Belfast Telegraph

The Big Interview: Freight Transport Association manager Seamus Leheny

'I learnt a lot about fairness from my father who was a guard on the border during the Troubles'

Seamus Leheny, regional manager of the Freight Transport Association, in Belfast
Seamus Leheny, regional manager of the Freight Transport Association, in Belfast
Seamus Leheny
Seamus Leheny, as a baby with his mum Ann, sister Sinead and brother Richard
Seamus Leheny on holiday with wife Moira and sons Cormac, Pierce and Fintan
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

He's one of a handful of business leaders here whose public profile has rocketed due to the demands of putting forward the position of much of Northern Ireland's business world in the debate on Brexit.

Seamus Leheny (42) is the regional manager of the Freight Transport Association (FTA), expressing the views of the haulage and logistics industry in the Brexit debate - and particularly the industry's support of the Withdrawal Agreement.

But Seamus, who now lives in Belfast with his wife and three sons, hasn't had to look too far from home for a role model in leadership - not to mention for an insight into the realities of life on the border.

"I'm from Buncrana on the border, and when we were growing up, my dad was a detective sergeant in the Garda.

"When you're father is a guard, people were always conscious of that. And dad had a very busy job - his work was intense. That brings its own insight into how I see the border."

Jim didn't bring his work of policing the border during the worst of the Troubles home with him but "you could see how tough it was", Seamus says.

"He stood out as Detective Sergeant Jim Leheny. He always had so much respect of the town. He was held in high esteem by a lot of people on either side of the border.

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"A lot of what I have learnt is from his great sense of impartiality and him being a bit of a peace-broker.

"To be a guard during the Troubles, living and policing the community, you had to be fair. I always find myself being a bit of a peace-broker and maintaining neutrality."

As the representative of an organisation whose members cross the border transporting goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic numerous times a day, he has felt compelled to speak about the damage a no-deal Brexit could do. "You can't sit back and say nothing. You have to take a stand. I think in the past, the last two years especially, Northern Ireland has found its voice.

"I read an interesting quote recently, that when the Troubles began the Northern Ireland business community went out to golf and never came back. But business has now found its voice again, while before it never wanted to do anything remotely political."

On a personal level, the keen runner has had to shelve plans for this year's Belfast City Marathon thanks to the pressures of Westminster trips to lobby MPs to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.

He's also had face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Theresa May, and while she's been heavily criticised by political friends and foes alike over the agreement, Seamus has been impressed.

"Sometimes you go into detail when you're talking to politicians, and their eyes glaze over, and you know they're not completely over it.

"The thing that impressed me when I put points to her about trade flows and freight, she seemed to get it straight away and we could have a two-way conversation. She was actually fully over the brief."

Seamus maintains the association's position that a Withdrawal Agreement must be reached.

And, he says, Theresa May needs to stay in place. "And we want a deal at this particular time even though business other groups have said they want to revoke Article 50."

He believes that his upbringing in Donegal has given him a unique perspective on Northern Ireland. He attended a convent secondary school in Buncrana, Scoil Mhuire. "It was co-ed although a nun was the prinicpal - and it was also cross-religious, so both Church of Ireland and Catholic children went to it.

"It was all totally cross-community and there was no sense of difference. People of whatever tradition or none played GAA and spoke Irish. You knew who the Church of Ireland reverend was and the parish priest."

He wasn't fully aware of any differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions until moving to Aberdeen for university.

"I just fancied a fresh change. I was all set to go to the University of Ulster and I thought at the last minute, I'm going to go somewhere different. I'd seen a lot of my pals go locally - Belfast, Magee in Derry, Coleraine and Galway, and I just needed a new place to explore. I just wanted to broaden my horizons."

He loved Scotland, spending five years studying business and commerce and later, as a postgraduate in IT at the University of Abertay. He also spent a summer working in construction in Boston. Returning after university, Seamus got a temporary job working in the complaints department of the BBC: "You could take a call about the BBC being biased against Palestine, and put that phone down only to get another one saying it's biased against Israel."

Next came a two-year post working in sales in a graduate's role at Hamilton Shipping, run by former Ireland rugby player Gordon Hamilton. That was followed by a stint with Tommy Rodgers Shipping.

Tommy, who died in 2010, was a major influence.

"He was fantastic, a real grafter, built up his business from scratch, riding bikes between shipping agents in High Street delivering letters and documents. You'd learn some great things working for him - he was just a very knowledgeable person who knew the industry."

The company operated the container terminal at Belfast Port, which has also improved Seamus' knowledge of how trade could be affected after Brexit. "I grew up by the sea and always had that feeling of excitement every time I saw a ship."

While dad Jim is from Sligo, mother Ann came from Malin Head in Co Donegal. Her parents met during World War II; his granny had been a evacuee from her home in Glasgow and is still living independently at the age of 95.

"Mum was a nurse and from a big close family. She always instilled the importance of family and looking after each other. She's also very compassionate and also wants to ensure everyone is happy, well fed and comfortable.

"I guess today I like to think I've some of those qualities in looking after my own family, and no matter what's happening in life and at work, family is your cornerstone."

Brother Richard and sister Sinead, as well as his mum and dad, still live in Buncrana.

Donegal has an identity all of its own, he feels. "I always had a feeling, growing up in Donegal, that Ireland was made up of three parts: Northern Ireland, the Republic and Donegal.

"Donegal was left behind in the boom times, and didn't see the same benefits as the rest of the Republic. Buncrana didn't change. Culturally and socially we are part of Ulster, and really, there is a big Ulster Scots influence in Donegal - my own grandmother came from Glasgow.

"And because of that, I think I can look at Brexit from two points of view."

And he says that the FTA has kept the argument on Brexit socio-economic. "It has been heavily politicised but it shouldn't be. It's a socio-economic decision and we've kept it to that."

He joined the FTA around 10 years ago in a commercial membership role. At the time, it had just under 250 members, but now has grown to 370.

The industry is in a good state, and the most successful companies are those which have embraced change, he says.

That means embracing warehousing and distribution, as well as offering different conditions for goods which can help meet the need for 'just in time' delivery for retail.

Other traditional family haulage businesses such as Beatties Distribution have also embraced e-commerce by working with Amazon, he said.

And overall, the most successful firms in the industry here tend to be the independents.

"People here like to do business with people they know and trust ... Big Eddie Stobart's, they have tried to break into the Irish market and been really unsuccessful."

He met his wife Moira, a solicitor, in The Bot in Belfast and married in 2006. They now have three young sons - Cormac, Pierce and Fintan.

He's a keen park runner, even if he had to knock taking part in this year's marathon on the head.

"The park run is great decompression and the best thing after tough week. It puts things into perspective.

"Some of my best business ideas run at 8pm at night."

But the marathon this year was a no-go: "I just couldn't get the time to train for the marathon."

"But what's happened has been good in one way, and it's brought transport and logistics to the forefront."

Belfast Telegraph