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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Skyline full of cranes pointing to a bright future for Cork business

It’s not always a given, but a business’s success and growth can translate into heavy-duty involvement in property, construction and, indeed, development.

In some cases, a progressive company can have an impact on an entire community, be it a village, a town, or even a city.

Conversely, a regressive company can have the same sale of impact, only negatively, if or when they retrench, rescale, or fail.

Often, we see and only get to appreciate how ingrained and interwoven with a community a business, or an entire industry has become when it folds and hits headlines: the loss of employment, livelihoods and indeed identity can be devastating.

A departure rocks locales and sends ripples and repercussions around the country, or even beyond.

But, the vital role played by companies that are growing, are continuing to thrive, and are investing in people and places as well as products sometimes gets overlooked in the day-to-day fare of ‘business as usual’.

We can take them for granted … until they are gone.

Shoppers wander through Opera Lane on their way to Patrick's Street, Cork. The lane was developed by Owen O'Callaghan, 2004 Cork Company of the Year winner.  Picture: David Creedon / Anzenberger
Shoppers wander through Opera Lane on their way to Patrick’s Street, Cork. The lane was developed by Owen O’Callaghan, 2004 Cork Company of the Year winner.  Picture: David Creedon / Anzenberger

So, anything to provide recognition of impact, ingenuity, success, positivity, progress and connection to community — such as Cork Chamber’s Company of the Year — has to be lauded and admired.

A look back — and, forward — at some of the winners of the Cork Company of the Year awards helps explain much of contemporary Cork’s economy and thus physical development over just a handful of decades, even as some of those companies themselves evolved, ebbed and flowed, moved into new generation(s) of ownership, either within families or more diverse corporate structures, and continue to reinvent themselves.

Examples of individual companies impacting on their local communities can be seen, interestingly, in companies located even miles outside of the city hub, such as Irish Distillers in East Cork/centrally in Midleton, and Lilly, or pharma and bio-pharm giant Eli Lilly, based in Kinsale.


 Irish Distillers (a COY winner in 2020) has seven decades of links to East Cork, both with grain growers and its distillery workforce, and the roots of the business go back way further, two and a half centuries, to the original Midleton distilleries before a 1960s merger put Irish whiskey on a new, (ironically ‘steady’) footing.

Expenditure of over €200m in the most recent decade has boosted the local economy and wider construction and grain growing sectors, with a new distillery in the wings too, and the wage bill is vital too both in Midleton/Cork and in its Dublin Ballsbridge HQ.

A slightly newer arrival, but nonetheless important to its rural community setting was the 2021 COY winner, Lilly or Eli Lilly, in Dunderrow on the outskirts of Kinsale, present there since the late 1970s, built on a then-greenfield site and virtually out of sight ever since despite continuing campus and plant expansions.

Apart from its steady physical plant growth, it has been a huge injector of cash into the local (and wider) economy, possibly even on a par with tourism, on the housing front for its thousand+ employees, its support for local hotels and restaurants, and is now also expanding in Limerick, and also has a major Cork business park office presence in EastGate, Little Island, for its Global Business Solutions wing.

Interestingly, Lilly also won COY back in 2009, and while many of the Cork region’s other major pharma companies have yet to appear in this list, medical sciences do get representation, with Boston Scientific winning in 2018 with plants at Clonmel, Galway, and Model Farm Road in Cork’s city suburbs where, coincidentally Stryker who’s just this year’s COY winner also has a location, along with Stryker operations in east Cork’s Carrigtwohill, and in Limerick.


 Is there a Company of the year winner as big a name globally as Apple? Hardly, and it’s huge in Cork too.

A company with stock market listing in the trillions of dollars, it has been in Cork since 1980 where its presence is in some ways is a microcosm of the larger company’s own growth trajectory.

It now employs over 6,000 in and around Cork, with its Hollyhill campus on the hills crowning the city’s northside —  although it’s largely out of sight to the average Corkonian. It spans c one million sq ft, and is adding another 240,000 sq ft in the next year or two.

Already the city’s largest office spread campus and solo-occupied, Apple’s expanding ‘mother ship’ campus (it’s building on into a former car park) can be seen mostly as a glow in the sky at evening and night times from the western approaches to the city.

Apple previously had a research facility on the Model Farm Road in a technology park but vacated as it ramped up space occupied in the city centre and at the ‘mother’ ship’, with its Cork workforce exporting goods and services to almost 150 countries and with employees from up to 80 different countries, helping to underpin the city’s broadening multi-cultural range of ethnic cafes and shops, and underpinning house purchase and rental accommodation demand.


 Prior to taking c 40,000 sq ft at Horgan’s Quay in the north docks, Apple was understood to have been looking for up to 100,00 sq ft of city offices, both on the north and south quays, before adjusting its need for the time.

Might it come back for more? Cork’s major office suppliers certainly hope so, as Apple will be looking for the highest standard of environmentally friendly/Gold LEED and sustainable buildings if they do. They could nicely round out schemes both in train and in the pipeline by established developers (Cork has over 164,000 sq m/1.8 million sq ft of office with planning permission in place and not yet commenced, out of a total stock of c.7 million sq ft of offices). 

 A model of the Dunkettle interchange road,  looking east to west at the Little Island flyover,  showing the red parts which were the latest to open to traffic. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
A model of the Dunkettle interchange road,  looking east to west at the Little Island flyover,  showing the red parts which were the latest to open to traffic. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

 Any developer worth his or her salt values a major employer to anchor an office block and new development, as they would a retailer to anchor a mixed-use or shopping centre development.

Tyco (now Johnson Controls) was a coup tenant for JCD Group at One Albert Quay, and was a COY winner in 2016 as its star was rapidly rising, and happy to pay then top rate city centre office rents, in contrast perhaps to other as-large employers and indeed COY winners who prefer lower profile suburban or business park presences at locations dotted around the city, at the airport, Mahon, east of the tunnel and west by Ballincollig and at 2010’s COY winner EMC’s stand-alone base at Ovens, fostering several spin-off and supply companies west of the city.

Company of the Year winner in 2004, O’Callaghan Properties (OCP), has arguably had a bigger impact on the physical development of Cork’s metropolitan region in the past half a century since being founded by the late Owen O’Callaghan in 1969.


Interestingly it’s the only property development/construction firm to date to win a COY gong, despite the fact other several very large firms in the same broad sector are internationally active but Cork-based and have had dramatic impacts on the city’s built footprint, suburban shopping centres, sprawling retail parks, sundry metropolitan expansions and, indeed, on the city’s skyline.

It has not just been Cork, of course, as OCP has been active in Dublin (think Liffey Valley) and London for decades. By now in second-generation O’Callaghan family control, they’ve delivered over 5 million sq ft of retail and office schemes on the ‘two islands’ as well as 7,000 residential units, the majority of the latter in Cork and with scope for millions more sq ft of development in its south docks landbanks, with several planning phases in hand for mixed uses, to include apartments.

It has had an especially major impact on the retail scene, in Cork primarily (it also did shopping centres in Limerick and Athlone) having done centres of various sizes at Merchants Quay, North Main Street, Paul Street and Opera Lane amongst others, as well as smaller centre in the likes of Glanmire.

In one of the city’s biggest pivots of the last 25 years, OCP (with McCarthy Developments) bought strategic land banks at the city’s Mahon as the N40/Jack Lynch Tunnel/Mahon opened up a whole new suburban quadrant for mixed uses.

It has since been joined there by other quality developers such as JCD delivering buildings for offices and medical-related companies, whilst Mahon’s also been home to another COY winner, Project Management Group, whose broad construction expertise output is also international.

Back in the city centre, Opera Lane was a sort of equalisation for retail when it brought shopping High Street and mall-like big name (UK, mostly) shops and brands to a whole new Cork city centre street, and its importance can’t be overstated.

Once more, Opera Lane showed Owen O’Callahan’s ability to work with/deliver for the City Council as it had done when buying land in Mahon and decade or more earlier, as City Hall wanted key presences like car dealers Johnson & Perrott and the printing presses of Thomas Crosbie Holdings’ (a 2002 COY winner) moved away from St Patrick Street after a century of so of now-outdated uses there.

Both functions were relocated to Mahon, in an adept example of providing physically entrenched businesses with solutions and to ‘move with the times’ challenges.


 Like anything, there can be swings and roundabouts. Locations that work one day, or for a decade or two for a business can pivot or spring back: witness the return of major law firm Ronan Daly Jermyn (a COY winner in 2005) back to Cork city’s traditional commerce, corporate and business heartland at the South Mall, after a decade or so in the inner ‘burbs, at Mahon.

Some Company of the Year trailblazers occupy several locations in and around Cork city and county, and beyond, yet their impact on the public consciousness is more dispersed: think the likes of agri-giants such as twice-winner Carbery (2011 and again in 2022) and Dairygold (2017), as well as SWS Group (2006 and 2012 winner): their importance is known more strongly in ‘the county.’ Cork doesn’t just sell itself, it sells to the entire country.

Some of Ireland’s biggest retail brands started out in Cork, including Dunnes Stores on St Patrick’s Street in 1943 (where it rebuilt its Dunnes flagship store a few years ago) and Roches Stores, starting out in 1901, and trading in large and much-loved department stores in several cities until 2007.

Older still, and going from strength to strength, is another Cork Company of the Year, the two-time winner Musgraves, an early victor 25 years ago, in 1998, and back again in 2007).

Musgraves not only has two major employment and logistics footprints in Cork city, at Turners Cross and nearby at Ballycurreen, but it’s quite spread and standout in other ways too as it has a toe and a fingerhold in just about every Irish city, town and indeed village. Via its SuperValu and Centra shops and other food brands it supports over 40,000 jobs in 1,000 locations, primarily Irish but also overseas.

The 147-year-old family business kicked off this very diverse web from Cork’s very own and aptly-titled Grand Parade … with the ongoing Company of the Year accolade a quite different sort of grand parade, of prowess.

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