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Family businesses are backbone of Northern Ireland economy

By Margaret Canning

Inward investment announcements – such as law firm Allen & Overt's 100 new posts – are always welcome in Northern Ireland. None of us will ever shun a job-creation announcement on that scale – or of the extent of fellow law firm Baker & McKenzie's August commitment to invest in Northern Ireland. Such companies provide steady employment for well-qualified graduates, who might otherwise have to seek employment elsewhere.

But while toasting such foreign direct investment, whether from Baker & McKenzie in Chicago or London-based Allen & Overy, we can all do with being reminded of the highly successful, mainly family-run companies, many of whom have been here for generations and collectively employ thousands of people.

Yesterday brought eight very significant examples of such companies, from the fourth-generation W&R Barnett, which was founded in 1896, to the more recent second-generation firm Chain Reaction Cycles.

Along with Graham Construction, Tayto, Lagan Construction Group, Almac, Nicholl Fuel Oils and Wrights Group, they fly the flag for Northern Ireland in the Sunday Times Grant Thornton Top Track 250 League Table, which we got a sneak preview of yesterday ahead of full publication on Sunday.

The league celebrates mid-market private companies, and many which have been listed in the past have gone on to to become listed – though some times with mixed results, as has been the case with online grocer Ocado.

We were also reminded of some which have dropped off the list, such as Norbrook Laboratories and SHS Group.

All are firms which work steadily in the background and seldom blow their own trumpet about their achievements. Even Chain Reaction Cycles, a significant employer with around 600 staff and working in the media-friendly area of sport and exercise, do not rush to put themselves in the public eye.

Many of our most successful businesspeople do not even like to be photographed – in recent coverage of W&R Barnett, we used a portrait of chairman Robert Barnett from Belfast Harbour Commission. Many others would pose for no end of photographs, if only for a flavour of W&R Barnett's huge success.

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