Belfast Telegraph

'After my father's death I found myself standing at the quay in his coat, telling his men what to do'

The Big Interview: Bonnie Anley

John Mulgrew

It was a family tragedy which thrust Bonnie Anley into the world of shipping, transport and ports. The now Foyle Port chairperson took the reins of her late father Nick's business, following his sudden death to cancer at the age of just 48.

Bonnie has now gone on to become one of the most senior women in the sector, helping steer a business boasting pre-tax profits of more than £2m.

The 50-year-old mother-of-three also says the impact of Brexit could cause delays to trade here, and that her business, and the wider economy, needs to be given a clear message and outline as to what leaving the EU will mean for Northern Ireland and cross-border trade.

Bonnie doesn't see any upside to Brexit, but is confident that the port will be able to weather any problems which arise from it.

She grew up with her family in Kilkeel in the heart of the Mourne Mountains, and now lives in Banbridge.

Bonnie went to school at the prestigious King's Hospital School in Dublin, which also counts Taoiseach Leo Varadkar among its alumni.

"I then went to Trinity College, and did an arts degree in English and Classics and followed that up with a Masters at Queen's University, as a mature student."

She started off in the world of work teaching English in Naples, Italy.

"It was extraordinary... it's the most extraordinary place.

"It was always going to be for a couple of years. When I left Italy, I thought I could have stayed there forever."

And aside from her day-to-day role in Londonderry, she is also on the board of Friends of the Earth, and is a big backer of green energy, and helps ensure the world tackles the problems of climate change head on.

Bonnie moved to London where she worked for the Financial Times, in advertising, in around 1990.

"They were very brand-focused... we had a particular type of pitch that was different from other newspapers, and was a brand I got behind.

"My father (Nick) died quite suddenly from cancer. I just took the decision to come home, because he hadn't really made any arrangements for a sudden departure."

Her father had worked in shipping throughout his life, and was in the transport sector at Warrenpoint Harbour.

"He also brought Merchant Ferries into the port and both of those organisations didn't expect him to die so quickly.

"On the week of his death, I found myself standing at the quayside, wearing his coat, and instructing his men.

"I kind of grieved his death about two years later."

Although Bonnie was thrown in at the deep end, she had grown up alongside her father's business.

"I needed to come home at that time... we were a bit rudderless."

Bonnie has a sister, Marion, and brother Philip, who is a teacher.

"My father was well known and larger-than-life. He had a great rapport with the port."

She then helped grow and expand Warrenpoint.

Following her time there, she joined the board of Friends of Earth - a role which she still holds today.

And in 2014, she was appointed as chairperson of Foyle Port.

"It is the only sea gateway for the north-west region. It's an economic zone which is above borders and political decisions. It brings in the cargo which is required in the area.

"At the moment, that is a mixture of bulk cargoes, and we now have a new renewable energy company on our land."

The port brings in almost two million tonnes of cargo a year, and supports the region to the value of around £1bn worth of commodities.

"Indirectly we support about 1,000 jobs, and directly we employ around 90," she reveals.

"We also support around 20,000 farms. This year, we have performed better than ever in our 162 years."

She said that's down to a range of reasons, including diversifying the portfolio.

That includes a new engineering and marine services arm.

"We obviously have an estates section too. We are hoping to expand our offering and add to the tourist product which we offer the region."

Foyle Port owns significant swathes of land, including a mixture between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

And it's planning to increase cruise ship and passenger numbers significantly in the next couple of years.

"It could be pertinent in relation to Brexit going forward, but also allows us to offer a landlord product. We feel like we are in a really good opportunity to exploit the opposite of whatever Brexit brings. We don't know how all of that is going to turn out."

Asked what the main concerns are for the port, she says: "A hard border is a concern for us. Ideally, as a port, we are a facility provider for our customers... we want to provide a facility that suits them.

"A hard border doesn't seem to have much to offer anybody. That is a concern. We obviously, as a port, would want to go to a tariff-free arrangement.

"I think the lack of clarity, of direction, is a frustration for all of us. We need our voice to be heard. I think that this has become an identity issue.

"We need to get out of identity politics, and make this a practical discussion.

"Should we have even had a referendum? Should the binary question have been offered in such an incredibly simplistic manner? There are issues and always were with the membership of Europe. We are in very uncharted territory.

"I think history will not be kind to us if we don't focus on tangible opportunities which could pass us by."

She says, from a commerce point of view, that "there will always be opportunity in any situation of change".

And she says, with a lack of devolved government, that there is a "leadership vacuum".

"The senior civil servants that we have never wanted to be the leaders, they are forming processes, but there is no one to form direction.

"There will come a point where that will deter investment. The thing that makes me frustrated... there are many advantages to Northern Ireland, but we are not at that point of focusing on that stuff."

Bonnie remains committed to keeping the business as 'green' as possible.

"I defer anyone who says you shouldn't be running a business, or trying to green your business... from a planetary perspective. For me, the planet, and that we only live on one planet... our footprint is three times what we need. We are all on the one planet."

Bonnie has three children, Nicholas (16), Alexander (14) and Isobel (11), and is married to Adrian but they are currently "amicably separated".

She is also a keen swimmer, and says: "I'm just like a penguin. I can swim pretty fast (which I do regularly), but my running is more of a sedate waddle."

Foyle Port revealed pre-tax profits of more than £2m during a record year in the Co Londonderry harbour's 162-year history.

The port saw profits rising by around 50%, with turnover sitting at £8.6m. It's now in its fifth year of consecutive growth.

Earlier this year, the port invested in a new Damen ASD 230 tug boat.

The Strathfoyle will be the most powerful vessel in Foyle port's fleet. It will work alongside the port's existing ASD tug, the Shrove.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular