Want to start a business? Go south, says US entrepreneur after debacle with Invest NI
A Northern Ireland businessman has told of his bureaucratic nightmare trying to access financial aid from Invest NI.
He's spoken out as it was revealed the agency has been forced to hand £21m of funds it didn't spend back to Stormont. It's the second large tranche of money returned to the Executive following last year's £17.5m underspend.
Invest NI has blamed the harsh economic climate for the latest underspend, but the situation has prompted calls for a revamp of the Government organisation. It also said £13.6m of the money it handed back over the past two years was income from its own investments in 2011 or early 2012.
Businessman Brian Kissock says he's not surprised the body had to hand back money as he had a very negative experience trying to access funding.
The entrepreneur, who currently lives and works in the US, was interested in setting up a plant in Northern Ireland.
He flew back to see what the possibility of funding help was and contacted Invest NI.
Mr Kissock said he was stunned at his treatment, as he was basically told to go home to start his business.
"I phoned to be told I needed to fill in an application form for possible funding. I went to Netherleigh House," he said.
"I spoke with the receptionist and asked for an application form. She said she didn't have any. I explained what I needed.
"She said: 'I don't know who to call'. I said 'call someone'. I waited.
"Eventually a nice young man arrived; I explained I needed an application form for possible funding and he advised me to go to the Bedford Street office.
"So off I went to Bedford Street. I explained to the receptionist what I needed. She said: 'You will have to speak with an area manager'. I did eventually speak with a helpful chap who basically told me Invest NI had no money to invest, but I should go to the Technology Park at the harbour where they might be able to help.
"So off I trotted there, and again after quite a long wait, met a very decent chap, who found out I was from San Diego, California.
"He said he would put me in touch with Connect San Diego, and they might help me set up a plant there."
The businessman contrasted that experience with his reception across the border
"I called the Dublin equivalent of Invest NI.
"They invited me to a meeting, having examined the potential of the new business via the website. After an hour of discussion, they said: 'Can we start next week?'"
Mike Nesbitt MLA said the latest refund bolsters the need to create a single 'Department of the Economy'.
"If Invest NI is handing back nearly £24m, three months after returning £17m, we need to re-shape our economic policy levers and mechanisms today.
"We need to give people jobs so they have money to spend to stimulate our economy, and generate confidence that is the core missing element in the Northern Ireland economy."
Others defended the investment body.
Institute of Directors director Linda Brown said it was a shame the agency's successful investment was accounted for as an underspend.
"It is unfortunate that accounting rules label this success as an underspend and prevent the funds from being retained by Invest NI to support businesses in future."
The bulk of the underspent money is understood to have been earmarked to assist local companies' investment plans but, because of the strong economic headwinds, those investments have been shelved or, in some cases, the 'client' companies which Invest NI assist haven't been able to meet the performance criteria set by the agency.
"It's not like they've gone to sleep and can't think of anything to do with the money," Colin Walsh, managing director of venture capital company Crescent Capital, said. "Surely that (giving the underspend back) is the sensible thing to do with the money in the current environment rather running around throwing it at stuff.
"It's a prudent way of going about their business and we can't blame Invest NI if the client companies don't proceed to take up the grant."