Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

G8 branded conference aims to woo the big decision-makers to Northern Ireland

The $64m question is... will visiting delegates return to an investment conference laden with their cheque books and a commitment to invest, writes David Elliott

ENNISKILLEN - JUNE 18: President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's President Vladimir Putin (walking behind), Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Council President Herman Van Rumpuy.
ENNISKILLEN - JUNE 18: President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's President Vladimir Putin (walking behind), Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Council President Herman Van Rumpuy.

The G8 lives on. Although it's a number of months since the meeting of the world's eight most powerful countries in sunny Fermanagh, a pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron back in June to hold a G8-branded investment conference in Northern Ireland is steadily coming to life.

Organised by Invest NI and sponsored by British Airways and Danske Bank, it's designed to bring potential inward investors from some of the world's biggest companies to Northern Ireland.

Once here, a statement which sounds innocuous enough but which is in fact half the battle of organising such an event, they'll be given the hard-sell.

They'll hear why they need to invest in the Northern Ireland economy, whether that be through setting up a European base here, a back office arm, a manufacturing facility or even just buying goods and services from Northern Ireland companies.

Held on October 10 and 11, the plan is to woo these decision-makers – and the delegates will be executives capable of making such decisions of CEO or other 'C level' standing – with tales of our hard-working, skilled workforce, our high standard of living and our high-tech infrastructure, all the while feeding them local food (think salt-aged beef rather than pastie bap).

That doesn't just mean telling them how good we really are – although of course there will be plenty of that from ministers – but from proferring the experience of those companies which have already planted a flag (perhaps not the best analogy give the events of last Christmas, but you get the drift) here.

TV production company HBO, financial services firm Vello, insurance specialist Allstate and lawyers Herbert Smith and Allen & Overy will all be joining in the rousing call to try and attract more of their ilk to these shores.

They and many other current inward investors have been keen to lend their support to help bring more international businesses here and in some cases even to attract competitors.

That might seem counter-intuitive but for some industries this type of sector clusters can prove beneficial.

Only last week the chief executive officer of NYSE Technologies Jon Robson – the high-tech arm of the New York Stock Exchange, which employs some 300 people in Belfast – said being surrounded by similar companies here is hugely beneficial for his business.

Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Citigroup have all followed NYSE Technologies to Northern Ireland and that's helped when it comes to research and development.

"We've created new products because we're in Northern Ireland and because we've created a community," Jon Robson said at the Digital DNA conference.

That co-operation is not just apparent between inward investors but also with indigenous companies, of which NYSE Technologies and Newry firm First Derivative's joint venture to create new products over the next few months is a good example.

So with all this goodwill flowing around, what form will the conference take?

Delegates, who are expected to number around 150, will arrive on Thursday, October 10 under their own steam (they pay their own airfares) in time for an invitation-only gala dinner at Hillsborough Castle.

They, along with a smattering of ambassadors consisting of current inward investors and representatives from indigenous companies, will be treated to a meal made up of the best of Northern Ireland produce and eased into the 'you know Northern Ireland makes sense' pitch.

After a breakfast of – you've guessed it – Northern Ireland produce on the Friday morning, they'll be whisked to the Titanic Belfast building where the real selling begins with the likes of Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and Employment Minister Stephen Farry doing their bit to show the political support behind inward investors and the skills lying in wait for their use.

There may even be an appearance from a very special guest, although who that will be hadn't been revealed at the time of going to press. However, a bit of digging has thrown up the following from the depths of June's economic pact from Downing Street, where a written commitment to the conference first appeared: "The Prime Minister will attend this conference to champion investment in Northern Ireland".

Invest NI chief executive Alistair Hamilton is charged with taking the investors down the sales funnel and persuading them to sign on the dotted line, but not before the testimonials from the rabble of current and return investors who are queuing up to tell their tales of success on these shores. Then it's time to split up into sectoral groups to give a run-down of industry-specific benefits and after a lunch of the usual, there'll be a cocktail reception at Stormont.

Although officially the end of the conference, any of those delegates who want to spend the weekend exploring the rest of Northern Ireland will be welcomed with opened arms by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, who'll have the keys to every tourist highlight the land has to offer and no doubt the keys for the best golf courses in the land.

Whatever they choose to do, the big question of all the delegates will be –are they coming back with a cheque book and a commitment to invest in Northern Ireland.

That will be the $64m question (and indeed the sort of sizeable investment which would be welcomed), but if 2008's investment conference here is anything to go by then there should certainly be plenty of reward.

It was held at the peak of the economic downturn but even so, there has been a wealth of new inward investors since then.

With any luck the rewards from this conference – the only one to have been a direct follow-on from a meeting of the G8 – will be even greater.

What they said...

Gerry Mallon, CEO of conference sponsors Danske Bank

"Our interest is in seeing the economy of Northern Ireland grow and foreign direct investment (FDI) is important for that because it brings skills and confidence and stimulates the economy.

"That has a spillover into our customer base at Danske Bank. It's also important that business leaders in Northern Ireland are seen to be positive and support FDI as well as Invest NI and Northern Ireland's politicians. It's vital we take our place at the forefront of the business community.

Northern Ireland has a great combination of a very switched on and skilled workforce, particularly amongst our young people who are extremely capable, hungry to do well and have an international focus. We're also costs effective when you compare us to the rest of Europe, something I can see as part of the Danske Group."

Simon Daly, Ireland manager at conference sponsors British Airways

"The investment conference is very important to Northern Ireland as is the connectivity British Airways provides to the region. By sponsoring the conference British Airways is showing we're committed to Northern Ireland and want to open up new market to companies from here.

"There's very few other carriers that can offer the links through both London Heathrow and Gatwick which we can and that's something we're very proud of. We want to offer as many flights as possible to help investors come in to Northern Ireland and to help indigenous companies when they need to secure export business around the world."

Arlene Foster, Enterprise Minister

"The G8 summit held in Fermanagh in June was a major success, positively profiling Northern Ireland on a global stage.

"Hosting an Investment Conference this October will provide a unique opportunity to build upon the legacy of G8 and show some of the most senior decision makers from international firms what a dynamic, modern business environment Northern Ireland is."