Trade deals with non-EU countries 'crucial for health of exports'
The UK'S trading relationship with countries outside the European Union after Brexit will be a critical factor in guaranteeing future exporting success, a company chief has said.
Richard Kennedy, from agri-technology firm Devenish Nutrition, spoke as Northern Ireland's exports soared by almost 12% to £7.8bn - outpacing the rest of the UK.
The HMRC statistics for the whole of last year also showed that sales to the US had increased by 40%, from £1.18bn to £1.67bn. The US accounted for 21.5% of exports.
Exports to the Republic accounted for the biggest share, at 31%, of Northern Ireland's exports, and had grown by 8.8% to reach £4.4bn.
Overall EU sales accounted for 54.8% of sales, with the remainder non-EU.
Large manufacturing exporters, from aeroplane manufacturer Bombardier to pharmaceutical firm Almac and Ulster Carpets, all added to the strength of the figures.
But Mr Kennedy, Devenish's group chief executive, said strong overseas sales for his firm and other major exporters could not be sustained without strong trading deals with non-EU countries - as well as the EU - following Brexit.
The Belfast-based company manufactures feed and speciality products for livestock and companion animals.
Mr Kennedy said its sales to markets outside the EU had grown by approximately 80% in the last year.
But he warned that the post-Brexit landscape would bring challenges.
"Our exports are up considerably outside the European Union," he said.
"But in a Brexit world it's a huge issue as Britain hasn't negotiated a trade deal with a foreign country for 70 years.
"Everybody is focused on the EU-British relationship of the future, but in actual fact what is a real concern is the non-EU grid."
From a group perspective, Mr Kennedy said 47% of its sales were outside the UK.
"We have a presence and sell in 32 different countries, from Taiwan, which we've been selling to for the last 10 years, to Sub Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe," he added.
Mr Kennedy stressed the firm was not overly concerned with the potential economically protectionist policies from President Donald Trump.
"We have three plants in the US and it's such a vast business that there's a real opportunity there," the chief executive said.
Nick Coburn, head of Ulster Carpets and chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Trade and Industry, welcomed the growth in exports during 2016, and claimed that it reflected findings of its most recent survey.
But he also said: "We would however have some concern going into 2017, particularly for manufacturers as the survey did suggest that their export order book was weakening.
"Significant cost pressures were also beginning to emerge, leading to concerns around profitability along with growing pressure to raise prices."
"Exchange rates are now the most significant and growing concern for our members," he added.