Belfast Telegraph

American business community keen to forge links with Northern Ireland

By Rachel Martin

Representatives from Berrien County's business community in America are visiting Northern Ireland on a mission led by Co Down veteran businessman Ronnie Foreman.

Mr Foreman said he hoped to help members of the delegation to sell their goods into Europe.

And he said there may be Northern Ireland products which could find their way to Berrien County - the region in Georgia where his high-powered delegation hails from.

He said: "This week we will be meeting between 30-40 organisations, all of whom fit somewhere into that category - there are businesses who want to go out and find work in the States and their companies want to go out and establish some sort of presence."

And he said UK membership of the EU was an important factor.

"All of the American companies that we are working with would be attracted to the fact that we are part of the EU. In other words, they'd want to come into an English speaking part and a low cost part and Northern Ireland is the perfect place for it."

Mr Foreman, a former Belfast Harbour Commissioner with a long track-record of helping US companies set up here - continued: "If the UK came out of the EU it does represent a big problem because a lot of those companies will divert their focus to go to the Republic.

"I have to say at the moment any company we are working with looking to come to Northern Ireland is really looking for a toehold into the EU and so from those companies' perspective leaving the EU would cause a rethink.

"If you build a base in Georgia, you don't just want to get your product into the local population, you want to get it to the US's 360 million population market.

"Similarly, they want to get into the 500 million European market but there are certain places which are the best places to enter. For an American company all those factors make Northern Ireland an interesting place."

The visitors include Ed Perry, the owner of Horse Creek Winery in Nashville, Georgia, as well as director of Berrien County economic development authority, Chrissy Staley, and Nick Lacey, chairman of the authority.

They're joined by Commissioner Robert Griner, president of Citizens Bank, and Norman Lovein III, chair of Berrien County Chamber of Commerce.

Ed Perry

The potential for business connections with Northern Ireland is ripe, says Georgian wine-maker and vineyard owner Ed Perry.

Mr Perry hopes he can establish a partnership with a Northern Ireland restaurant to stock his own wines, or a drinks company hoping to get their products to America. Mr Perry founded his business Horse Creek Winery in 2008 at his farm in Nashville, Georgia as a means of adding value to over-ripe grapes.

He brings in grapes from other parts of the state to make Cabernet and Merlot but also grows Muscadine grapes on the farm.

Chrissy Staley

She says: "A handshake is as good as a 50 page contract. There's some things you can only build face-to-face - and that trust and relationship with other business people is one of those things."

Chrissy Staley, executive director Berrien County Chamber of Commerce, said it was important for business leaders wanting to build trade links to meet in person. She added: "I know that we are in the day and age of technology but I still feel there is a certain appreciation for face-to-face relationships and that can't be done through an email or over Facetime."

Ms Staley said she hoped companies in Georgia could find a niche in the market in Northern Ireland, working with businesses here to develop new products and promote each other's wares on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robert B Griner

Robert B Griner, president of Citizens Bank, Nashville and elected county commissioner at Berrien, said he had been impressed at the transformation Northern Ireland had undergone.

He said: "We're seeking to do business and we see Belfast as a good place to do that."

Nick Lacey

Nick Lacey first visited Northern Ireland in 1986.

The chairman of Berrien County Chamber of Commerce said: "I see a vibrant agri-food industry here now, and a good retail sector. I can see a strong economy emerging - there's shops open on the weekends and a good night-life.

"What I see here is as good as any other city. It's world-class. We are trying to build a collaboration between ourselves and businesses in Northern Ireland -partnerships that is good for businesses in Northern Ireland and that are good for businesses and the economy in Berrien County."

Norman Lovein III

Norman Lovein III is chairman of Berrien County Chamber of Commerce.

He said he was "excited by the opportunities I'm already seeing to do business in Northern Ireland".

"We've only got here and I'm already very excited by what Northern Ireland has to offer. Our bond is our handshake and we will sure shake a lot of hands while we're here."

Mr Lovein said Georgia is the second largest pecan producing region of the USA and how many people he had met in Northern Ireland were not aware of the nut.

And he said he hoped to build a new market for the nut in Northern Ireland.

"I'm very excited by the natural opportunities which are coming up."

Belfast Telegraph