NETA judge Tom Hayes: ‘It’s about a vision for your town’

With judging well underway for the National Enterprise Town Awards, we talk to one of the judges Tom Hayes about what it takes to win for your town, your region and your community.

Hayes retired from Enterprise Ireland in 2016 after serving for many years as divisional manager of the Entrepreneurship and Regional Development division. He previously served in the same role in the High Potential Start-Up division. He previously worked with Córas Tráchtála and spent a number of years abroad managing international markets.

He has been a judge on the National Enterprise Town Awards (NETA) for the past four years and loves every minute. This year 71 towns are competing. Correctly tight-lipped about what he has seen so far this year, his view is diplomatic: “I’ve seen a fair number of towns and communities throughout the country present. And seeing first-hand what they are doing, it’s inspiring!”

“That’s one of the things I found: once you have a strong leadership team with a vision or a plan for the town; they know where they are going and how they want their town and community to be and they are utilising the various assets”

Hayes has seen Ireland emerge from adversity in decades past and has a passion for backing people who have a vision to grow their business as well as support their community.

“I was head of entrepreneurship and the regions at Enterprise Ireland and so I was working with the local enterprise office (LEO) network, early-stage firms and the various programmes to support and encourage entrepreneurship at an early-stage and prior to that I would have headed up the HPSU division.

“That would have given me a huge insight into early-stage companies and their plans and supports required at the outset. I worked overseas going back to the old Córas Tráchtála, and so I would have seen quite a number of the enterprises [when start-ups] during the course of this programme on the tours that they do. It is now great to see them a stage compared to where they were only starting out or getting off the ground 10 or 15 years ago to now seeing where they have got to and the contributions they are making to their local community in the form of the jobs that are there and companies that are exporting and selling their products all over the world.”

A rising tide lifts all boats

I put it to Hayes that winning at NETA is about a passion for the community and everyone rowing the same boat.

“You asked what are the characteristics that make up a good town and what we would you look for – that is it – it’s a partnership and everybody working in the one direction to better the town or the community and that’s all of the group. They can be very disparate, sometimes 30-plus different organisations from business to community groups to social enterprise, sporting bodies, the town team, LEO … You can have a very wide and broad mix of organisations and entities and I think it is pulling those together and working in partnership.”

Hayes said that towns and communities that do well often do so because of strong leaders who emerge in the competition process.

“That’s one of the things I found: once you have a strong leadership team with a vision or a plan for the town; they know where they are going and how they want their town and community to be and they are utilising the various assets.”

Many of the towns, he explained, have different traditions and characteristics. Some are tourist towns, some are coastal fishing communities, some have an industrial past, some have an industrial future, and some are agriculturally-based communities. But the one thing they all have in common – at least among the winners – is a vision for their town.

“Then it is down to a town team to mobilise all of the key people in the town and bring them along in support of a vision for the town.”

Hayes pointed out that towns need to be fully aware of the extent and range of funding supports that are available for a whole variety of initiatives.

And that’s why a vision and a plan is key. “It is a lot easier to secure that funding when you have a vision and a plan for the town. Those are the kind of things [that happen] when you have a strong leadership team in the town, it is a lot easier to financially support the various initiatives under way.”

The winning factor

Having experienced decades of economic life on these islands, I ask Hayes what has changed and what is obvious about the towns and communities he gets to visit as part of NETA.

“During the Celtic Tiger years there was a complacency that set in and a degree of individualism, people went off and did their own thing. I think one of the benefits of the recession was that it brought communities back together again and the old Irish ‘Meitheal’ concept of working together emerged out of that. Communities as a consequence, they just didn’t wait for national bodies or government to do things, they said ‘we have to do for ourselves, we just can’t wait for somebody else to do it.’

“I think that is one of the big changes that has happened in those number of years, I think there is a huge self confidence in communities. They know where they are going and once they have a fixed plan, nothing is going to stop them. They are reaching out – whether it is to local authorities, national or government agencies or out to their own diaspora. The diaspora can be local if it is a commuter community in terms of the diaspora to Dublin or Cork every day, but also the diaspora in London or New York – many communities are quite connected to their diaspora and that has led to more tourists and more investment in cases where individuals who have done very well abroad and have invested in a tourist product or property or set up a subsidiary of a factory, that kind of thing.”

Hayes pointed out that part of the fight back by communities is related to the damage done to retail by not only the recession but also online commerce.

“Retail has suffered enormously, towns have suffered and you can now see streetscapes that are idle because of shop closures, but there is a fight-back. Online shopping is huge if harnessed right, creating ease of access to urban centres, but among communities that fight back some are applying voucher schemes that can be redeemed in local shops and that keeps money in circulation.

“I have seen some really innovative programmes in towns around the country where several million euros over a period has been redeemed in the form of vouchers and that helps local shops.”

Another key trend he has witnessed has been the rise of remote working. This is not only in terms of people working at home as an alternative to lengthy commutes, but also people working together in local co-working hubs.

“This is becoming more and more prevalent. There are a lot of local innovation centres or hubs where not only are they a base for early stage start-ups but also a base for people to work two, three or four days a week rather than travel. There is a social aspect and a networking aspect to it.

“That is something that is prevalent now and will significantly increase over the next number of years,” Hayes predicted.

Pictured above: NETA judge Tom Hayes. Image: Enterprise Ireland

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Written by John Kennedy (

Published: 12 September, 2019