Northern Ireland companies must be encouraged to redouble their exporting prowess during 2014, the Chamber of Commerce has said.
In its New Year message, the chamber called on the Executive to do "everything it can" to bolster business growth, especially exports.
The chamber's president, Mark Nodder, said the numbers of exporting firms must be increased – a recent survey showed overseas sales by large firms in the province fell by nearly 8% in 2012/13.
Mr Nodder, who is managing director of Wrightbus in Ballymena – itself a successful exporter to Singapore, Hong Kong and other territories, said: "Exports continue to decline and Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK with regards to the number of active exporters.
"Northern Ireland Chamber will continue providing practical support through a range of private sector-led growth and export programmes and continue to challenge government to ensure we have a business environment conducive to business growth."
The Executive's manufacturing sales and exports survey published last month showed exports by firms employing over 250 people were down in 2012/13, although manufacturing sales to Great Britain were at an all-time high of £8.1bn.
However, large firms' exports to the Republic of Ireland had fallen 52% below their peak in 2007/08.
Mr Nodder said the chamber's focus on trade would include an initiative supported by government body UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), and the world-wide chamber network.
He added: "We will also continue with our 'Growing Something Brilliant' campaign, with the aim of inspiring more businesses to set up, grow and export by looking at what has already been achieved by the business community in Northern Ireland, and sharing the good news that is out there."
Mr Nodder said there were reasons for optimism in the year ahead, "but we must turn the good growth we have seen over recent months into really great, sustainable growth".
Access to finance remained a crucial issue for companies, especially the type of finance which supports fast growth in exports.
"This is an issue for both banks and businesses and both need to change," Mr Nodder said.
"The early successes achieved by the Growth Loan Fund (set up and part-funded by Invest NI to provide loans to established SMEs) show that with some risk and the appropriate support measures, then some deals can be done."
He said that business confidence also needed to be nurtured in the future.
Business adviser PwC has forecast growth of around 1.6% for Northern Ireland in 2014, the slowest of the 12 UK regions.
The chamber listed six other priorities for the year ahead:
- Making sure businesses, especially small to medium-sized enterprises, can get business support information when they need it. The Chamber said business groups should work together to make sure the information gets out, instead of competing.
- Making sure firms can get working capital to realise their growth and export ambitions.
- Pursuing the devolution of corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland.
- Nurturing business confidence so businesses are encouraged to invest in employing more people, expanding their premises and in buying more plant and machinery.
- Reducing the 'cost of doing business' by tackling red tape, business rate bills and energy costs, particularly by putting the additional £176m for Northern Ireland following the Autumn Statement into cutting energy bills.
- Improving skills, so that businesses have access to people with the right skill sets, to enable them to compete internationally.
Mr Nodder added: "If we do more to support exports, make important decisions to fix the long-term structural failure in business finance and pursue the devolution of corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland, it is possible to achieve not just a good recovery, but a truly great and sustainable economy in 2014."