Working Lunch: 'The estate agent asked us our religion'
Ann McGregor tells John Mulgrew of her culture shock at returning home after years working in England
It wasn't a straightforward career path from Bird's Custard and suntan lotion to heading up one of Northern Ireland's top business groups. Limavady woman Ann McGregor been chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce for the last seven years, and over lunch at Belfast's Coppi restaurant, she talked about her time climbing the business ladder.
After graduating from Queen's University with a degree in economic history and politics, Ann then entered a management scheme in production.
"There were no jobs in industry, and everyone wanted to be a teacher," she said.
She began her business life at a surgical products firm in Lurgan, before moving to England in the 1980s - working for a number of manufacturing firms, including those behind Bird's Custard and Angel Delight. The middle child in a big family of eight brothers and sisters, her father Alec worked in the Merchant Navy, while her mother Mary looked after the family.
She said much of her success while at the helm of the NI Chamber of Commerce was because "it's not all about public relations".
"It's about delivering things well," she said.
The Northern Ireland Chamber dates back to 1873 and supports its members through advice and networking events. Stephen McCully, managing director of Power NI, recently succeeded Kevin Kingston of Danske Bank as president of the Chamber. It launched the second phase of business support programme NI Chamber Connections' in partnership with Ulster Bank this month.
The private sector-led programme is aimed at helping businesses develop and grow, while providing a vehicle for new market development for those companies hoping to export.
Ann has been chief executive of the Chamber since 2008. She has been married to her husband Paul, who is English, for 30 years after meeting in a pub. He is a businessman and sales director.
And as our deep and rich duck ragu pasta dishes arrive, she says her two daughters have also taken strong career paths, with Amanda (29) a marketing executive with Danske Bank, and Sarah (26) working as a corporate lawyer for a large Belfast-based firm. Ann returned to Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with her husband and two young children, and experienced a notable culture shock.
"It was 18 years ago and the Troubles were still on. We were coming from the south of England, nice country pubs, nice lifestyle and good weather - very relaxed.
"Then we went into an estate agent here and we were buying a house, and the estate agent asked what religion we were. I was shocked."
Returning to Northern Ireland, she eventually went into economic development as there "were no jobs in industry".
She began working with social enterprise groups, starting off in Newry and Mourne and a number of other areas before moving to Business in the Community, where she remained for eight years - setting up the group's Londonderry office.
Ann later became the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, before taking up her current role as head of the Chamber of Commerce. Her mission statement is clear. "We recognise that Northern Ireland hasn't got enough small businesses, and those that we have don't have enough scale. Our membership is all about that," she said.
John had: Duck ragu: £13.00
Diet Coke: £2.00
Ann had: Duck ragu:£13.00
Americano x2: £5.00