Aerial image of Galway city in Ireland
Galway forms part of Leo Varadkar’s plans to boost economic activity and infrastructure outside the capital © Getty

MetLife moved to Galway two years ago, one of several global financial services groups to invest in Ireland’s regions. The large US insurer already had an office 130 miles away in Dublin, yet it chose the Atlantic coast for a new technology base.

“Distance is a relative term,” says Pat Leahy, MetLife’s head of software engineering for Emea. “We have a global tech centre here [in Galway]. It’s a sister tech centre to a centre in the US. Distance isn’t even a topic.” Indeed, across the Atlantic from Galway lies New York, where MetLife’s eponymous skyscraper dominates Park Avenue.

With a population of 80,000, Galway is the largest urban centre on the western seaboard. But it is an intimate city with thriving arts and tourism sectors and villagey feel. Beyond financial services, the city is a hub for medical and IT groups, hosting companies such as Boston Scientific, Medtronic and Cisco.

Mr Leahy says MetLife considered the city to be “attractive from a lifestyle point of view” when it decided to branch out beyond Dublin, where it opened an office in 2006. The Galway tech base, which opened in 2017, employs about 120 staff. MetLife recruited from the National University of Ireland, Galway, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and other regional colleges.

“We found a very good supply of qualified staff,” says Mr Leahy. “We felt that Dublin was pretty consumed already as regards available skillsets. Competing with larger tech companies in a pretty squeezed labour market was something we wanted to avoid.”

Ireland has long sought to use foreign direct investment for regional development. But the challenge has assumed fresh urgency as Dublin booms, piling pressure on the capital’s housing market, creating a skills shortage for employers and increasing congestion.

Dublin and the wider mid-eastern region remain the biggest single centre for multinational business. Data for 2018 show that some 110,000 jobs of 229,000 jobs supported by state grants awarded to multinational groups to invest in Ireland were in the region.

Last year Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, set out a plan to redirect economic activity into the regions. With the state’s population set to grow by more than 1m to 5.7m in the next 20 years, the plan aims to curb Dublin’s domination by developing cities such as Galway, Cork and Limerick, and boosting infrastructure outside the capital.

Mr Varadkar will need a lot more investment from international companies if he is to realise that ambition, yet Ireland has already notched up considerable success from its efforts to bring global commerce to its regions. Cork, the second city, has long been a hub for tech and healthcare groups such as Apple and Pfizer.

Although the Irish capital has long been at the centre of the country’s finance industry, the authorities are stepping up efforts to boost the sector’s presence in regional cities. Northern Trust has an office in Limerick; INDOS is in Wexford; BNY Mellon is in Cork and Wexford; State Street is in Kilkenny; and Apex Funds has an operation in Cork. MetLife is not the only group with an operation in Galway; Fidelity Investments has a tech base here.

Fidelity was an earlier mover into the west of Ireland, setting up its Galway operation in 2001, five years after moving into Dublin. Now the company, whose headquarters is in Boston, employs 350 people in the city.

“We support actually the entire microcosm of the Fidelity business here,” says Lorna Martyn, Fidelity’s senior vice-president for technology in Galway.

“What we’re providing is tech solutions to support that business in the US: everything from supporting asset management activities, to trading products and post-trade products.”

Ms Martyn, who has been with the company for 16 years, is originally from Galway. “It’s got all the benefits of a city but being close to the countryside.”

IDA Ireland data show that some 360,000 people live within 60 kms of Galway so the local workforce is large. Ms Martyn says the network of global groups in the city was also an advantage to Fidelity.

“That was a strong opportunity for us to bring talent in. There’s a good hub of technology companies in the Galway area.”

Another boon has been a steady supply of graduates from local colleges and universities including neighbouring institutions like the University of Limerick and Institute of Technology Sligo. Proximity to such colleges has also opened up opportunities in research, Ms Martyn adds.

As Dublin property prices march upwards, Ms Martyn says the Galway market is less constrained. Moreover, there is greater “stickiness” in the labour market. “Essentially our retention rates in the west are higher,” she says.

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