Belfast Telegraph

Our top companies make firm progress

By John Simpson

Ten years ago, the analysis of the Top 100 locally-based commercial trading businesses showed that the chosen 100 were employing just over 121,000 people.

Today, using similar criteria, the Top 100 employ over 135,000 people. The typical larger business qualifying for inclusion is now nearly 12% larger.

Although in 2012 employment has been affected by the recession, the overall total level of employment, in all businesses and including the public sector, is nearly 13% higher than in 2002. The Top 100 have, therefore, expanded in parallel with the wider economy.

When the business scene is always changing, often slowly but sometimes dramatically, the overall significance of the changes are not always easily appreciated. For over 15 years the Belfast Telegraph has published, annually, a comprehensive review of the largest Northern Ireland based trading businesses. Next Tuesday sees the publication of the latest update.

The business scene in the last 10 years has changed dramatically.

Of the 100 businesses listed in 2002, today in 2012 only 60 still survive. Alternatively, the headline can be stated the other way round: the list published today contains 40 names that were not there 10 years ago. Because the average employment provided by businesses in the list has grown by 12%, that gives some reassurance about the better dynamic of the private sector.

The casualties of the past decade include some well-known names such as Desmond & Sons, Galen, Adria, Nortel, Herdman and the CV Group. The 40 non-survivors were:

  • 21 businesses, which still exist but slipped below the qualifying criteria;
  • 5 businesses were taken-over by other businesses, 3 in retailing;
  • 14 businesses closed, nearly all in industrial type activities

The encouraging feature of the new arrivals is that many might be described as local firms which have expanded to justify their inclusion.

The 40 new arrivals included:

  • 25 businesses which are locally-owned, 12 in manufacturing, 4 in construction;
  • 8 businesses taken over by external investors;
  • 7 businesses set up by direct external investors mostly in ICT or electronics.

New to the Top 100 and now employing over 1,000 people, there are 12 private sector organisations, including Asda, Almac, Firstsource, Teleperformance and Allstate

In an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the private business sector, the critical (and difficult) question is whether there are encouraging signs of potential growth in competitive sectors. Alternatively, there would be concern if the changing structure of private businesses was more likely to be seen in low-productivity sectors which were less likely to help in rebuilding a more prosperous economy.

That raises questions which provoke subjective answers. Nevertheless, policy making ministers in the Executive should be aware of whether the balance of informed opinion is optimistic or cautious (or both).

Some of the most notable businesses either improving within the Top 100, or joining this list, have been:

  • Moy Park, now with new Brazilian owners and over 10,000 worldwide employees, more than double the size 10 years ago. Moy Park bought O'Kane Poultry as part of its expansion. This business needs an answer to the question of how to dispose of chicken litter.
  • Dunbia, formerly Dungannon Meats, locally owned and three times larger than 10 years ago.
  • Almac, based in Craigavon and Pennsylvania (US) and now employing nearly 3,000 people in advanced pharmaceutical product development.
  • Manderley Food Products, now including Tayto crisps and originally based in Tandragee
  • Randox Laboratories, a leading developer and provider of clinical diagnostic kits.
  • Schrader Electronics, manufacturing a range of pressure equipment for vehicle tyres.
  • Andor Technologies manufacturing advanced scientific optical, or camera, equipment.

The Top 100 list does give a reassuring reminder of a number of positive achievements. Of course, losing some ambitious firms which proved to be non-viable was unwelcome and raises other questions about productivity and adaptability.

Nevertheless, there is more optimism than might have been expected. Some small acorns have begun to grow. Northern Ireland needs more of them and better growth.

The Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies magazine will be published on April 30

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