Invest NI’s new chief Kevin Holland speaks to Margaret Canning about the challenges he expects to face, and overcome, in the post-Brexit world, and moving to Northern Ireland
The new chief executive of Invest NI has been getting to grips with the role he took over from Alastair Hamilton last year.
That has included visiting some of the province’s biggest companies, like Bombardier in east Belfast – where he’s met the chief of the aerospace manufacturer’s new owner, Spirit AeroSystems.
He recently visited Denroy Plastics with a group including Denroy customer Sir Martin Donnelly, managing director of Boeing UK and Ireland. But Kevin Holland’s former territory of China, where he worked for three years as a diplomat, is also on his mind. Invest NI employs seven Chinese nationals in offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But the offices have been temporarily shut. Networking events and meetings have also been halted due to coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in China.
Mr Holland was formerly employed in the British Embassy in Beijing, and regularly visited Belfast as part of its outreach to encourage UK companies to explore the China market, particularly healthcare.
But he said there could ultimately be business opportunities when the virus is contained. “China is a global economic powerhouse with a market of 1.5 billion people, hungry for growth and development. It’s a critical global market,” he said. “It’s having a tough time from coronavirus but it will recover from that and the Chinese Government will invest a lot of money into economic stimulus after the virus settles down in a couple of months’ time. So I think there will be many opportunities created out of that and it creates opportunities for UK and NI companies.”
But Invest NI said it was too early to speculate on the types of economic opportunities which might arise. The international business executive, who is originally from Bristol, praised Northern Ireland as a place to live.
“I’ve been moved to lots of countries around the world but personally moving to Northern Ireland is wonderful. It’s a beautiful place. People are very welcoming,” he said.
Being a newcomer himself is helping put him in the shoes of potential foreign investors. “I’ve been here for 90 days and it’s the longest I’ve spent in a single country in 25 years. So it’s been wonderful going out to meet companies, visit universities, talk to the Chambers of Commerce, visit the councils and hear their views,” he said.
He had worked with Invest NI in China, including hosting and organising client workshops. “One of the team from Invest NI sat about two metres from me in the Embassy in Beijing,” he said.
Mr Holland spent 15 years with international healthcare company Baxter, and he’s keen to help develop that sector here.
But he believes Invest NI has a strong sector mix in the companies it helps, ranging from advanced manufacturing to financial and professional services, as well as cyber security and information technology. It’s now in a strategic planning process for 2030.
“We’re looking at the future of work and what are the type of businesses that are going to be successful in this 10-year timeframe and then we will use that to look at what are the new areas we want to move into,” he said. Its 25 international offices are crucial but new ideas are being developed, including a new hub in London.
“We’ve set up a facility that businesses can come into, you can do hot-desking, smart-desking, you can use it for client meetings or to launch a new product or meet investors in London. We’ve had a soft launch and will go to full launch soon,” he said. “We will then try and replicate that in some other locations. Probably the next one will be Dublin. Clearly south of the border is a very important driver for the economy.”
He says he’s heard the arguments in favour of lowering corporation tax here. “For us, when we go overseas to encourage companies to build businesses here, it’s a very useful thing to have in our suite of offerings,” he added. “I don’t think it’s essential but it is an advantage.”
He’s also happy that an Executive is now in place. “For me, when I took the job there was no Executive and now there is. We welcome that. We look forward to working with Economy Minister Diane Dodds,” he said.
Brexit is also looming large but he regards NI as well placed for a prosperous future, with what he sees as three well-meaning neighbours – Britain to the east, the US to the west and the Republic to the south.
“Before the January 31 Brexit date, we’d worked with about 2,500 businesses coming into workshops,” he said. “We’ve been able to give 90 to 100 grants to businesses to prepare for life after the EU.
“As we go through the next 10 or 11 months, there’s intensive discussions and negotiations to have between the UK and Europe on exactly how things will work from January 1, 2021 and then we will be building a package of support around that.”