design.”

He said that one key learning is that the concept of work in office and work from anywhere needs to be an integrated and seamless experience/

“This will present new design challenges in how we optimise the workspace for our clients.

“It’s also no coincidence that the increasing reliance on real-time digital communications and flexible working arrangements came at the same time as many firms are embracing principles and concepts such as lean and agile. These ideas derive from software development methodologies, but they promote the ideas of flexibility and adaptability.

A pre-pandemic survey published in 2019 showed that just under half of people had reduced business travel thanks to video conferencing. According to Statista, over a third of employees worked remotely more than one day per week, even before Covid-19.

“Therefore, the pandemic hasn’t so much induced a change in the workplace as accelerated a change that was already underway. Similarly, the pandemic has also brought sustainability and climate agendas into increasingly stark focus. Consumers believe that climate change is as important as the Covid-19 pandemic, while investors are pouring record sums into ESG funds.”

“As we return to work in hybrid and more flexible arrangements, it will be crucial for companies to go about restoring and reigniting the cultural elements that were central to their workspaces, employee wellbeing and corporate success – many of which have been eroded or overlooked during the pandemic.”

FDI in the new normal

MacDonald said that despite the double-whammy of the pandemic and Brexit, Ireland continues to be a jurisdiction of choice as the IDA’s half year results show.

“The new hybrid model of work means that multinational companies no longer need to centralise their presence in prominent city centre locations. Instead, they have the freedom to locate with smaller hubs across Ireland”

“We have also seen an uptick of interest from global heads of facilities examining real estate opportunities and looking at Ireland as a knowledge destination to hire and build out their future teams.

“The new hybrid model of work means that multinational companies no longer need to centralise their presence in prominent city centre locations. Instead, they have the freedom to locate with smaller hubs across Ireland.

“While some commentators have suggested that Ireland’s FDI will be compromised by an increase in global corporate taxation, our experience has been that tax is just one of a compelling range of attractions for businesses to locate and grow in Ireland.

“Most of our clients have been in Ireland for more than 20 years, and have grown very significantly from their original investment, and continue to expand. Irish and international clients alike refer to factors such as talent, quality of life, collaboration with like-minded businesses, ease of doing business, and infrastructure which have helped them to grow – whilst tax may have been a factor in attracting investment, talent is the factor that drives the expansion, and Ireland will continue to be a destination for capital and foreign investment as the global taxation environment evolves.”

MacDonald said that as remote working continues and the return to work will likely centre on a blended approach, providing a top-class environment that supports partners with their workplace wellbeing and employee engagement goals is vital to what Fine Grain does.

“We are proud to celebrate how our clients have navigated an extremely challenging year and we look forward to continually building success for them.

“That being said, employees will be looking for an integrated, seamless experience between the office and remote working. We are working with our clients, architects, and interior design specialists to reimagine their workspace to meet these needs, whether that be through reconfigurable workstation zones or via more flexible dining solutions.

“Sustainability is also a central theme that is coming up in conversations with our clients, and we have led a number of initiatives around single-use plastic reduction, safe cycle routes around our sites, changing facilities for those commuting on foot or by bike as well as electrical vehicle charging stations.

“The post-pandemic workplaces of the future will need to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, not just to shareholders and investors but most importantly to their employees. A 2020 study found that 65pc of respondents were more likely to work for a company with a strong environmental policy, indicating that it’s quickly becoming an issue in the war for talent.

“However, there’s some ground for firms to cover more than 83pc of respondents also felt that their company wasn’t doing enough to help fight climate change. We see reports like this all the time, we have a greater understanding of employees’ needs but now we need to turn insight into action through design.”

Championing Ireland

MacDonald said that Ireland, now the only English-speaking member of the EU, is now often referred to as the gateway to Europe, featuring a young, well-educated, multilingual population, and business-friendly environment. The foundations for this success were laid by generations of visionary leadership in the development and implementation of industrial and education policy since the establishment of the IDA in the late 1940s.

“Historically, the IDA delivered property solutions to employers seeking to invest in Ireland, and it still provides this function. Today, Fine Grain Property aims to augment this offering by meeting the needs of clients around the country who want to invest or grow their businesses but have difficulty finding a professional developer to deliver the type of building they need, managed to an institutional standard.

“Ireland has preferential arrangements for the licensing of technology and there are naturally tax advantages to setting up here, but access to talent and a skilled workforce is a huge selling point for companies. As a result, we focus on business parks and sites near third-level educational facilities where there is a pool of well-educated, experienced people and a cluster of international like-minded businesses.

MacDonald concluded that purpose-built innovation hubs close to third level institutions mean that companies have access to talented specialists and can interact with both multinationals and startups located nearby.

“Other advantages include less traffic, more space, more freedom, and more flexibility than city locations, leading to a better environment for employees.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 13 July 2021