Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Exporting can be our way through economic recession

Bill McGinnis encourages firms to grasp opportunities abroad

Rebuilding the Northern Ireland economy requires a sharper focus by policymakers and individual companies on finding and supporting smart, driven-to-win people.

I realise that talking about rebuilding the economy may seem premature against a bleak background of job losses at Bombardier and Nortel and the shock closure of the Visteon plant at Dunmurry.

While job losses and closures, I fear, will remain a problem for some time to come, fragile signs of life are starting to appear globally and in the local economy.

Behind the dark clouds of recession it is possible to see some glimmers of hope. For instance, the housing sales are starting to pick up and some lenders are now offering more attractive deals especially for first-time buyers.

While we may not be at the bottom of the market, there are signs that we could be getting close.

Fellow members of the economic ‘think tank’ that has been set up by the First and Deputy First Ministers and the Economic Development Forum, chaired by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, may also draw some cheer from recent achievements of locally owned companies, including a number of smaller businesses, particularly in international markets.

In the North West, for example, companies like Maydown Precision Engineering, Singularity, 8Over8, Foyle Food Group, Cunningham Covers, U-Bake, Premier Electrics and Rodgers Fencing are winning good business in markets as diverse as Germany, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Participation in Invest NI trade missions is also showing a 30% increase this year. For instance, 13 of the 17 companies on the recent mission to Toronto and New York were first-timers and several returned either with actual business or solid leads.

From my own long-term engagement in the Gulf markets I know that many more Northern Ireland SMEs are exploring and exploiting the opportunities there.

CDE in Cookstown recently secured a major contract for its sandwashing machinery in Qatar, where it now has an office.

Almost 30 companies will take part in the second trade mission to Saudi Arabia since January.

I commend Invest NI for the strength of its commitment in particular to the Saudi marketplace.

I am confident that the very strong relationships now being developed there with huge construction businesses such as Saudi Bin Laden and Emaar will yield positive benefits in the near future.

As a result, a number of larger construction businesses in Northern Ireland are now looking closely at potential partnerships in this huge and still comparatively buoyant market. Smaller companies are also now examining at the reconstruction business developing in parts of Iraq around Basra and in the Kurdish north. The Iraqis are also keen to talk to our companies with experience in areas such as construction, oil and gas, and environmental engineering.

Executive ministers should also draw great encouragement from the growth in sales outside Northern Ireland by local food companies, now our biggest manufacturing sector.

Punjana Tea, Johnson’s Coffee and Fivemiletown Cheese are on the shelves in US stores. Beef and lamb from processors such as Foyle Foods, Linden Foods, Dunbia and Doherty and Gray are on sale throughout Europe in supermarkets such as Carrefour.

Toasted oats from Whites in Tandragee can now be found on shelves in Spain, Dubai and Hong Kong. We’ve got some great products but we need many more on sale internationally.

Our companies are still competing successfully in global markets. Even in today’s current difficult global environment there’s good business to be done.

What we have to ensure is that companies keen to grow through exporting continue to find the practical support they need in terms of information, finance, advice and, above all, skilled and motivated people.

This means more effective signposting of what’s currently available from government and help on-the-ground in key markets. And it also requires greater investment by the community and individual employers in the skills and knowledge of people here.

Rebuilding the economy to provide wealth and greater prosperity for all will require a deep resource of well trained, flexible and enterprising people.

Bill McGinnis, who is from Magherafelt, is Northern Ireland Adviser on Employment and Skills, a Commissioner on the UK Commission on Employment and Skills and Chairman of the Northern Ireland Exporters Association.

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