Belfast Telegraph

Looking back at what made business headlines in 2014

Lesley Houston and Clare Weir recall some of the best business stories of the past year

January: Mivan folds and FG Wilson grows. The start of a New Year traditionally rings in the changes - theoretically for the better - but for Northern Ireland the dawn of 2014 sounded the death knell of Mivan, the award-winning Antrim construction firm which outfitted Scotland's parliament at Holyrood and re-roofed Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque.

Founded in 1975 by Dr Ivan McCabrey when he was still an engineering student at Queen's University, the company fell victim to intense competition in the global market.

In December, 144 workers made redundant from the firm won £2,500 payouts following an industrial tribunal.

On the upside though, US firm Caterpillar - owner of FG Wilson - expands its Northern Ireland manufacturing operation in Larne with a £5.4m deal to produce its articulated truck axles.

But just 10 months later in November the firm announced it was to shed 140 jobs which it blamed on weaknesses in the economies of key markets and falling demand for products.

February: Firm reveals jobs for 160

February rolled in with 160 new jobs for Co Tyrone, following the relocation of Swedish multinational engineering group Sandvik AB to its branch in Ballygawley, plus a £1m expansion by jewellery retailer Argento to open seven new stores across Northern Ireland and in Scotland.

And Ballyclare-based self-tan and skincare company Vita Liberata secured Growth Loan Fund grants to expand into North America — to complement its reach to 22 countries worldwide. Belfast firm HeartSine Technologies announced a contract to provide almost 2,000 of its automated external defibrillators to Singapore’s armed forces.

Meanwhile, poultry company Moy Park announced its sponsorship of the 2014 FIFA World Cup as part of parent company Marfrig’s official sponsorship deal.  Viewers were impressed to see Moy Park hoardings during games featuring European teams.

March: Norbrook chief Haughey dies

In March, Norbrook founder Lord Ballyedmond — commonly known as Eddie Haughey — died in a helicopter crash in Norfolk alongside his company foreman Declan Small and pilots Carl Dickerson and Captain Lee.

It wasn’t until November that the Newry-based veterinary pharmaceutical company appointed a new chief to replace him, when chief executive of Irish building and healthcare firm SISK Group Liam Nagle was named as his successor.

Also in March, the Duke of York visited Belfast when he launched the Belfast Telegraph’s 50 jobs in 50 days campaign — a drive which encouraged firms to offer apprenticeship positions to Northern Ireland young people in a bid to stimulate jobs growth.  The success of the scheme led to the newspaper surpassing its goal, with the creation of over 100 new apprenticeships.  Apprenticeships remained high on the business agenda for the rest of the year.

April: ‘Bad bank’ in loans deal

The Republic’s bad bank Nama struck a deal with private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management on Project Eagle, a portfolio of development loans owed by debtors in Northern Ireland, involving original borrowings of £4.5m. 

April also saw the sale of one of Ireland’s tallest buildings, the Obel in Belfast, which went for an estimated £20m to US fund group, Marathon Asset Management ­— though the buyer’s identity wasn’t revealed for another month.

The tower was among assets offloaded by Bank of Scotland and had been repossessed in November 2012.

US IT giant Concentrix revealed it was offering 1,000 new positions in Belfast, following its purchase of Belfast firm gem. 

May: Marathon’s spending spree

New York fund Marathon Asset Management continued its spending spree in Northern Ireland, snapping up Shane Retail Park on Boucher Road in south Belfast for an estimated £30m.

Cityside Retail Park — formerly Yorkgate  in north Belfast — also caught its eye, and it paid around £20m for the asset.  Both Cityside and Shane formerly belonged to developer Sam Morrison’s Corbo Properties.

Progressive Building Society celebrated its centenary in May, just a month after announcing a 80% rise in pre-tax profits of £5.7m and its merger with the City of Derry Building Society.

SDC Trailers in Toomebridge was toasting a £10m contract to make 600 trailers for leasing company Hireco. 

Group turnover to the end of March 2014 at SDC was £130m — and the firm projected that group turnover would rise to £150m in 2015.

And all eyes were turned in May on brothers Paul and Jeremy Eakin.  According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2014, the brothers’ wealth experienced growth of £100m during the year. 

Their family medical supplies company TG Eakin grew further with the acquisition of Cliffe Medical.

June: Hughes sold in massive deal

In June, Newtownards-based insurance broker Hughes was bought over by one of the largest insurance firms in the world, US firm Liberty Mutual Insurance Group. 

The deal was thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds.   But there was no change in leadership at Hughes, and the deal left chief executive Gareth Brady and his current management team in charge of its 300 staff across 12 branches.

Still in June, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, met business leaders in Belfast, when he also spoke exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph and warned that the economy should focus on stable growth instead of a short-term bounce back in the housing market.

That month also witnessed the acquisition of Bangor company, Whale — also known as Munster Simms Engineering — by New York Stock Exhange-listed company Brunswick Corporation. Whale makes pumping systems, water heaters and other equipment for boats and caravans and made sales of £18m in 2013.   The incursion of two more big-hitting US corporations over the month of June enabled Uncle Sam to continue its claim to the lion’s share of foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland.  According to Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey, 23,000 people in the province work for around 185 US firms.

July: Wrightbus in £30m contract

Ballymena coachbuilder Wrightbus International won a £30m contract to supply 415 double deck bus kits to SBS Transit in Singapore.

The massive order was to be supplied and packaged in complete knocked down (CKD) kits from the company’s Ballymena plant before being shipped to Singapore to be assembled by Comfort Delgro Engineering at their facility and supported by Wrightbus International technicians.

The deal followed three previous orders with the same company, resulting in over 1,000 similar vehicles entering service with SBS Transit since 2010. 

The deal cemented Wrightbus’ status as one of Northern Ireland’s most successful exporters.

Farnborough Air Show was the scene of a number of big deals for Northern Ireland firms in the aerospace sector.

Denroy Plastics secured a multi-million dollar five-year contract with Texas-based Triumph Aerostructures-Vought Aircraft Division, while Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster announced a £6.8m Advanced Engineering Competence Centre in Northern Ireland.

August: Legal giant in Ulster move

One of the world’s biggest law firms decided to base its new global “centre of excellence” in Belfast.

Baker & McKenzie’s new global services centre, which is set to open in Belfast in early 2015, is creating 256 jobs.

It is the firm’s second offshore support centre after it set up in Manila in the Philippines.

Their entry to Northern Ireland follows rivals Herbert Smith Freehills and Allen and Overy.

There was also a big jobs announcement from the pharma firm Almac Group, which said it was investing over £54m and creating 348 high quality jobs over the next five years.

It employs over 2,100 staff at its headquarters in Craigavon, with an additional 1,380 staff located in facilities throughout the rest of the UK, US and Asia.

And in other news, Northern Ireland food and drink companies broke all previous records in  the UK Great Taste Awards. 

Just under 100 Northern Ireland firms secured 264 awards.

September: Deloitte creates 338 new jobs

Business advisory firm Deloitte said it was creating 338 jobs across a range of services including technology, pensions and actuarial consulting, and finance.

Ulster Bank  released a third portfolio of property loans onto the market, part of which was eventually snapped up by Cerberus. Project Aran consisted of 315 properties – mainly in the Republic – belonging to 411 borrowers. There were 1,150 homes in the portfolio, 1.1m sq ft of office and retail space and 1.1m sq ft of industrial space.

In August bidders for Project Achill, the forerunner to Project Aran, had been shortlisted to four finalists.  And Davidson Kempner emerged as one of the buyers of Project Achill, a portfolio which included loans relating to property in the Titanic Quarter.  Project Nadal included loans on the Merchant Hotel in Belfast — and it emerged in October that those were sold to Goldman Sachs.

There was also bad news on the high street when mobile phone shop Phones 4U collapsed.

October: Gallaher drops jobs bombshell

Cigarette manufacturer JTI Gallaher  announced plans to close its Ballymena factory in 2017.

Around 800 people are set to lose their jobs.

JTI Gallaher contributes more than £57m a year to the economy through salaries and provides business for over 200 other firms, with total spending of £20m per annum.

In London, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced it was to carry out a criminal investigation into accounting irregularities at supermarket giant Tesco.

The supermarket announced that its profits had been overstated by £263m, up from an initial estimate, made in September, of £250m.

The inflated profit figure was the result of Tesco bringing forward rebates from suppliers.

Back in Northern Ireland, PwC announced it was creating 807 new jobs in Belfast.

November: Budget plans are revealed

The extent of the austerity facing public services and jobs emerged as Finance Minister Simon Hamilton presented the draft budget for 2015/16 to the Assembly.

On top of 2015’s budget squeeze — proposals for which have been out for public consultation — a further 13% is to come out of departmental expenditure by 2019. The total over the three years from 2016 has been estimated at £1.3bn.

Meanwhile, Invest NI announced its best-ever jobs performance.

In the six months to the end of September, the economic development agency said it had promoted 10,800 jobs — compared to 2,890 over the same period in the previous year.

Meanwhile, banking group Citi announced 600 new jobs in Belfast and Diageo said  it had agreed a deal with Mexico’s Jose Cuervo to take full control of its Don Julio tequila brand in exchange for Bushmills Whiskey.

December: Osborne pledge on tax reforms

In his Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne pledged to devolve corporation tax setting powers to Northern Ireland  — but only if politicians could break a deadlock on budget cuts and welfare reform. 

They duly did so, but kept us waiting until December 23 for the Stormont House Agreement.

Former billionaire businessman Sean Quinn returned to the business he created and then lost.

The Quinn manufacturing empire had been  taken over by creditors including IBRC, the former Anglo Irish Bank and US bondholders. 

But the company founder was back at the office following the sale of much of the business to allies in Quinn Business Retention Company (QBRC).  Glass business Encirc remains on the market.

Belfast Telegraph