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There will be scars but I'm hopeful of a bounceback, says CBI NI chief McGowan

CBI NI director Angela McGowan talks to Emma Deighan about aiming for an economic recovery after Covid-19


Angela McGowan admits she has never been so busy since the start of lockdown

Angela McGowan admits she has never been so busy since the start of lockdown

Angela with husband Peter on a trip to Spain

Angela with husband Peter on a trip to Spain

Angela McGowan admits she has never been so busy since the start of lockdown

Angela McGowan, director of CBI NI, should be celebrating her 50th birthday and her 25th wedding anniversary in the coming weeks but instead she will be fighting for the survival of Northern Ireland businesses bearing the brunt of the coronavirus.

"I've never seen anything like this. Even the recession back in 2008 doesn't compare," says Ms McGowan, who is a former economist. "This is a huge economic shock combined with a health shock piled on top of it."

Raised in north Belfast, Angela is one of three daughters. Her father worked for the Civil Service while her mother was a nurse.

Today she says clapping every Thursday night for NHS workers resonates with her mother who worked with children suffering from polio.

"She has huge sympathy for nurses today and has taken a lot of interest in it. We are making sure she is cocooned and looked after," she adds.

Angela's father, who was a bursar for the courts in Northern Ireland, died over 20 years ago.

She says she always had an interest in economics but the support from a good teacher in her grammar school years inspired her to pursue it as a career.

Angela studied Economics at Queen's University followed by a Masters at Ulster University. A research job at Queen's University's economics department followed and then a role at a think tank, after which she took up an eight-year post as chief economist at Danske Bank.

"It was bizarre that I took up that post in 2008 during the recession but today, this is different," Angela says.

"I have never be so busy in all of my career as I am today."

She describes the current economic crisis as a result of coronavirus as a three-step process. Today, she says, we are at phase three, the last step.

"Now it's about how we restart. We're taking stock and trying to get information to look at business continuity and how to move forward given all the changes.

"How do we get workers thinking about coming back? That's what companies are looking at now. They're making permanent changes around distancing so that when people do return, they feel safe in the workforce.

"Many of our members are telling me that you wouldn't recognise their workplaces with those measures in place."

Helping fine-tune government support packages and making them accessible to those in need has also been a priority at CBI.

She adds: "There was a few people who slipped through the net and there is an identification that some are finding it very tough, even in phase three there is still a lot of pressure."

She says first and foremost, health is at the top of CBI's agenda and adds that resumption of business will be a "gradual approach".

"Maybe in Northern Ireland we haven't seen it as hard and we might be able to move on some sectors first where we know we can keep people and employees in place safely," she explains.

"CBI members would like to see some overarching framework for this. It is hard to keep an economy frozen for a long time but if we don't be realistic, there will be very big scars."

With offices around the world, the CBI has first hand-knowledge of how places like Beijing, Belgium and the United States are working towards recovery.

Angela says: "We are not just taking insights from those countries, but looking at the evidence of how other countries are opening up and take the best from all of them, and avoid the pitfalls."

The CBI will also host a number of webinars on the subject.

Having worked as a chief economist during the recession of 2007-2009, Angela adds her experience of a recovering economy after a grave downturn suggests that the aftermath of the coronavirus will be more of a "bounceback" as opposed to a long-drawn recovery.

"It will be deep, yes, but I am hoping that the bounceback will be fast. That said there will be some companies that will be scarred and spending will change but it's really important that we build the economy up in the right way and we are having conversations about bringing a group of economists, government and private sectors, together to find out what is going to be needed."

Angela is taking solace in that in one of her most challenging career moments, she can spend time at home in lockdown in Holywood with her two sons and husband Peter Dunne, senior economist at Central Bank of Ireland.

"Spending time together at home is lovely and it has changed things a lot. We are all thinking about what we're grateful for, people are stepping up and helping their neighbours and the elderly and I don't think these things will discontinue afterwards," she says.

Angela's two sons are studying mechanical engineering and chemistry respectively at university. While she jokes that grocery bills are heftier since their return home, she's grateful for the time she can spend with them.

It makes her recall a gap year in Australia and to offer up some advice to parents who may be struggling with home teaching.

She says: "In 2006 I took a sabbatical. My husband was working on a project in New South Wales and I remember home-schooling a bit. My sons were primary one and three at the time and if I read a book on the bus to them, that was enough. I think the best thing to do is not stress about it. It was so nice to let them do whatever they enjoyed."

At home there is three major life events for the family to mark this summer. Angela will turn 50 in August, her eldest son will celebrate his 21st birthday and Angela and Peter will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

"We thought we would be getting a nice holiday in Spain, Croatia or maybe back to Australia but nothing like that is going to happen," she says.

"If you look at those people in ICU and what many other people are going through, everything gets put into perspective."

Instead she will be working attentively to ensure the blow of coronavirus is managed as best it can all amid a backdrop of Brexit.

Angela is hoping for an exit that offers good market access and zero tariffs and regulatory friction. "I agree its ambitious but if we could, it would take that headache away," she admits.

Returning to a post lockdown economy, she concludes: "There can't be a cliff edge. There are big conversations to be had but we do have to accept that this is an unprecedented situation and we will have to take risks but then we have to make sure that we build a sustainable economy."

'I can't wait to be able to book a holiday'

Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?

A. Always employ people who are smarter than you.

Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. Researcher in any area at all… I love looking into things in greater detail.

Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A. I was in Co Kildare in February. I’ve no plans for now… but I can’t wait for holidays to be a possibility again.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. Gardening, walking, Pilates, fitting in time with friends and family

Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A. Stephen Pinker – Enlightenment Now.

Q. How do you sum up working in the business world?

A. You get to work with a lot of smart and driven people.

Belfast Telegraph