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Irish Diaspora in Alberta Business Series

Colm O’Carroll

President, Epsilon Chemicals Ltd.

Colm O’Carroll arrived in Canada from Cork, Ireland (The Rebel County) in 1981. He is a graduate from University College Cork with a degree in Chemistry and is the Founder and President of Epsilon Chemicals Ltd.

Colm, Tell us about how you came to be in Alberta, Canada?

I came to Alberta in 1983. I was young and had recently graduated from University College Cork. There were very few jobs in the early 80’s in Ireland. When looking for work, I kept being told ‘you should take any opportunity to go abroad’.

I decided I didn’t want to go to the States, and I had a sister living in Toronto who was always telling me how great Canada was, so I decided to give Canada a chance. I came to Canada first and a year later I went back to Ireland and got married and then Lynda and I returned together.

It was an opportunity and we planned to come to Canada for 2 years and then to return to Ireland.

What did you do when you first came over to Canada?

I worked for a company called Canada Packers in Ontario, in their chemical division. The company was a big meat packers. I spent 2 years in Ontario and then I was offered a transfer to someplace called Edmonton, Alberta.

What did you think of Alberta when you first arrived?

We had a choice between Edmonton or Calgary. We selected Edmonton as Lynda was doing her Masters and the University of Alberta was the right place for her. When we came, we drove out to Jasper and Alberta was beautiful – long days. The mountains were incredible.

Then we came out again in the winter …The winter was terrible. I still have difficulty with these winters.

What was your first impressions of Canadians or Albertans?

Canadians are very different to Irish People – it’s like coming from a land of colour to a land of black and white. Canadians are very pleasant and very polite. Irish people can be very polite and not polite at the same time but are very colourful.

How did your career progress once you came to Alberta?

I worked for Canada packers for 7 or 8 years. 2 years in production in Ontario and then I was offered a sales position. I noticed while working for the company that many of the VP’s had formerly been in sales. So, I thought it was obvious you needed sales experience to progress and I might as well do it when I was young.

Originally, I came to Alberta for 2 years, and were settling in… Alberta is very friendly. At that time it was rare to come across someone born in Alberta. It was a very vibrant place. We developed now friends. They were all from afar that had come here. So we decided to stay another 2 years.

The company offered me other positions in other parts of Canada. I turned down the first offer and then the second – and I knew then that I had kissed my career goodbye at the company.

I had started investing in real estate and fooling around with other things, and then in 1988 or 89 they sold the chemical division. My position with the new chemical company was unstable so after about 2 months, I knew I couldn’t stay and left after about 6 months. They were so different from the philosophy of the original company.

After about 8 years in Canada, building a customer base and a network of contacts, you decided to start your own company?

Yes. It’s called Epsilon Chemicals Ltd or E-Chem – we supply chemicals to the food industry. We are now one of the larger companies in Alberta and go right across Canada and in 8 US states.

When we started in August of 1990, I had left the other company, but had kept in touch with my contacts. I was hearing that since the change in ownership of the previous company, the service had been terrible. They suggested I start my own company and indicated they would be customers. It started with a few plants here and there and, before you knew it, we were in all the plants.

What makes Epsilon Chemicals different and has created your success?

We offer a service that was not being offered by the big multinationals. We didn’t expect our customers to conform to us - we catered to what they needed to make their businesses successful.

For example, in the food industry, you have to have a clean plant to operate. If something breaks down in the late afternoon and they are going to need to be operating by 6 am the next morning, the client expects it to be fixed and operating by 6 a.m. the next morning. They don’t expect a phone call that says, ‘well, I will get there next week.’ We would jump on a plane and go and take care of any issues and we continue to service that way as a company.

What’s it like building and growing a successful business in Alberta?

I realize that Canada is a very large place, but Alberta is distinct within Canada. We are a very Can Do province.

If a problem or and opportunity exists, Albertans will strike very quickly to do something, whereas the rest of Canada will probably debate whether it is viable.

Alberta is – Let’s Get It Done!

What would you say to someone in Ireland considering setting up a business in Alberta or expanding their business into Canada?

Traditionally, the obvious place the Irish default to go to in Canada has been Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. That’s where they think of because of the huge Irish communities there. However, there are a lot of connections between Alberta and Ireland.

I would say you want to go beyond those three cities and come to Alberta. Assuming there is a market for your product or service, then this is an excellent province for setting up a business because it is opening. Albertan’s will deal with anyone if you have what they want at that time – they don’t care where you are from.

What I like about Alberta is that we have a very well educated, young workforce. So, when we put an ad that we want to hire someone – you are guaranteed to have strong applications from qualified applicants. Other parts of Canada, it can take weeks for our company to find somebody. I will only fill a position if it is the right person. Keep the seat empty till the right person comes along.

Notably, Alberta is the place to try something new. If you try and it doesn’t work, people will help you to make it work and before you know it you will have a product that is first class and now you can take it into new markets and sell it. It’s not like that all over Canada or in the U.S. In America, they won’t work with you toward a solution. They will make very quick decisions. But there is no room to fail. In Alberta, you can work with people to find a solution that works.

Alberta has a can do, let’s just make it work attitude. I don’t find that in other parts of Canada.

What do you think future of Ireland and Alberta is?

Population wise, it is very similar between Ireland and Alberta. I think the financial sector in Alberta has lots of opportunities if they can mimic what they have done in Ireland.

Ireland is pushing heavily into alternative technologies – rather than sole focus on the oil industry – as that won’t be relevant in 50 years. In Ireland, they are working on technologies that are very advanced.

If you have the tech in Ireland, Alberta is a beautiful place to bring it to because people will try.

What did you bring with you as an Irish person that made a difference in your success?

For sure all Irish people have this gift of the gab, and they can talk to anybody. You learn that in Ireland. You can talk to anybody. Doesn’t matter who they are. You are not intimidated by them.

The Irish are welcome wherever they go. Or the Irish attitude makes us feel like we are. You grow up with that and it comes naturally to you when you go abroad. I am convinced that is why Ireland has had such an impact in so many countries around the world.

For example, the Queen of England came to Ireland in 2011. It was the first time since the formation of the State – as a guest of the country. She visited various places, including Cork. And there is a market in Cork they went to at the tail end of the visit. They broke protocol and she was able to visit the stalls. She ended up with a fish monger. if you google it you will see a picture the Queen and this fish monger having this wonderful, natural banter and laughing. Where would you find that in any other country.

Do you miss Ireland?

You always miss home when your parents are there. But my parents and Lynda’s have now passed away. I am the youngest of 9 and so when I go back, I always feel like I’ve never left.

What are the top things you see in doing business in Alberta?

If you have a concept, Alberta is a great place to try it. When I started, in the first year or two, I was expanding outside of Alberta, at the time they had the Alberta Opportunity company and they were excellent. I was dealing with the bank and they recommended I approach AOC. Within a month, a loan was approved, and we were able to take our business outside the province and move across Canada. You have to pay a higher interest rate and repay the loan, but it allows you to expand outside Alberta. I only used them once, but it worked for me.

I am involved in the science community and there is a very strong network of science professionals in the province. Like the Alberta Biotechnology Association. There are clusters of science technology in both Edmonton and Calgary. So if you need a consultant, they are readily available.

In Alberta we have a phenomenal oil patch, and because of that all the major suppliers have warehouses in Alberta. If I need a pump or part, I don’t have to wait to get it from the States, it is available in this province.

Anything in closing …

With need an improved air service out of Edmonton. Our direct service is terrible. For a population of over one million people, you would expect something better.

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