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It was a good year for Northern Ireland firms, and there is much more to come

By Richard Donnan

Last year was certainly one that will go down in history. A few will say it will do so for some of the wrong reasons. However, for many Northern Ireland companies it was a year of real achievement and progress.

While there are many factors that encourage a good degree of caution as we enter 2017, we as a bank also see real reasons for optimism about the future for both Ulster Bank and local businesses. In 2016 we helped support a number of Northern Ireland's most successful and innovative businesses.

By way of example, we supported north west-based Learning Pool in its strategic acquisition of Mind Click, whose clients include AstraZeneca, Boots, Procter & Gamble, and Google. As another illustration, we supported the £30m acquisition of Damolly Retail Park in Newry by MJM Group. And we remain strongly committed to helping good businesses achieve their ambitions in 2017 and beyond.

We're also active in helping local entrepreneurs set out and advance on their growth journeys - our backing for the Entrepreneurial Spark Hub in Belfast is a key part of that, alongside the development of the skills of our people. The hub offers, among other things, free office space, free Wi-Fi, advice, and access to a powerful network of business mentors. Around 160 local businesses have made use of it to date, and during December alone entrepreneurs based there secured over £500,000 in investment. We have also just trained over 130 of our people on entrepreneurial skills so that they can continue to better support entrepreneurs and understand their mindset.

Partnering with the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards is another expression of Ulster Bank's commitment to supporting the Northern Ireland business community. The awards are a well-established platform for celebrating the achievements of local companies, and we are really pleased, with the Belfast Telegraph, to be expanding the categories this year to include IT Company or Team of the Year, Emerging Business/Start Up of the Year, and SME Healthcare Business of the Year. As a bank that is active and supportive in each of these areas, we know that there are fantastic businesses doing innovative things who should have a platform to be recognised for their achievements.

As we move further into 2017, we expect to see good Northern Ireland companies continuing to adapt to market conditions and generating further success. Effectively managing the things that are within their control is key to this - for example improving productivity and competitiveness, hedging currency and managing interest rate risks, and smoothing out fluctuations in working capital.

A rising tide lifts all boats, but skilful sailors can still excel in any waters, and many businesses will continue to make good investments and develop expansion plans, whatever lies ahead this year. Ulster Bank, as a customer-focused bank, is very much here to help businesses future-proof their plans, manage risk and fulfil their ambitions.

Richard Donnan is head of Northern Ireland for Ulster Bank. Full details on categories and criteria and how to enter are available at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/news/business-awards. The closing date for entries is Friday, March 17 at noon. The gala awards dinner takes place on May 4 at the Crowne Plaza, Shaw's Bridge, Belfast. A table of 10 costs £1,300 plus Vat while individual places are available at £140 plus Vat. For further information or to book a table contact Andrea Kennedy at JComms on mail@ jcomms.co.uk or call 028 9076 006

Categories for 2017

1. Excellence in Marketing

2. Excellence in Exporting

3. Excellence in the Development of Management and Leadership

4. Excellence in Innovation

5. Best Use of Digital and/or Social Media

6. Young Businessperson of the Year

7. IT Company or Team of the year

8. Emerging Business/Start-Up of the Year

9. SME Healthcare Business of the Year

10. Best Small/Medium Business

11. Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility

13. Two special judges' awards - the Lifetime Achievement Award and Overall Business of the Year sponsored by Ulster Bank - will also be presented

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