Belfast Telegraph

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

 

Brexit continues to cause problems, 490 post are lost at Bombardier, and Mike Ashley buys up House of Fraser.

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

JULY: It’s goodbye to the C Series and hello A220

It's been known as the C Series for at least a decade since Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier first announced its plans for a jetliner to compete with Boeing and Airbus. The wings of the jet are made in Belfast. However, following Airbus's purchase of a majority stake, the C Series is becoming integrated into the Airbus family of products. This month Airbus holds a launch event for the C Series at its headquarters in Toulouse. The aircraft is given a new name reflecting its new Airbus leanings and is now the A220. The larger jets are the A220-300 and their smaller sister jet the A220-100.

The rise of the jet formerly known as the C Series continues when US airline JetBlue announces it will be buying 60 A220-300 in a deal worth up to $5.37bn. Assembly will take place in the Airbus factory in Mobile, Alabama, but the wings will be manufactured at Bombardier's Belfast plant. Starting in 2020, the deal will see JetBlue take delivery of the A220-300 jets up to 2025, with the option of taking another 60. If it wishes, it can switch some of the order to A220-100s.

Northern Ireland outsourcing company Staffline Group acquires Grafton, one of the best-known names in recruitment in Ireland. Staffline, which is led by Tina McKenzie, says the deal for an undisclosed sum made it the second-biggest recruitment firm on the island with 10,000 workers on its books. Grafton Recruitment, which has offices in the Boat building in Belfast, has an annual turnover of around £80m. Grafton's recruitment and HR businesses have been operating for more than 30 years. Staffline provides recruitment, training and human resources services to public sector clients and private companies.

Belfast Telegraph reveals Belfast Harbour has snapped up part of the Obel building in the city centre in a deal worth more than £15m. It's the first in a string of major commercial property sales in the city. The harbour, which operates Belfast Port, is understood to have paid over the asking price of £15m for the seven-storey office development. Obel 68 next to the 27-storey Obel tower, is let to London law firm Allen & Overy on land once owned by the harbour.

AUGUST: Devastating blaze at Primark’s Bank Buildings store

Sports Direct buys the House of Fraser department store chain out of administration, paying £90m for 59 outlets, including the anchor at Belfast's Victoria Square Shopping Centre. Boss Mike Ashley vows to turn the chain into the "Harrods of the high street", keeping open 47 of the 59. Belfast is spared throughout 2018.

On August 27 disaster strikes the heart of Belfast when a fire breaks out at the flagship Primark in the Bank Buildings. The inferno destroys the landmark listed building, and a safety cordon is put in place around the store affecting around 20 other businesses. The cordon restricts access to much of Royal Avenue and High Street, with some parts of the city centre losing up to 60% of the normal footfall.

The first easyHotel hits problems ahead of its opening here. The future of the £5m 'super budget hotel' on Howard Street is in doubt over the below-average size of some rooms, but eventually opens after being given permission to start trading by Tourism NI.

Tayto Crisps boss Paul Allen secures the future of one of Northern Ireland's best-known bakery firms, Genesis Crafty, by buying it over as it goes into administration.

On August 29 Northern Ireland achieves the dubious honour of going the longest peace-time period without a government, at 589 days. Business groups say the growth of the economy and its image overseas is being harmed by the lack of a devolved administration.

SEPTEMBER: A highly encouraging month on the jobs front

Newry-based sports data monitoring firm STATSports announces a multi-million pound expansion creating 237 jobs. STATSports provides wearable player tracking devices and analysis software to some of the world's biggest teams. Set up 10 years ago, it has offices in Ireland, London, Chicago and Florida. Invest NI offers the company £4m, with 92 positions already filled.

The Belfast Telegraph reveals that business advisory firm PwC is planning to move its 1,900 staff in Belfast to new offices at Merchant Square. The move from Waterfront Plaza to the new offices - developed by Gareth Graham's Oakland Holdings - will be one of the biggest office moves of recent years.

A busy month for job announcements continues as consultancy firm PA Consulting reveals plans to create up to 400 jobs in a digital development centre in Belfast.

And as it takes part in tech event Innovation Nation in Newry, the software and consulting plc First Derivatives announces it's planning to hire 1,000 new staff over the next few years. It says the jobs will aid the continued rapid growth of the business and will be across graduate, experienced and senior levels.

The Quarterly Employment Survey of jobs in the economy posts a record high for total number of jobs in Northern Ireland and the private sector. The total number of jobs has reached 765,100, while services sector jobs are at 621, 020. Private sector jobs are at a record high of 556,250.

OCTOBER: Belfast celebrates £350m City Deal declaration

Supplier farmers to dairy businesses Lakeland in Cavan and Lacpatrick in Monaghan vote overwhelmingly in favour of a merger between the two, with the new entity to be named Lakeland. The merger will give Lakeland a total farmer base of around 1,300 in Northern Ireland. Lakeland facilities here include a site in Newtownards, while Lacpatrick also has a major site outside Strabane. The merger strengthens Lakeland's position in what could become a much-altered landscape for cross-border dairying following Brexit.

Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green is named in the House of Lords by Peter Hain as the businessman at the centre of allegations of sexual harrassment and racial abuse by employees. Sir Philip Green - whose Arcadia Group of retailers also includes Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge and Wallis - denies the allegations, which had been subject to an injunction. Meanwhile, like much of the high street during a torrid year, sales at the group's shops have been hit by the growth of online trade, with a fall of 5.6% to £1.9bn during 2017.

Lisburn-based engineering business Camlin reveals it's creating 298 jobs. The new £28m expansion includes a £5m contribution from Invest NI.

In his first full Budget to take place during the autumn, Chancellor Philip Hammond announces a City Region Deal for Belfast. The announcement follows lobbying by Belfast City Council as well as other neighbouring councils who joined in the bid. The Chancellor announces that Belfast region will receive a £350m investment under the City Deal scheme. But it falls short of the £450m Belfast and five other councils in the east of Northern Ireland had hoped for. It's hoped the City Deal will deliver 20,000 jobs through a 10-year investment strategy. The Chancellor also annouces funding of £2m to help Belfast city centre recover from the Primark fire.

Ballymena bus giant Wright Group declares an 86% collapse in its pre-tax profits during 2017 to £1.5m from £10.7m the year before. Turnover was down 14% to £227.2m. It also announces a total of 190 redundancies during 2018.

NOVEMBER: May’s EU draft withdrawal deal divides opinion

Brexit remains a constant concern all year for business as a lack of detail persists about what will happen to trading relationships between Northern Ireland and the EU after the UK leaves. And the issue of a backstop on the island - a means of avoiding a hard border on the island in the event of a no-deal Brexit - is politically divisive as it's likely to involve different trading arrangements here compared to the rest of the UK. However, when Prime Minister Theresa May unveils a 500-page draft withdrawal agreement with a backstop involving a UK-wide custom territory within the customs union, and regulatory checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain, there is division like never before. This time the split is not between the parties, but between the DUP and the world of business. Business groups and farmers greet the draft deal with relief as it gives certainty for the future, but to Arlene Foster's party the provision in the deal for checks between Britain and Northern Ireland is intolerable as the DUP claims it threatens the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK. Both sides take to the airwaves to give their views, with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson telling BBC's The View that business can't have read all 500 pages of the document if they are prepared to support it. Mrs May and Cabinet Ministers travel to Northern Ireland to sell the deal, and business leaders travel to Westminister to urge MPs to support the draft withdrawal agreement in a vote in House of Commons. But instead the vote is delayed, and is now due to take place next month.

The optimism surrounding the renaming of the C Series jetliner as the A220 by its new majority owner Airbus is diminished considerably when Canadian giant Bombardier announces 5,000 global job losses. It's feared the cuts could hit its 4,000 workforce in Belfast, but the impact is underestimated. Bombardier announces that 490 jobs will go in Belfast, a level described by trade union Unite as "a bombshell, unjustified in the face of rising profits".

The couple behind a £65m hotel plan for the north coast withdraw their planning application and say they propose to submit new designs for a more modest project. Minka and Gavin Boyd, of North Coast Ventures Limited, originally planned a 115-room venue with 14 penthouse apartments, three detached villas and a further 48 apartments. However, after opposition from some, the couple withdraw their application and said they will propose a new set of plans for a £30m luxury hotel.

A deal is reached to keep open Kilroot Power Station with the rescue of around 150 jobs - but it comes at a £14m cost to local consumers and businesses.

Northern Ireland will stay at the bottom of the UK's economic growth table in 2019, according to PwC. Despite falling unemployment, the province is expected to have total economic growth of just 0.8% to date in 2018. At 1.3%, Northern Ireland's growth for 2019 will be the weakest of the UK regions.

DECEMBER: Planning row threatens hotel building boom

There were a series of new hotel openings during the year, with new names like Hampton by Hilton and AC Marriott launching in the city. But there was an unexpected twist in December when Liverpool developer Lawrence Kenwright said he would cut planned spending in the city on at least three new hotels from £80m to £40m because of planning problems with his George Best Hotel at the Scottish Mutual Building behind Belfast City Hall. He says there is "not a chance" he will proceed with a £10m hotel project in the former Crumlin Road Courthouse if the planning issues with Belfast City Council are not resolved. A third hotel planned for the former War Memorial Building on Waring Street also looks doubtful. Mr Kenwright holds a Press event in the unfinished George Best Hotel, where he announces with trade union Siptu that staff at the hotel will be paid a living wage when it does open. It had been due to open at the start of December but that has now been delayed until Februrary. Mr Kenwright also extends an olive branch to Belfast City Council, saying: "We're here to open a hotel, we're not here to create battles or wars. We're here to make sure we get the building open."

Harland & Wolff goes on the market as its Norwegian parent company Fred Olsen carries out a major restructuring. The former shipbuilder behind the Titanic has diversified into renewable energy installations since the last ship sailed out of its famous yard in 2003. The decline of shipbuilding has also been marked by a steady fall in employee numbers from as many as 30,000 in the 1930s to around 100 today. A sale would mark one of the biggest corporate transactions in Northern Ireland in recent years after three decades in the ownership of Fred Olsen.

A US cyber security company has announced plans to create 220 jobs as part of an expansion into Northern Ireland. California-based Imperva, which has 54 offices worldwide, has said it will recruit the new staff in Belfast over the next three to five years, eventually generating £7.2m in salaries. It's expected to bring the total number of local cyber security jobs to more than 1,500 for the first time, representing a 15-fold increase in the past 10 years. The new roles are expected to include product development, tech support and customer management.

A mixed year for retail performance ends on a high note in Belfast and beyond. There are openings including Danish fashion brand Vila at CastleCourt Shopping Centre in Belfast and Guess at The Boulevard, a retail park outside Banbridge. And in Belfast, footfall is up 20% on the year before, signalling that the city has bounced back from the impact of the Primark fire. Primark also opens a new store while Bank Buildings, scene of the blaze, is being renovated, and Irish value chain Guineys also opens up. Vila's CastleCourt opening follows that of discounter Matalan earlier in the year

Belfast Telegraph

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