"Erin" a Living

Bill Noonan honors his heritage every day. He has developed a book of business that draws on the strengths of his forefathers' country--Ireland.His interest in the Emerald Isle goes way back. As a second generation Irish-American growing up in Boston and attending Boston College, Noonan was surrounded with reminders of Ireland. And during college in the 1970s, he spent a semester in Dublin.Noonan

Bill Noonan honors his heritage every day. He has developed a book of business that draws on the strengths of his forefathers' country--Ireland.

His interest in the Emerald Isle goes way back. As a second generation Irish-American growing up in Boston and attending Boston College, Noonan was surrounded with reminders of Ireland. And during college in the 1970s, he spent a semester in Dublin.

Noonan came away from that experience with a sense that the country was getting ready for a change. "The Irish government in the 1960s decided to participate in the world market by joining in the European Common Market," Noonan says. "They began making commitments to foreign corporations to get them to come to Ireland."

In the 1970s, the programs that offered foreign corporations land grants and tax incentives were embryonic. But by the 1980s, they began to take shape. And today, Ireland is in full swing. The Irish economy is growing at a steady 9% a year. That's three times the average growth rate of most European nations, according to Noonan, who adds that Dublin is the No. 1 buyer of Mercedes and BMWs in all of Europe.

All this activity caught Noonan's attention--from both a personal and business standpoint. As an investment executive in Tucker Anthony's downtown Boston office, Noonan was well aware of the Irish-American constituency of which he is a part. Moreover, he kept in touch with his Irish classmates in Dublin and had inside knowledge of just how hot the Irish economy was becoming.

Putting two and two together didn't take long, and about three years ago Noonan began to establish a niche in recommending Irish securities (albeit on U.S.-based exchanges) to his Irish-American clients.

"It's an easy story to tell when you have the hottest growing economy in Europe," Noonan says. "Of course, time was when people fled Ireland because of the high poverty level." (Just read Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," a novel about depression-era childhood in Ireland.)

But now, Ireland is the second largest exporter of software in the world after the United States. Over the past four years, four Irish high-tech companies went public and now trade on Nasdaq.

Ireland also attracts foreign technology companies. Microsoft has its European base there. Dell Computer has a high-tech center with direct access to Europe. In fact, 44% of all the country's manufacturing jobs are a result of foreign corporation hiring, Noonan says.

Financial institutions have taken notice, too. Some 1,200 are housed in Dublin's International Financial Services Center. Since Britain is not part of the Euro pact, Ireland is the only English-speaking country to officially use the new currency.

To keep on top of the rapid changes, Noonan attends Irish investing conferences, meets with Irish corporate executives and visits the country once a quarter. About half of his book consists of Irish-Americans looking to invest in Ireland. Of course, he does his fair share of traditional brokerage business with non-Irish corporations since there are a limited number of public Irish companies.

"Investors are paying a lot more attention to what is going on in Ireland," Noonan says. "There is a need for more coverage here [in the United States] and in Europe."

To gain exposure, Irish companies consider Boston a main target for their message, according to Noonan. "Because it's a high-tech area and because it's close, these companies look at Boston to establish their U.S. foothold." The large Irish population in Beantown is another draw.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that U.S. corporations investing in Ireland have garnered an average 25% after-tax return. Since about one-quarter of the companies he invests in are Irish, Noonan likes those kinds of results.Angela's Ashes no more.

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