Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Martin: The working class Belfast boy whose childhood was marred by the tragic death of one of his sisters... and who went on to lead the IoD, one of the most powerful business organisations in the UK today

Stephen Martin leads the Institute of Directors which exerts considerable influence in the business world. He explains why he remains optimistic about his place of birth.

Stephen Martin leads the Institute of Directors
Stephen Martin leads the Institute of Directors
Stephen Martin with his wife Lisa and children Annaliese and George
Stephen Martin poses for a family portrait with his sisters Debra Castles (left) and Judith Johnston (right) and their mother, Aileen Martin
A young Stephen with his sisters Debra and Judith
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

A t the Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland annual dinner on Thursday night, a photo opportunity with his mother Aileen and sisters Debra and Judith on the stairs of Titanic Belfast was a high point in the life of Stephen Martin.

The 52-year-old has gone from what he calls a "working class" upbringing scarred by family tragedy in east Belfast to leading the IoD, one of the most powerful business groups in the UK.

He and his wife of 24 years, Lisa, are back in Belfast for a short break built around the IoD event, with daughter Annaliese, who's three-and-a-half, and 19-month-old son, George.

As his family relaxes the day after the IoD dinner, Stephen is conducting a round of interviews, including one with Radio Ulster Inside Business presenter Wendy Austin, who he remembers watching on television while he was growing up.

"I grew up in east Belfast around the Holywood Arches, and went to school at Grosvenor Grammar School.

"I was taught economics by (now DUP MP) Sammy Wilson and PE by Willie Anderson, an Ireland international rugby player. My physics teacher was Stephen Hilditch, an Irish international rugby union referee. I really had a good time at school.

"I came from a working class background. My father was a bread delivery man and by night, a watch repairman - these were the days before digital watches.

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"But my sister Jennifer, who was nearly three, died of cancer when I was just a few weeks old.

"Yet to make that tragedy even worse, my mother suffered from third degree burns in an accident at home when her nightgown caught fire. She couldn't visit her dying daughter in hospital."

As the family assembled on Thursday night in Titanic Belfast - a monument to Belfast's past which has sprung up since Stephen left Northern Ireland - Stephen's father Fred was also absent.

Like any family growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, the Martins decided to leave Belfast for what they hoped would be a better life in England.

"We moved to Blackpool and my dad was working as an engineer. But he was killed in an accident in work in the late 1970s. My mum then moved back to Belfast with her three young children."

Family life resumed in Belfast, and as his school days were drawing to a close, Stephen had to choose a career.

"I grew up working on building sites. I had a great-uncle, Ken Walker, who was one of the first directors of Farrans Construction. He was a quantity surveyor. I thought to myself, that's a great job. He's well respected and he has a company car, so that's the job for me.

"My wife jokes that I used to count bricks as a quantity surveyor, but there's more to it than that."

After graduating from the University of Ulster in quantity surveying in 1988, he decided to move to England. "I went to work for CMR Electronics, later Westinghouse Electronics.

"After seven years, I moved to a different company, a Norwegian company called Kvaerner Metals. I was travelling the world, negotiating contracts in heavy engineering.

"There was one week in China, then there might be some time spent in America or in India. It was at that point I thought I should maybe settle down, so I came back and got a job in the UK.

"I worked for Amey as commercial director of its rail business, then I studied an MBA at London Business School, worked as chief executive for Barhale Construction in the West Midlands for a few years."

He then became chief executive of Clugston Group, where he stayed for 10 years until securing the top job at the IoD in 2017.

But he's proud of one particular episode in Clugston, when he took part in Channel 4 reality show Undercover Boss - in which he infiltrated the shop floor of his own company. "I was on the first Undercover Boss, where you had to see what employees really thought about management and experience in a company."

There's no question that his move to England has opened up doors for him. At Thursday night's dinner, IoD Northern Ireland chairman Ian Sheppard addressed the risk of Northern Ireland losing a new generation of young people to emigration, as they are put off the province by the failure of powersharing and by a string of job loss announcements.

Stephen says he left Northern Ireland at the time because of a lack of opportunity. "There wasn't the same opportunity back then and I didn't want to be doing the same thing continuously.

"But I'd always love to return to Northern Ireland, as there is a fantastic standard of living here with some fantastic companies, and so much energy and enthusiasm.

"There are buildings I remember as a child being knocked down and rebuilt, and so many hotels being built. All of that would have been unheard of when I was a child. There has been amazing change and transformation, and wonderful new industries developing.

"Last week we had a wonderful industry story about the largest single investment (the £50m research and development investment made by Randox). But quite often when it comes to Northern Ireland it's all the negatives about the failure of politicians. But there are fantastic news stories."

Brexit has dominated his first year in charge at the IoD.

"A lot has happened. If you look back at when I joined just over a year ago, we were pushing for a transition period, and wondering would that be an implementation period, how long would it last, what would it mean?"

Now there is more certainty but he's not convinced there is Cabinet unity. "The Cabinet has many different views and opinions and is pretty split. It's difficult to get a consensus view and agreed view. The Cabinet have been very good at telling us what they don't want and don't like but haven't had much clarity on what they do want.

"There's Brexit, but there are different ideas on what that means.

"People voted for Brexit for different reasons and depending on what part of the country they were living in.

"The issue now is looking at how we take the country forward. I do not believe anyone voted to be poorer or economically worse off."

In the meantime, he's enjoying his visit home, and seeing his mum and sisters. Last year, he and Lisa and the children moved to London for his job at the IoD. Like many business leaders, he despairs over the lack of a government here.

"It's not helping, because it's delaying an important decision that should be made for the good of the Northern Ireland economy - getting someone else to impose a budget rather than an agreed budget is no good.

"In terms of Brexit, we face a very challenging period. Not to have leadership coming from politicians is not good and not desirable."

As director-general of the IoD, he exerts considerable influence. While in Belfast, he's to meet up with Michael Lagan, days after the Lagan Construction Group boss took the decision to put four companies into administration.

But he says he's not convinced there is a common denominator between the seven sets of job losses announced in Northern Ireland.

"There's not one single factor you can point to. In each of the circumstances the market and customer base is all slightly different and a number of different factors have all combined.

"I think it's a challenging period for Northern Ireland for a number of reasons, but there's also positive stories.

"Over 1,000 job losses have been announced, but we also have over 1,000 new beds in the hotel industry. Cruise liners are coming, which would have been unheard of before.

"We have really world class, leading companies and industries and we may be seeing a transition happening from core industries into more high-tech and more the consultancy side of things.

"I'll meet up with Michael Lagan and while what's happened looks like bad news, just 25% of the jobs have been affected and he's doing his utmost to protect as many people's jobs as he can."

He's also confident that the UU campus will be completed. "It's a project that has to be finished. It's important to UU and Northern Ireland economy and I have every confidence it will be."

In the meantime, he has a series of meetings lined up with IoD members.

He has also held meetings with Translink and mental health charity Inspire.

But meeting Wendy has been a highlight for him.

"It was great coming back and seeing Wendy Austin, as I grew up watching her on screen. It was fantastic to meet her for the first time."

Belfast Telegraph