Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's biggest business stories of 2018 - January to June

Brexit fears were intensifying in a roller coaster year for retail and manufacturing while hotel numbers grew.

Read more: Northern Ireland's biggest business stories of 2018 - July to December 

January: A good start to the year for Bombardier

A prolonged US trade case brought against Bombardier by its rival Boeing is resolved in Bombardier's favour, despite the protectionist economic policies of US President Donald Trump. The decision means that potentially crippling tariffs on imports of Bombardier's C Series jets into the US are averted. It's also great news for Airbus, the one-time rival of Bombardier which had bought over the C Series programme in 2017. The US International Trade Commission decision means the year begins on a high for the Belfast workforce of Bombardier, where around one-quarter of 4,500 people work on the manufacture of C Series wings. 

Northern Ireland business people are given honours in the New Years Honours list, including Ellvena Graham, the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, who is to receive an OBE, while Jayne Brady, partner in venture capital group Kernel, receives an MBE.

The beginning of the year is overshadowed by the first anniversary of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The business community makes the first of what will be many interventions condemning the inability of MLAs to restore devolution. Ellvena Graham of the NI Chamber condemns the "quagmire" of stagnation in Stormont.

Energy giant AES says it will likely have to close the Kilroot power station outside Carrickfergus with the loss of 240 jobs, with dozens more to go at the Ballylumford plant. The company announces it will have to curtail operations after it was deselected by the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) for electricity generation in an auction for the integrated-Single Electricity Market (i-SEM). AES UK & Ireland president Ian Luney says he was disappointed with the decision, and as a result, both stations cannot continue to "cover their fixed costs". I-SEM is replacing the current Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland. DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson protests at the prospect of the closure of Kilroot, and claims that it will increase control over the province's electricity supply from Dublin.

February: Crises for manufacturing and new UU campus

A French energy giant is the front runner to take on tens of millions of pounds of Northern Ireland Housing Executive contracts following the collapse of Carillion. We reveal that Engie is in the running to take on the work, which is being sold off by PwC, following the liquidation of the UK construction giant. Carillion employs approximately 500 staff here, with around 230 working for the NIHE. Across the UK, around 20,000 employees still face an uncertain future.

In a year of turmoil for national retail names, there are hundreds of jobs at risk at Homebase stores in Northern Ireland as its Australian owner announces it will close up to 40 outlets throughout the UK. Wesfarmers, which owns Homebase’s parent firm Bunnings, said that trading at the chain has been “poor” since it acquired the retailer two years ago.

Recruitment boss Tina McKenzie is appointed policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Ms McKenzie, the managing director of the Staffline Group, succeeds Wilfred Mitchell as he steps down after 20 years. The appointment of Ms McKenzie means that Northern Ireland’s four key business lobby groups — the Institute of Directors, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and FSB — are headed by women.

Northern Ireland suffers 440 job losses in a single day. Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken describes the triple whammy of job losses as “a devastating blow to the local economy”. Engineering firm Williams Industrial Services, which employed 145 people in Mallusk, goes into administration. Most of its workforce was made redundant straight away. And French oil services firm Schlumberger is closing its Newtownabbey operation, with the loss of 205 jobs. “These are exactly the type of highly-skilled manufacturing jobs which Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to lose,” Mr Aiken said. The Energy firm NIE Networks has also said it is cutting 90 jobs.  Later in the month, Wrightbus says it’s facing the loss of up to 95 workers due to “challenging market conditions” among both public and private customers. The Ballymena-based company is starting a consultation process for cutbacks. 

The Belfast Telegraph reveals that the new £250m Ulster University campus in Belfast is mothballed and workers sent home over a litany of legal problems. Work on the campus comes to a standstill, two days after chief contractor Lagan Construction Group announced it was putting four companies — including the firm charged with building the university — into administration. Up to 200 people lose their jobs. However, other companies in Lagan Construction Group aren’t affected.

March: Uncertainty increasing with a year to go until Brexit

More than 30 company directors have been banned from Northern Ireland boardrooms in the last year — racking up debts of almost £34m, the Belfast Telegraph reveals. During the financial year in 2017/18, a total of 34 company directors received disqualifications, according to the Department for the Economy. The total liabilities left behind by firms totalled £33.8m, during the period, with an overall deficiency of £16.5m.

Caterpillar sells off one of its Northern Ireland manufacturing sites to a Co Tyrone firm amid cost-cutting at the international generator maker. CDE Global, which is based in Cookstown and supplies equipment for the global mining and quarry industries, is taking on the Monkstown site, which had been owned by Caterpillar. Caterpillar revealed in 2016 that it was closing its Monkstown factory outside Belfast and cutting between 200 and 250 jobs. CDE will take possession of the building in September.

Portuguese construction firm Somague — at the centre of the delayed new Ulster University campus in Belfast — wins the deal to build part of the A6, a development interpreted as a positive sign for its other work here. The dualling of the A6 is a flagship project for the public purse in Northern Ireland.

It’s exactly a year until the UK is due to leave the EU, and the reality is starting to sink in among firms in the economy, even if the way forward is unclear. A Federation of Small Businesses survey shows that confidence within small firms in Northern Ireland is rebounding but certainty is still needed on the future of the border. 

Entrepreneur Gerard O’Hare — who built the Quays Shopping Centre in Newry and has been listed as one of Ireland’s richest people — steps aside after selling it along with another key retail, the Belfast Telegraph reveals. Mr O’Hare (60) developed the Newry shopping centre in his role as chief executive of Parker Green International. We reveal that he has sold his interest in both the Quays and sister shopping centre Fairgreen in Carlow in the Republic of Ireland to an unidentified purchaser. It’s understood his exit is part of an agreement with the company’s funders, concluding just weeks after the Quays unveiled a multi-million pound extension anchored by Marks & Spencer.

The developers of the Sirocco site in Belfast revealed that  they will be building a total of 450 apartments and a creative hub if their ‘master plan’ for the riverside site gets the go-ahead. The wasteland in the east of the city would be transformed into ‘Belfast Waterside’ as part of the £400m master plan by consortium Vanguard Real Estate, made up of two firms based in England and another based in Abu Dhabi. One, two and three-bed apartments would be just the first phase of residential development.

April: Business Awards crown a busy month in the economy

Larne Football Club's grounds are sold to the club's owner, the property tycoon Kenny Bruce. The deal involving Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the co-founder of online estate agency Purplebricks plc is to bring investment in the grounds, including the construction of a 4G playing surface and installation of floodlights for the 2018/19 season. Inver Park had gone on the market in February. At the time, Mr Bruce said he hoped to buy the site. However, he was concerned that the grounds could be purchased by a property developer who would change the use of the site. The council, however, confirms that the 4.73-acre package will remain at the disposal of the club.

The Texan property developer behind the Dunluce Resort and Spa project has said if planning is approved, her hotel could open in time for the Open Golf competition in 2019. Minka and Gavin Boyd's £65m scheme, which will create 300 jobs upon completion, would include 115 hotel rooms, 14 duplex penthouse apartments, three detached villas and a further 48 apartments. However, the Portrush development draws hundreds of objections. Minka says: "Our vision is to open in time for the 2019 Open but this project is bigger than the Open. It will bring much more to the area."

Outsourcing giant Capita, which employs around 1,500 people in Northern Ireland, is to tap investors for £701m and embark on a new strategy after booking a hefty annual loss. The turmoil at Capita triggers fears that the company could suffer the same fate as Carillion, which collapsed in 2017.

A glittering ceremony is held in Belfast's Crowne Plaza Hotel to celebrate the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank 2018. The Outstanding Business of the Year award goes to Belfast-based IT company Novosco, and Catalyst Inc chief executive Dr Norman Apsley received the Lifetime Achievement award.

During a positive year for many of economic indicators, in April it emerges that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the period between December and February 2018 fell to 3.5%, down 1.8% from the year before. The chief economist of the Ulster Bank, Richard Ramsey, says that the drop means that the province is now "effectively at full employment". He said there had been "strong construction and manufacturing jobs growth". However, he adds that skills shortages could be a growing issue in the year ahead.

Shopping centre giant Intu announces a £50m investment in Sprucefield Park in Lisburn with the creation of around 500 jobs. The site was formerly linked with department store multiple John Lewis during a long controversy over planning, with the result that the retailer gave up any interest in the location. There would be new shops, new places to eat and an 80-bedroom hotel at the site.

May: Surprising news as Sainsbury's and Asda plan merger

There is shock in the supermarket sector when giants Sainsbury's and Asda announce plans to merge. The duo, which together employ around 5,000 people in Northern Ireland, confirmed they are in advanced talks over a merger which would create a new supermarket giant with more than £50bn in sales.

Danske Bank is named the number one company in Northern Ireland in the Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies in association with Arthur Cox. It's the fourth year in a row that the bank has topped the chart of the highest profit-generators in Northern Ireland. Pre-tax profits for 2017 were £147.5m, up from £117m a year earlier.

Aerospace giant Bombardier and its 4,000 workers in Northern Ireland are boosted when airBaltic places a new order worth up to $6bn (£4.5bn) for 60 of its C Series planes.

Businesses express growing frustration with the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland. An alliance of business groups calls on the Secretary of State to empower civil servants to make decisions in the absence of ministers. Adrian Doran, of the Confederation of British Industry NI, says: "We must look for ways to remove the current handbrake on economic and social progress."

Significant Belfast office assets come onto the market. The Metro building - which is home to daily newspaper the News Letter - goes on the market for £21m. Agents say the sale of The Metro building on Donegall Square South represents a "significant opportunity". It's the latest major office asset to come to the market, after offices housing the law firm Allen & Overy at the Obel are put up for sale for £15m.

The parent company of retail giant Spar reports turnover of £759m during 2017 - up 8.5% from £699m a year earlier. However, pre-tax profits at John Henderson (Holdings), are down slightly from £20.3m to £20.04m.

Ballymena-based Wrightbus founder William Wright is knighted at Buckingham Palace.

Work on Ulster University's new Belfast campus is set to restart after the university and contractor Somague say that a deal has been hammered out with administrators that will enable payments to be made to subcontractors.

June: At £53m, Belfast's most expensive hotel opens

The most expensive hotel to be built in Northern Ireland opens. The £53m Grand Central from Hastings Hotels is in a former 23-storey office block in Bedford Street. It is one of a series of new hotels opening across the city this year as the tourism industry strives to meet the demand driven by growing visitor numbers.

Six NI locations are long-listed for a new logistics hub to aid in Heathrow's third runway expansion. They include the former tyre factory Michelin in Ballymena, and ex-Shackleton Barracks site in Ballykelly, Co Londonderry.

Pharmaceutical giant Almac in Craigavon reports a turnover of more than £500m for first time. The pharmaceutical development and manufacturing company also reported an increase in pre-tax profits - up from £27m in 2016 to over £33m - as well as a 19% rise in revenue to £531m.

Logistics firm Derry Refrigerated Transport has announced a £9m investment in a new facility in Co Armagh. And the Portadown firm also announced the acquisition of Brennan Refrigerated Transport in Waterford, adding five lorries to its existing fleet of 60. It says future-proofing against a possible hard-border following Brexit is a factor.

In a difficult year for retail, June stands out. Almost 200 jobs at 12 Poundworld stores in Northern Ireland are at risk after the budget retailer called in administrators. There are 188 employees with branch staff numbers ranging from 10 to 20. Department store House of Fraser also announces it would close 31 out of 59 stores though Belfast is to be spared. Both Toys R Us and electrical firm Maplin fell into administration earlier in the year.

Invest NI has described its performance in a year without a sitting Executive as "exceptional" as it helps add nearly 11,000 jobs. The economic development agency said that despite the collapse of the Executive in January 2017, 10,970 additional jobs were recorded.

Rajesh Rana, a director of Andras Hotels, is elected president of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Rajesh Rana has helped build Andras Hotels into Belfast's biggest hotel group.

Belfast Telegraph

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