Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Kelly: 'We all need to show more bravery in life and run towards the challenge rather than avoiding it'

The Big Interview: Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly
Stephen Kelly
Stephen Kelly being awarded the Board of Trade role with Greg Hands MP, Liam Fox MP and Karen Betts
Stephen Kelly with Angela McGowan at Stormont
Stephen with his late father Terry, his mother Ann and sister Catherine in 1974
Stephen Kelly with children Josh and Abbie, who both live in Sydney, TJ, who is studying for his GCSEs, and wife Carol
Stephen Kelly (centre) with Retail NI’s Glyn Roberts and Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster at the the New Deal for Northern Ireland policy launch

By Lisa Smyth

When Stephen Kelly was appointed as chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, no one could predict the uncertainty that lay ahead.

The industry has experienced extremely difficult times in recent years, with major employers such as Bombardier and Wrightbus shedding hundreds of jobs.

However, the political indecision over Brexit poses an even more significant threat to manufacturing firms across Northern Ireland.

Throughout it all, 47-year-old Stephen has been committed to representing the manufacturing industry in a bid to ensure the best possible conditions for trade once the UK leaves Europe.

He is clear that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the economy here.

"The biggest thing we are facing at the moment is a Brexit done wrong, which presents a massive threat to our sector," he says.

"Our guys depend on all out access to an all-Ireland market, free and unfettered, in order to deliver what they need to do.

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"We also require unfettered access to the rest of the UK market in order to be able to function.

"We have directly engaged with the UK and Irish governments and Michel Barnier's team and made clear to them what is required in order to make Brexit work for Northern Ireland.

"What is currently being delivered in terms of the Withdrawal Agreement isn't perfect, but it is workable and preferable to a no-deal scenario.

"We have engaged in some very difficult conversations, we've been very straight talking, particularly in relation to the possibility of a no-deal and the implications of that.

"People who scream for a no-deal aren't people who have to worry about paying wages or putting food on the table."

He adds: "However, the fact is people did vote for Brexit and we have always taken a very pragmatic approach and once the UK decided to leave, how we leave became the most important thing."

You only have to talk to Stephen for a matter of minutes to recognise his dedication to his job.

He freely admits he remains in a role for as long as he finds it challenging and enjoyable.

In fact, it was when he realised that he was no longer happy in his previous job that he applied to Manufacturing NI.

"I was in Glasgow at a client meeting and I was booked on to the last plane of the day," he says.

"As usual, the flight was delayed because it was the last flight and I got home to Derry at 1.30am and I realised I didn't enjoy it anymore and decided I wanted to do something different.

"I opened up my laptop and searched jobs in Northern Ireland and the job I have now was the very first job that came up.

"I honestly believe that life is all about being open to things."

It is this attitude that has allowed Stephen to build up a wealth of skills and experience that have helped him to become an advocate for the manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland.

Previous roles have included head of strategy and special projects for international marketing and communications firm, Velocity Worldwide, where he was responsible for delivery across all accounts, partnerships and company development.

Before joining the company in 2008, he was CEO of the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade in Northern Ireland and former CEO of City Centre Initiative, a regeneration partnership for the development of Londonderry city centre.

For five years, Stephen was a member of the BBC Broadcasting Council for Northern Ireland and he also provided mediation services as an authorised officer for the Parades Commission.

He was the 2003 national president of Junior Chamber International UK and is a past vice chairman of the Northern Ireland Association of Town Centre Managers.

He has also graduated from numerous local, national and international leadership programmes including Common Purpose, Boston College's Irish Institute Programme, JCI Leadership Academy in Japan and the International Visitor and Leadership Programme on NGO's sponsored by the US State Department.

It is an impressive and varied CV, but has happened more by chance than design, according to Stephen.

Born and bred in Londonderry, Stephen, who is married to Carol and is stepdad to Josh (29) and Abbie (27) and dad to 16-year-old TJ, attended Greenhaw Primary School and then Templemore Secondary School.

He says: "They weren't fully integrated, they were mixed rather than integrated, but I do think it was a really positive experience.

"My father didn't have the best experience at school so he didn't want me to go to the same school as him so it was a conscious decision to go to Greenhaw and Templemore even though they weren't our local schools.

"When I went to secondary school, those were very difficult years in Northern Ireland, but I was going to a school where I was mixing with people, not just from different religious backgrounds, but different ethnic backgrounds.

"Other pupils were from Asia and Africa, which was unusual in Derry at the time, and I think that makes you much more tolerant of other people's views.

"I definitely enjoyed my time at school, but I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left.

"It might sound odd that I didn't know, it wasn't like I knew I wanted to be a cowboy or a doctor or a fireman, but that's the truth.

"When I was at school, I did everything from maths to music, I have always done what I enjoyed.

"I'm a great believer of serendipity more than anything else - rather than sitting and planning out my career, I have always done what I have enjoyed and that has served me well.

"If it gets to the point where I don't like something, I don't do it anymore - I look for something completely different.

"That has been a real driver for expanding my own knowledge and experience, I just don't believe in doing something to the point of depression, where you just can't stand something anymore.

"I like to give 150% and when I can't do it anymore I start to do something different."

Stephen has grown up with a strong work ethic - his first job was delivering Belfast Telegraph newspapers around his home city of Derry from the age of 13.

By the time he was 16, he had taken on the role of managing the distribution of the newspapers.

While he enjoyed school, he initially had no plans to go to university but made the decision to take up a place at the University of Ulster studying part-time for a Masters in business and public policy.

"It was more through necessity than anything else," he says.

"I realised that if I wanted to get into employment that businesses shortlist you on qualifications.

"I knew that when I applied for jobs I would be competing in the sifting process with people with degrees and I wouldn't stand a chance."

Ultimately, however, he decided to commit to the world of work.

"I was basically working from the age of 13," he says.

"As it turns out, I didn't finish the degree although I got through most of it.

"I started working as a research assistant for a professor running the degree and my career went from there."

Despite his varied career, Stephen had limited knowledge of the manufacturing industry before taking up his current role.

But he believes it was actually the many different jobs he has had, as well as his can-do attitude, that made him perfect for the position.

He continues: "My time as national president of Junior Chamber International UK gave me more in terms of my career than any academic education.

"It's where I really learned the skills I needed to get on in life.

"I was asked about my knowledge of the manufacturing industry when I was interviewed for my current role and I was very honest and said I knew nothing.

"That isn't generally to be advised in an interview, but I also told them I work as hard as anyone and said that if I don't have the knowledge, I will identify the people who do and network.

"They did take a risk on me and I hope that have been very happy, certainly they do tell me from time to time.

"I'm certainly happy with them - I've been in this job for five and a half years which is longer than any other role."

So, looking back on his career to date, does Stephen have any regrets?

"I don't think you should regret what you do," he says.

"As long as you make a decision to do something for the right reason, even if not everyone appreciates what you are doing, then you'll always be on the right side and you shouldn't regret that.

"I'm not the type of person to dwell on my decisions, I'm quite brave and I think my career path shows that in some respects.

"I think it's a value we should all have more of.

"I also think we should be more willing to run towards challenges, instead of cowering away from them."

Stephen applies this philosophy to all aspects of his life - and even set up Event Collective to help creative artists find a platform to perform and he has even been involved in running underground raves in Derry.

He adds: "I've always been known as someone who firstly accepts challenges and secondly will sort problems out.

"I also do what needs to be done in order to get the confidence of everyone else involved to agree to these things.

"It might seem surprising that I have time to do this, but it's so important to have a life outside of work."

Belfast Telegraph