Top 10 Northern Ireland business news stories of 2015
Growth may have been restored to the Northern Ireland economy after the prolonged downturn, but it has still been a turbulent year for business.
Here is our look at some of the issues and companies that dominated the headlines in 2015.
French tyre giant Michelin announced it would close its Ballymena factory after nearly 50 years - a major blow to the town, which is losing nearly 700 jobs at tobacco firm JTI Gallaher. Michelin said there were several factors at play in the decision, which will cost nearly 900 jobs when it closes in 2018. Cheap Chinese alternatives to its truck tyres and high logistics costs due to location were all drawbacks to the viability of the Ballymena plant - but an even bigger problem was high energy costs, with business here facing the second-highest energy costs in Europe. Michelin told the Enterprise Committee in 2013 that energy costs were the single biggest threat to its future in Northern Ireland. Few would have foreseen that the threat would become such a harsh reality.
The planemaker, which employs 5,000 people in east Belfast, will be fervently hoping for a better 2016. The Canadian firm faced disappointment with no new orders for its much-heralded CSeries narrow-bodied passenger jet - the order book stalled at 243 orders instead of a projected 300. Belfast staff of Bombardier make the wings for the jet, which wants to muscle into a field dominated by Airbus and Boeing. The project was over-budget, costing $2bn (£0.98bn) more than forecast, and delayed by two years. That prompted Bombardier to enter into abortive talks with Airbus for a joint venture. It had more luck with asking the provincial Quebecois government for a bailout, with the administration pouring in $1bn (£0.49bn). A bid to get the same sum from the federal government has so far failed. But Bombardier did end the year on a high as the jet obtained its certification of readiness to fly from the Canadian civil aviation authorities. The first CSeries can now fly with Swissair in 2016.
Dairy farmers had the toughest year of any class of self-employed businessperson over 2015. Milk prices, as ever, were the biggest scourge, with falls in price per litre of around 45%. Dard figures showed an average milk price of 20.4p per litre in October - up from August's low of 18.8p, but down from a high in November 2013 of 34.7p. Farmers were hit by a freeze on Russian imports of UK dairy products and uncertainty over an end to EU quotas. But low prices were the biggest threat, and a protest was held at Stormont, calling for assistance, while around 23 farmers from here joined their EU counterparts to protest in Brussels. It was also a year for mergers and joint ventures. Ballyrashane in Co Antrim merged with Town of Monaghan Co-op, while Fane Valley and Lakeland formed joint ventures for agri-business and dairy operations. Michael Hanley of Lakeland has predicted a better year for dairy once stocks of cheap milk products are used up.
The once untouchable German car manufacturer had an annus horribilis when it was discovered to have rigged its systems for emissions testing. In September, US officials found cars fitted with software that could tell when they were being tested. The ploy allowed for better results to be obtained in emissions tests, thereby boosting the vehicles' environmental credentials. Chief executive Martin Winterkorn resigned in response, and the company set aside nearly £5bn to deal with the crisis. Sales of models most closely associated with Volkswagen took a hit. Figures for November from The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders revealed the Golf lost its position as the most popular new car in Northern Ireland to the Hyundai Tucson. VW's second most popular model, the Polo, dropped off the top 10 list completely, falling from 140 sales in October to 90 in November.
The prospect of the much-loved England-based purveyor of pies, sandwiches and "sweet and sticky yum-yums" opening in Northern Ireland has tantalised us for years. The opening of a franchise in a new Applegreen filling station near Belfast indicated the firm was coming round to the idea. The Belfast Telegraph revealed the company is to open up to 50 directly-operated units around Northern Ireland. And despite initial coyness by Greggs, it then confirmed that its first store would be opened in Boucher Road's Retail Park in south Belfast in March.
It's been part of the fabric of Northern Ireland for more than 56 years. But it will be all change for Ulster Television - now UTV Media plc - at the beginning of 2016 when ITV makes its presence felt as the new owner of its TV divisions. The Belfast Telegraph revealed in August that ITV was taking over the broadcaster. As well as the TV division - including new venture, UTV Ireland - ITV is buying the brand UTV. A change of name beckons for the sizeable operation remaining of UTV Media plc - 13 radio stations in Great Britain, including talkSPORT, and nine on the island of Ireland, including Belfast's U105. ITV has said it wants to "strengthen the channel further with high quality ITV programming at its core".
Caterpillar NI - the entity formerly known as FG Wilson - endured a tough 2015. The Larne-based generator manufacturer employs around 2,000 people in Northern Ireland and has faced ailing demand from its energy and mining customers. In September, the firm said it was looking at "restructuring actions" that could affect more than 20 facilities around the world. That could herald the closure of one of its Northern Ireland plants - possibly Springvale in west Belfast. The firm made around 155 job cuts in Northern Ireland during the year. Caterpillar NI reported an 85% slump in profits to £3.8m for 2014, but managing director Robert Kennedy said the firm remained committed to Northern Ireland.
It's long been the great hope of the Northern Ireland economy - a cut in corporation tax which will bring our rate level with the Republic's 12.5% and help us attract some of the big-name foreign direct investors that have set up in the South. The tenacity of campaigners paid off this year, when a bill to devolve corporation tax powers received Royal Assent. But there were more hurdles, and political stalemate threatened to hold matters up. A cut was dependent on full political agreement - which did not come until A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan was finalised in November. Finance Minister Simon Hamilton can celebrate a possible new era - but with some Sinn Fein members making noises in opposition, we still have some way to go.
The UK's Bank of England interest rate has remained at a historic low of 0.5% since 2009. That means cheaper borrowing and lower costs - particularly cheaper mortgage deals - for most. But it is a raw deal for savers whose nest eggs are not growing. The Bank of England has indicated time and again that it will proceed with caution on putting up interest rates. But the decision by the US Federal Reserve to put up its rate arguably put pressure on the UK. The target for the Federal Funds Rate has been lifted 0.25 percentage points, from its previous 0% to 0.25% range. But with the latest GDP figures showing lower than expected growth in the UK in the third quarter - of 0.4% instead of 0.5% - the Bank of England may sit tight. Governor Mark Carney has said rates will remain at 0.5% until the end of 2016.
Years of effort by Northern Ireland agriculture ministers paid off when China agreed to accept pork product imports from local producers Dunbia and Karro, owners of the famous Cookstown Sausages brand. Opening the Chinese market to exported pork products could be worth up to £10m a year to the industry. Stuart Dobson, head of Elmgrove Foods, which is part of Dunbia, said he had already started looking for two new members of staff to help it prepare for anticipated demand in China. Wooing China as an export partner has paid off. But our faith in the Chinese economy was shaken earlier in the year by a crisis in its economy, with the government devaluing the currency - triggering panic in stock exchanges, with the FTSE 100 Index equalling its worst one-day fall since the financial crisis as it plunged by nearly 5%. But China steadied itself and is back on course.