HQ Tralee’s Ken Tobin’s vision for rise of the regions

Ireland’s 2040 developmental goals need to take into account the strength of the regions and towns and not just cities, argues HQ Tralee co-founder Ken Tobin.

As you walk across the main Square in Tralee it is very easy to imagine how despite the modern shops, very little has changed in the architecture. It is very easy to imagine the same square 100 or 200 years ago. Indeed, much of Tralee has maintained its original elegance and sense of bustle.

I pondered this state of affairs as I ascended the stairs to HQ Tralee, the growing co-working space network developed by Tralee businessman Ken Tobin that has spawned new outposts in other Kerry towns like HQ Listowel.

“The recent Vodafone economic impact report by Jim Power found that the average salary in HQ Tralee is around €63,000, which is nearly three times the average wage of the county”

Born and bred in Tralee Tobin embodies the instinctive and enthusiastic qualities characteristic of businesspeople from the Kerry region.

“I’ve always applied learnings to everything I’ve done in business. We also learned how difficult it is to be a self-employed or remote worker. You’re the accountant, the HR person, the head of marketing. You are everything. You have to be on top of every single aspect of your business and that’s where HQ Tralee came from. My business partner Tom O’Leary is a small business consultant and I’ve always been involved in business and have a passion for local business.”

To illustrate his point, Tobin is chief executive of the local Chamber of Commerce and is co-proprietor with his wife of the nearby Yummy Café.

But crucially HQ Tralee is on the crest of the wave of co-working hubs that have sprung up all across Ireland. He operates two in Tralee that are connected to SIRO’s 1Gbps fibre broadband network as well as a new HQ in Listowel. “While we fall into the co-working bracket, we are actually more than that. Because we are heavily involved in the town and a lot of community groups are based here, we see ourselves as a community hub.”

Enabling communities to thrive

The first HQ Tralee opened in 2016 and the three hubs are 100pc privately funded.

At a time when it seems when every town of any scale in Ireland has some kind of co-working hub, the reality is they are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the developmental imbalance that exists between Dublin and its east coast hinterland and the rest of the country.

Asked to sum up the hub movement, Tobin responds curtly: “They came out of desperation.”

He follows up quickly by pointing out that these hubs are not to be confused with start-up hubs. “We actually don’t have a huge amount of start-ups in our hubs. It’s mixed between people who have relocated back here to Kerry on their own as consultants or as employees working remotely. We have quite a few people in tech and fintech, it is a mixed bag, but not dominated by any one industry.” Many co-workers based in HQ Tralee work for multinationals like Zurich and Citibank, for example.

Enter The Kingdom

“It is the staff themselves who chose to relocate. And what a lovely place to relocate to!”

The quality of life, the scenery, the affordability, the safety and the choice of schools, makes relocating to The Kingdom a no-brainer for many. “Interestingly, a lot of people who have relocated have no connection with Kerry. Somehow they heard of us.”

HQ Tralee and the Ludgate Hub were among the first local hubs to connect to the SIRO 1Gbps broadband network and this has helped to raise the profile of these hubs.

As a region, Kerry punches above its weight in terms of global-straddling companies like Fexco, Monex, Kerry Group and others that began by bootstrapping decades ago and are now world-class giants of business operating on the world stage.

But Tobin is quick to point out that these are by-and-large the exception rather than the rule and that a regional imbalance exists. “They started out on their own and they made it work on their own.”

He believes it is time for policymakers to look west. “You know, if you look at the issues that are there with Dublin, with the overpopulation, the housing crisis, the commute … everything. There’s an estimated three and a half thousand early-stage and start-up companies in Dublin that can’t afford to be there. They can’t afford to retain their staff because the large companies have taken them, and we’ve got these hubs and we’ve got these towns that are dying for these businesses. That’s the connection that needs to be made.”

Tobin points out the answer isn’t simply down to the IDA locating massive new jobs projects in towns, but rather a more balanced approach to development that could excel through harnessing the opportunities afforded by remote working.

“We have people from Dublin, from London, from South Africa. They have moved here because there are spaces in the schools, housing is affordable and you can bring your family up here. Simple things you can no longer get in Dublin or the big cities. That’s why they are moving back. It is out of a personal need. Their employers want to keep them, so they allow them to do it. They will still do their job, just minus the two-hour commute in the morning just to do that.”

Tobin points to local entrepreneurs like Rob Durran are building world-class technology firms like Xintech from HQ Tralee. “By next summer Rob will be up to 20 staff and will have outgrown HQ.”

Joining the dots on regional development

Overall, Tobin believes policymakers need to strive for balance when it comes to the future of economic development across Ireland.

“Government is once again throwing around the idea of decentralisation of civil servants. I’m completely in favour of that; if they allow people to relocate where they want to go”

“The sea change has to begin at a government level. The current remit of Ireland 2040 is focused on the growth of larger cities like Cork and Limerick and Shannon. That’s fine for these cities but you have to remember that Tralee has the potential to be an economic driver for the entire county of Kerry. We need to see a steady flow of new jobs being created but then sustained.

“Our beautiful town centres are full of hard-working family businesses like shops and cafes but that is seasonal. Kerry has one of the lowest mean average wages in the entire country at €24,500. 22pc of the jobs in Kerry are in tourism and 14pc are in retail.

“But when it comes to hubs, we can make a difference. The recent Vodafone economic impact report by Jim Power found that the average salary in HQ Tralee is around €63,000, which is nearly three times the average wage of the county. The jobs that are here aren’t necessarily specialised. They are just good quality.”

The Vodafone and SIRO report Tobin was referring to was published in October and  found that there were 41 businesses located at HQ Tralee employing 141 people full-time and 12 part-time. Gross wages earned by HQ-based workers amounted to €8.46m and that the local economic multiplier effect was €10.1m. The report estimated that as many as 8,840 new jobs and 1,040 new businesses could be generated if a digital hub was to be located in each county of Ireland.

Tobin said he and other hub providers aren’t looking for a big bang policy decision, just a better way of joining the dots and capturing the momentum afforded by the spread of broadband and the emergence of these hubs.

“Government is once again throwing around the idea of decentralisation of civil servants. I’m completely in favour of that; if they allow people to relocate where they want to go. Instead of sending 300 of them to one location they are not familiar with, the technology exists for them to relocate to whatever county they want; maybe even their home towns. You can give people the choice of going home and working remotely but maintaining the same salaries.”

Tobin says that what the Government and policymakers need to realise is that the country is growing alright – in larger cities. “But that growth is not happening quickly enough in the regional towns.”

Another aspect that needs to be borne in mind is that companies like Fexco, Monex, Aspen Grove and others are also fighting the war for talent against the larger players like Google, Facebook and Salesforce in Dublin.

The ace cards they hold in terms of a better quality of life, increased affordability along with similar opportunities for career progression, need to be amplified by the State bodies.

“Acknowledging there is an imbalance is one thing; doing something about it another thing. I recently went to the Mobile and Broadband Taskforce with an agenda.

“And you know what? I didn’t need to because everybody was saying the same thing. There is an imbalance and we need to do more.”

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 19 December, 2019