UK: Behind the Irish troubles, business is looking up. (2 of 4)

UK: Behind the Irish troubles, business is looking up. (2 of 4) - The one big problem in convincing any new employer to make the leap across the Irish Sea is Northern Ireland's image. The bomb and the bullet of course provide more dramatic reportage than

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The one big problem in convincing any new employer to make the leap across the Irish Sea is Northern Ireland's image. The bomb and the bullet of course provide more dramatic reportage than hard graft, the golf club and fishing rod. But for the vast majority in Northern Ireland life goes on with little inconvenience from the depredations of the IRA.

A recent spate of firebombs in some stores, which caused £10 million worth of damage, was met with a determination to rebuild as quickly as possible. Retailers know that in the current economic climate the Northern Ireland economy is a good bet, with its low house prices, low mortgages, relatively high disposable incomes and a public sector cushion pumping in nearly half of the gross national product. Indeed, the centre of Belfast, which 10 to 15 years ago was devastated by IRA car bombs, now reverberates to the sound of the jackhammer in a huge shop building programme.

When the new shops open they also have that all too rare mainland commodity: customers, and plenty of them. In the past year trade was up 30% in Belfast's main shops. Little wonder that large mainland retailers like Dixons or Marks and Spencer are queuing up to open in Northern Ireland.

Blue chips such as British Telecom are realising that it makes sense to "take work to the people to overcome a permanent shortage of software engineers" in the South-east, says Malcolm Lees at BT's software centre. Situated right in the heart of the city centre, the operation undertakes a host of software operations for BT nationwide. "We have a very good supply of graduates," Lees maintains. To demonstrate that, he is happy to show off work on new City dealer boards devised in Belfast that allow a foreign exchange trader or the like to listen in to some 20 phone conversations at once via a sophisticated touch screen.

The blue chips are not all British either. Du Pont, which already has a large complex in Northern Ireland, decided to locate a new software centre to service all of its European needs in the Antrim Technology Park. Like the others, it has experienced virtually no staff turnover. "They're not prima donnas and (they) simply roll up their sleeves and get on with the work," says one admiring Du Pont veteran. Even the location, on what after all is the fringe of Europe, is no barrier. "Fifteen minutes after finishing a meeting we can be at the airport and on a plane," he says. It beats waiting at Heathrow every time.

But the future is also looking good for veteran companies like Harland and Wolff, which is teaming up with overseas firms to assure its future prospects. No firm better exemplifies the problems of the province's traditional industries and perhaps none better symbolises a spirit of renewed optimism in the area's ability to deliver.

The company is now looking at a future that is brighter than at any time in the past 20 years. Chairman and chief executive John Parker is the man given the credit for the about-turn. A quiet, soft-spoken man, he arrived at the yards in the dark days of 1983 fresh from a difficult stint at British Shipbuilders, and it was he who persuaded the Government to allow a management/employee buyout in 1988. In common with the privatisation of Short Brothers, the Government wrote off substantial amounts of debt, but raising the necessary cash still represented a daunting task. In the early days, he says, "we had to do a lot of nimble footwork to stay alive".

Parker developed a formula that gave the employees and local community a substantial say in the new company, with 47% of the equity going to employees and 6% to local banks, churches and interested parties. For the remaining 47% he turned to the Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen, who coughed up a £12 million stake in the yards. But it is in the employee that Parker places his faith. "This is a people-intensive business," he proclaims, and points out that 77% of the workforce bought shares when the firm was floated in September 1989 and that 75% still hold them.

Eighteen months on from that flotation, Olsen has ordered five one-million-tonne tankers from the Belfast yard, which provides a much needed baseload of work. Two have been built already, and work is continuing furiously on the third. But far more significant is the upturn in the world market. As Parker points out, the average age of the world merchant fleet is now 16 years. While, with recession looming, many owners may be reluctant to invest heavily in new vessels, few ships have a life expectancy of over 20 years.

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