Belfast Telegraph

A note to some of our SMEs: mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Comment: Stephen Kelly

'Ten jobs created in provincial business'... it's not the sort of announcement which usually makes headline news. That's understandable, and no, there is no criticism due for newspapers or readers for not getting excited.

But for the SME involved, this could be the biggest milestone in the company's history, a big risk but a massive step as they begin to scale up and move towards being one of our household manufacturing names. Going largely unnoticed, small manufacturing firms here have been winning contracts and adding jobs.

In this case, it's 30 manufacturers investing £22m and creating 282 jobs across the province in places where people want to set up home and contribute to their local community.

Ten new jobs in an SME that may have only 40 people on its books is a 25% increase in its workforce - our largest companies making such a move would certainly catch the public imagination. But they are stepping up, stretching out and issuing a huge statement of intent.

Just 1% of our manufacturing companies are large firms. They provide almost half of the employment and half of the manufacturing turnover. The other 99% of companies still employ over 40,000 people and have a turnover of around £10bn.

Moving more of those SMEs into mid-sized and large firms would help transform our economy. Indeed, even if those 5,500 companies were able or helped to employ just four more skilled people, our unemployment rate would virtually halve.

Research by Ulster University Business School and Harbinson Mulholland saw NI's top 100 family firms dominated by manufacturing companies. Internationally-respected, employing thousands, with strong local supply chains and many with founder's family name still above the door.

The manufacturers supported by Invest NI are taking some of their first steps to become the new Wrightbus, Almac, Norbrook, Keystone, Randox or Dunbia. Yet, they started the same way - small, innovative and determined. We can all be guilty of being seduced by headlines of a new large foreign direct investment announcement, but we should do more to celebrate home-grown SME leaders investing their own capital and supported by Invest NI to scale up.

It might be unfashionable, bread and butter work, but it is a critical and successful part of Invest NI's work and bears fruit now and well into the future.

Belfast Telegraph