Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Holding the Port

Len O'Hagan, the chairman of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, tells Business Correspondent Robin Morton of his hopes and aspirations for the Port of Belfast - and for the wider Northern Ireland economy

When it comes to assessing whether the rising economic tide will lift all boats in Northern Ireland, few people are better placed than Len O'Hagan.

Mr O'Hagan (52) was appointed as chairman of Belfast Harbour Commissioners last January, and enjoys a commanding view from his office of the Harbour Estate.

And given that the Port of Belfast handles 60% of Northern Ireland's sea-borne trade, he is in a perfect position to monitor the province's economic fortunes.

"A report we commissioned earlier this year from the Centre for Economics and Business Research indicated that the value of goods handled at the port last year was £19.5bn, " he says.

"Since the days of shipbuilding, when the commissioners carried out dredging to reclaim land and create industry, the harbour has played a key role in the economic development of Northern Ireland and it is no different today.

"In the business sense in particular, Northern Ireland at the moment is a great place to be.

"Increasingly, I get the feeling that our time has come."

Mr O'Hagan, a successful businessman in his own right, has been on the board of Belfast Harbour Commissioners since 2005, and is now relishing his role as chairman.

The cry of the sea has been part of his psyche since childhood days. He was born in Rostrevor on the shores of Carlingford Lough in May 1954 and was educated at St Colman's College in Newry.

From there he went to Queen's University in Belfast, from where he graduated in 1973 with a degree in economics.

His first job was in the recycling industry with Paper Compact in Newry, which was later taken over by Reed International.

Mr O'Hagan returned to Belfast and at the age of 25 became general manager of Robert Cooke & Sons, a wastepaper company which was based at Nelson Street, close to the landmark Harbour Office in which he is now based.

In 1979 he was appointed managing director of paper recycling company CR Bailey, and integrated the Cookes and Baileys' businesses in Lisburn.

After two years in Dublin as managing director of Central Waste Paper, which was 80% owned by Smurfit and 20% by Reed, Mr O'Hagan became Mr Smurfit's personal assistant.

The next step was to become managing director of Smurfit Ireland's print and distribution division in 1987, and his role there was to develop the operation into a global paper company.

In 1990, he was head-hunted by another leading Irish businessman - Anthony O'Reilly - for the Fitzwilton Group, and soon found himself spearheading the £122m acquisition of the Wellworths supermarket chain.

He was to spend 11 years with the Fitzwilton Group but in 2001 decided it was time to move on.

He took out a licence from Waterford Crystal to open up a manufacturing operation in China.

A range of products was produced for the American market under the brand name of Timeless Memories, and the venture proved a success.

"China was quite a difficult market to operate with a lot of red tape, although the people there are very enterprising," he recalls.

But after 18 months, he sold on his interest and set up OHC - O'Hagan Consulting - a corporate advisor consultancy in Dublin and soon counted the ESB among his clients.

At the same time, he became chairman of Rockingham, a property development company with interests such as Rockingham Motor Speedway in Northamptonshire.

He is also a non-executive member of the board of Independent News and Media (Northern Ireland), owners of the Belfast Telegraph.

Nowadays Mr O'Hagan and his wife Maureen, who have two children aged 23 and 21, divide their time between their homes in Holywood in Co Down and Sandycove in Dublin.

In his spare time, he relaxes by going sailing or skiing, and he enjoys the adrenaline rush from both activities.

Otherwise, he enjoys reading business books and says the real buzz he gets from his work is seeing growth take place and business prosper.

Accordingly, it is no surprise that under his leadership, Belfast Harbour Commissioners is on a growth curve.

Plans were unveiled last July for a £630m investment which will see a further 120 acres of land being reclaimed from the sea over the next 20 years.

As he admits, the expansion will see Mr O'Hagan being involved once again in his first mode of business activity - although this time round he is recycling and regenerating land, not paper.

And that is perhaps why he is so enthusiastic about the commissioners' involvement - as land owners - of the £1.5bn Titanic Quarter development.

Derelict shipyard land is due to be transformed into a vibrant new waterfront location, at the heart of which will lie the proposed Titanic Signature Project.

Although the project has missed out on Big Lottery Fund support, Belfast Harbour Commissioners has pledged its support by committing £15m to the scheme, a sum equivalent to one year's profit. Mr O'Hagan is confident that the project will be a winner, and cites the high degree of interest in the ship, Nomadic, which he says provides a tangible link with Titanic.

Belfast Harbour Commissioners has been making the headlines itself in recent months, as a result of a tussle with the Strategic Investment Board.

BHC objected vehemently to what it interpreted as a bid by the Government to strip it of its assets, by selling off non-port land to raise money for infrastructure projects.

Mr O'Hagan is adamant that the commissioners need the income from non-port land to fund expansion at the Port, and is hopeful that the recently completed Government review will endorse that viewpoint. "We have been very successful but we need the income stream to expand for the benefit of the wider economy," he says.

Although Mr O'Hagan is fond of quoting President Kennedy in his speeches, he admits that his main role model in his business life was his late father, also called Len.

Len O'Hagan senior, who was managing director of Reed Corrugated Cases at Warrenpoint, and a founding member of the IBEC-CBI joint business council, died suddenly two years ago.

Mr O'Hagan, who spent summer holidays from the age of 15 working for him at Reed, clearly still misses his father.

"If I have a business hero it would have to be my father, who taught me so much," he says. "I always admired his single-mindedness and his commitment to Northern Ireland."

In his role at the Harbour Office, Mr O'Hagan is imbued by a sense of history, and admits to spending spare moments trawling through old records in the building's library. " The history of Queen's Island is fascinating and it was by dint of the vision of the Harbour Commissioners in the 19th century that Belfast, a city without coal or iron ore, became a world leader in shipbuilding," he says.

"Times have changed but the same principles apply, and I know days of opportunity lie ahead. Our dark years are behind us - this is a city and a region on the up and we want the world to know it."

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