The red tape, which Richard Hunter believes is holding back Northern Ireland, may well irritate the dynamic Ballymoney man but it won’t stop him, says Joris Minne
There's nothing hick about Richard Hunter. Driven, ambitious, and intense, the Ballymoney man has carved out a successful career in architecture, now employing 35 people in a longestablished practice, R Robinson, in the Co Antrim town.
Hunter not only commands huge respect as one of the creators of a proposed golf resort to be built a couple of miles east of Portrush, but is also bucking economic trends by expanding his business into Oman.
If his laser-sharp mind, thirst for action and enthusiasm can be daunting, his other weapon is charm.
Hunter, who is a keen golfer, rugby player and coach, and I are having a lunch of crab cakes, cod and steak at Ardtara Country House Hotel in Upperlands, his favourite place in the north.
“The problem with Northern Ireland is not a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, business talent or courage, there’s plenty of all three,” he says.
“It’s the difficulty in clearing bureaucratic hurdles to get things done. A culture of risk-aversion is so pronounced it can take years before straightforward, simple, jobcreating, environmentally sound and economically beneficial projects can begin.”
He describes this dilemma as the politics of prevention. “I have some sympathy with those who say the post-Troubles peace dividend has been squandered,” he says.
“We have watched other countries attract inward investment that could have come to NI had it not been such a trial for investors to fight their way through the miles of red tape.”
Nonetheless, Hunter believes that NI has come a long way, and he is a staunch supporter and lover of the place.
He played a part in the committee that succeeded recently in attracting the 2012 Irish Open to Royal Portrush, and is heavily involved in the Institute of Directors, where he chairs the business environment committee.
The golf development, to be known as the Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort & Spa, if it gets the okay from the environment minister, would include more than 300 rooms, conference facilities and spa, as well as a championship links course and golf academy.
Recently, however, his focus has been on Oman where a Muscat city centre development of two hotels, a mall, an office block, a museum and 400 apartments was awarded to his firm in a five-way competitive tender.
Hunter has enjoyed his crab cakes and over the cod, which comes with an excellently balanced hollandaise sauce, he pauses to considers the planning negotiations his firm will face in the Arabic country.
“If you have survived as a developer and architect in NI, your negotiating, diplomatic and communication skills will be probably more finely honed than any other international equivalent,” he laughs.
So far, his dealings with Omani bureaucracy have been cordial and productive. He has established a R Robinson office in the capital.
Hunter’s next stop is Zanzibar where he has already undertaken a commission for a large private residence, and has been asked to assess the potential there for another golf destination resort.
“The economic centre of gravity is moving eastwards,” he concludes.
“While we must adapt to this we should be confident that we can lead the world with our world-class golfing facilities and capture a major part of the market.”
With that, he heads off to the airport for another five days in Oman with a bulging file of Antrim coast plans under his arm.
Ardtara Country House Hotel
3-course lunch x 2: £39.00