Belfast Telegraph

'If parking big issues is what it takes to get Stormont back... then maybe that is what is needed'

NI Chamber president Ellvena Graham speaks to John Mulgrew about Brexit, three decades with Ulster Bank and ballroom dancing in Vienna

Ellvena Graham puts her best foot forward in both her work and social life. The former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, and keen ballroom dancer, is now president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

A stalwart of the bank, spending 33 years with the company, she was a firm supporter of the UK remaining part of the EU.

And Ellvena (54) says our politicians should "park" the big issues which divide them, in order to return to a devolved government at Stormont.

Her career with Ulster Bank took her to the far corners of the earth, and saw her return to Northern Ireland to fire-fight the "big issue" of the widespread IT problems, which left thousands of customers unable to access their money or make payments.

Now, she's president of the NI Chamber - which is headed by chief executive Ann McGregor - a business group of 1,200 members from the very small to the very large across all sectors of the economy.

But it could have been a career working with cars in the family business, if the ambitious Ellvena, who hails from between Saintfield and Lisburn, hadn't decided to work for Ulster Bank at the age of 18.

"My father (Dick) had his own (car) business, a small family business. I had two big brothers, I was the youngest. It was all about cars, a petrol station, a shop.

"I grew up in the family business. I liked cars and all that sort of stuff. That's where I spent a lot of my time."

However, there was no specific career in mind for Ellvena when she finished her time at Methodist College, Belfast, with three A-levels. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," she said.

She joined the bank around a year after finishing school, and moved into technology.

"I went on from there. I actually enjoyed that. In those days, our first branch wasn't even computerised. I went in, initially, I was a computer operator, then I was a computer programmer... the good thing was, it was really good training."

She then moved into project management, before being offered a post in 1990 on the Isle of Man.

Ellvena then spent a large chunk of her Ulster Bank career in Dublin, running technology projects. RBS then took over NatWest, which included Ulster Bank, in 2000. Eventually she ended up running operations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, in charge of around 3,000 staff.

"That took me to places like Kazakhstan, Romania and Dubai, India and Poland. I was all over the place."

In 2010, she returned to Ulster Bank in Ireland, before being moved to head operations in Northern Ireland. That was at the time of Ulster Bank's widespread IT problems, which at their height, left thousands of its customers unable to access money or make payments.

"The bank needed someone to provide local leadership here in Northern Ireland. There wasn't a lot of senior leadership in Northern Ireland, because it was being run out of Dublin.

"It was fire-fighting, but the bank was going through a lot of changes - more than fire-fighting.

"There were a lot of customers in difficulty. That was quite a challenging time. We were coming through the other side of recession.

"It was a big deal. So many of our customers weren't able to make payments. The bank had a very strong reputation. It took us an awful long time to get it resolved. You live, and you learn, but it was a big issue."

She then left the bank in 2015. "I wanted to do other things. I wanted to come back north," she said.

"I had done 33 years with the bank. I thought to myself, I want to see if I can do other things. I was very fortunate, as they asked me to stay on the board, which was a lovely way to leave."

But her other roles have continued to keep her busy, including as chairperson of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and the Belfast Waterfront and Ulster Hall Ltd.

She's also part of the Economic Advisory Group, alongside work with the Prince's Trust and Queen's University Belfast.

"I quite enjoy that portfolio, and I quite enjoy having more time off, as well," she said.

Ellvena sat on the NI Chamber board for around three years, before her appointment as president this year.

Asked what she can bring to the role, she said: "... I can give something back to Northern Ireland. I can do it, and enjoying doing it, and provide some leadership.

"It's a time at the moment where businesses are looking for someone to provide leadership. There isn't any leadership coming from local politicians at the moment.

"You are facing into the whole Brexit world and an uncertain future.

"I do think devolved government is the best solution for Northern Ireland. You have local politicians who know the local issues, and will represent those collectively.

"That is the best outcome. We don't have that at the moment."

She said the NI Chamber has been active in working with politicians and businesses, to get the message through to Westminster.

"The problem is they are in danger of coming back together, and it falling apart again in six months," she said.

"Do we want to be into another election in six months? No, we don't.

"They need to get something which is relatively stable and sustainable. If that means parking one big issue on each side, maybe that's what it needs.

"They are in danger of agreeing something which is very half-hearted, that will fall apart very quickly."

On Brexit, the issue of what happens to EU workers remains a concern, with Downing Street announcing that freedom of movement into the UK will end in 2019.

"People are inclined to think of workers in a factory, who have come from Poland, or wherever," Ellvena said.

"There is no doubt that is an issue, but there is also a big issue, such as the universities, where a lot of their staff are from outside Northern Ireland.

"I do think it's a very big issue to get it sorted out, and particularly for the workers that are here already - you don't want them disappearing." Speaking about the biggest Brexit-related challenges facing firms here, Ellvena, who now lives in Hillsborough, said: "It's about the borders, it's the movement of people, goods, and getting people to come here to work.

"I think there have been ups and downs since the Brexit vote.

"Anyone who is exporting - if their raw material is coming from here, then they are on to a winner.

"Agriculture, tourism and our service industry are doing well at the moment. There's lots of industries doing well, it's looking beyond Brexit to wonder whether they will still do as well."

While she says the economy here is "still growing" and "moving in the right direction", Northern Ireland is not as competitive as other UK regions, especially in terms of productivity.

Ellvena's pursuits outside of work follow a similar vein to other company bosses - rugby and travelling.

But she's also been a keen ballroom dancer for around 15 years - getting into it well before a surge in interest following the success of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.

"I go to places like Vienna, dancing," she said.

"I started because I felt like I was spending too many hours at work. I tried to do a few things at night, classes, but didn't stick at any of them. I never missed it, because I really enjoyed it. I still go dancing at least three times a month. I've been off to places like Budapest and Vienna."

And she cites her time working with the family car business as a key to her success in the corporate world throughout her career.

"The whole customer service ethos definitely came from our business at home, where you had to do anything that was necessary to help a customer. I also learned to make decisions and manage things. I would have been left in charge at a very young age."

As for the future of Northern Ireland's economy, Ellvena says she wants to see the private sector grow.

"At the moment, we are still heavily reliant on a public sector and if there was one wish, is that would rebalance - and that it would happen more quickly."

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