John Simpson: Chair preparing Invest NI to help local businesses cope with new challenges
Rose Mary Stalker, the new chair of Invest NI, has an ambitious dynamic agenda for her new job. She has a clear ability to articulate convincing arguments to any professional audience.
Ms Stalker has been a non-executive Board member at Invest NI since 2012 and quickly demonstrates that her seven-year 'apprenticeship' has given her a knowledge base that will stand her in good stead.
Her diary confirms that she has 'walked the walk' to meet the heads of a wide range of businesses.
Other changes at a senior level are also taking place. The new chief executive, Kevin Holland, has arrived and is engaged in a handover from outgoing chief executive Alastair Hamilton.
Very shortly, the Department for the Economy will be advertising for applications for six new non-exec appointments to the board of Invest NI.
Whether there will be other organisational changes after the arrival of the new chair and chief executive awaits the advice of the new chief executive as he reviews the changing workload and the inherited allocation of functional responsibilities.
Ms Stalker inherits an organisation which has been performing successfully. There are spontaneous complements to her predecessor Mark Ennis and also to Alastair Hamilton who has led the organisation for 10 years.
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With no hint of criticism, there is also recognition that Invest NI must now raise its ambitions to help transform businesses so that they can cope with the changing nature of the challenges.
In a first acknowledgement of her role as chair she emphasises her ambition to serve the community.
The last 10 years have seen 42,000 letters of offer of assistance to over 11,000 businesses in Northern Ireland. These offers form the basis for investment of £7bn (70% to local businesses) and were linked to the creation of 67,000 new jobs. R&D spending has touched £1.8bn.
Starting from this credible achievement, the challenge to the incoming team is to reconsider their policies and practices to ensure that Invest NI continues to be one of the world's leading economic development agencies as well as being a trusted business partner.
Reflecting on the unfinished business of Brexit and how the local lack of agreed political institutions has strained the evolution of the economy, Ms Stalker says: "We are in a period of unprecedented uncertainty. We need to keep delivering our support and reassuring our customers and the economic community in Northern Ireland."
Does Invest NI need to change the tools at its disposal to encourage development? "Invest is continually looking at the tools and services which it provides. As soon as the Brexit referendum result was known we considered our response, including whether it becomes a Brexit deal or a no-deal Brexit.
"We launched a Brexit preparation grant to help companies preparing for the process. Additionally, we are working with other business organisations to anticipate some of the necessary changes."
"Invest NI is still very keen to see Northern Ireland introduce the proposed lower rate of corporation tax. As Alastair Hamilton recently said, failing to implement the proposal was one of his disappointments when he looks back on his career with Invest NI. We are still going to try to get this benefit introduced. It will be difficult until the NI Executive is restored. We should all be encouraging our politicians to go back to Stormont."
The delay in making any change to the NI corporation tax rules is of course just one (and an important one) of the delays impacted by the absence of an Executive. For Invest NI there is a critical interest in the delivery of the City Deals, both for Londonderry and Strabane and the larger deal for the Belfast City region.
At a meeting in Derry of the board of Invest NI last week, hosted by Seagate, they heard a persuasive presentation from the chief executive of the local authority. Greater efforts to accelerate both of these City Deals would have support from the new chair of Invest NI.
The presentation on the City Deal for the north west illustrated important lessons.
Ms Stalker says: "What we saw was 'one team' impressively working together. It was a collaborative effort and the message emphasised the need for synchronisation of the delivery of the many parts of a joined up programme.
"What has been done in Londonderry and Strabane is impressive, partly through the evidence of the benefits accruing from the journey together of the key interest groups."
Invest NI will shortly be having a meeting with the Belfast Region City Deal. One aspiration voiced by Ms Stalker is that Invest NI will assist by facilitating the collaboration and synchronisation of the emerging delivery plans. The hope is that businesses can become more heavily engaged alongside other partners from the universities, the FE colleges, the Harbour Commissioners and the other government agencies.
"It is important we prioritise what we are doing to maximise the benefit for Northern Ireland. For Invest NI this is an opportunity to help to convene a Northern Ireland-wide approach rather than in sub-optimal smaller regions," Ms Stalker says.
The annual budget of Invest NI has, in recent years, been just over £150m. Is this adequate for the responsibilities carried by Invest NI? "Everyone would like a bigger budget. We know that there is increasing competition for funds. We are continuously considering the efficiency and effectiveness of what we do. We are also assessing the opportunities and the challenges that we face including decarbonisation targets, digitisation, automation, changes in technology, and the development of the internet of things."
"Facing the challenge of 'net zero emissions' as a government policy is not something for us to be frightened about. It is more an opportunity. We can be part of the solution as opposed to saying that it is a difficulty. Invest NI can be supportive to businesses making necessary changes."
Businesses which, in the past, may have operated on their own will need to appreciate the logic of new forms of collaboration when there will be rapid changes.
What next for employment prospects? Ms Stalker accepts that there will be big changes.
"There is going to be an enormous churn and movement in the workforce. Young children will find that perhaps 60% of the jobs they might take would not even have been in existence when they were born. These will be the opportunities," she says.
"We will need for more skills. Invest NI is gearing its skills programmes to prepare for the new opportunities."