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Contents 06 News We bring you news and exclusives from across the world of Northern Ireland business

14 Cover story Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on responding to the crisis and rapid rebuilding

35 Business finance & banking What’s next for the State finances?

49 Commercial property & construction

77 Motoring Pat Burns looks at the Ford Raptor as well as something a bit more luxurious

86 Photocall

What happens to our major schemes now?

A look at some of the interesting things happening across the world of business here

20 In Focus

61 Health at work

92 Travel

John Mulgrew speaks to Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon about the big issues ahead

Emma Deighan looks at the role of the employer now the office is the front room

John Mulgrew discovers an experience which lingers in the mind and the olfactory system

25 Food, drink & agriculture

68 Top 100 roundtable

96 Technology

Ulster Business looks at keeping it local while sustaining our food supply

We brought together a host of leading bosses to discuss infrastructure and energy

Adrian Weckler finds out whether the venture capital business is a boys’ club

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Brexit panto shows scale of ineptitude


ou could be forgiven for thinking that it’s ineptitude behind the latest developments at Westminster – or that the arrogance and escalating pomposity of Boris Johnson and his cabinet is now simply veering into slapstick. Returning to the greatest upheaval in a generation (no, not that one, the other one), you only had to observe Simon Coveney’s intake of breath, pause for thought and a distinct tone of frustration and exhaustion when answering Andrew Marr’s question over an ‘EU blockade’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to understand we’ve reached possibly the lowest point in Brexit deal negotiations, and relationships between the UK and Ireland, since the referendum.

The language from Leinster House has been stern and stoic of late when dealing with the trials and tribulations thrown from London, but when the new internal market bill was introduced in Parliament and the phrase ‘... yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way’ was uttered, I imagine some of that diplomacy will have faded. The latest chaos over what deal we get here seems to be something of a united front among us in Northern Ireland. No one’s happy, judging by the conversations around the UK Government’s latest 180 (David McWilliams’s Brexit podcast on the issue is well worth a listen). On that note, welcome to the October edition of Ulster Business. We’re looking

Publisher Ulster Business c/o Independent News & Media Ltd Belfast Telegraph House 33 Clarendon Road, Clarendon Dock, Belfast BT1 3BG

ahead at an evolving economy and business landscape, and one which is facing yet more difficulty in the next few weeks as the Government’s furlough system comes to an end. If it’s as bad as it could be, there will need to be stark and strong intervention from Stormont in order to mitigate potentially losing some of our industries altogether. But there are positives. Some of the businesses I’ve been speaking to have dealt with lockdown and are now out the other side, while others have found order books increasing. And there are plenty of good stories to hear about in the weeks and months to come. ■ John Mulgrew

Editor John Mulgrew Magazine sales manager Mark Glover Sales executive Sarah-Ann Gamble Sales executive Judith Martin Production manager Irene Fitzsimmons

Printer W&G Baird Greystone Press, Caulside Drive, Antrim BT41 2RS

Graphic design Susan McClean, INM Design Studio Contact: 028 9026 4262/028 9026 4260 Cover photo: Elaine Hill


Ulster Business Magazine

Independent News & Media Ltd © 2020. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission of Independent News & Media Ltd.




month IN numbers A


The value of NI Water’s proposed upgrade of Belfast’s ageing water and sewage system, which has now taken a leap forward.


The Ulster Bank purchasing managers’ index for August. It showed a slowing of recovery in Northern Ireland, which was the weakest UK region aside from Wales.


Northern Ireland’s current rate of unemployment. While it’s increased in the last quarter, the number is likely to rise further still with the end of furlough this month.


Belfast-based medical technology firm Diaceutics plc has raised a further £4m from Silicon Valley Bank’s UK branch to fund growth.

‘Frustration’ over coach and taxi firm furore


industries that haven’t been able to avail of help have been left sitting there. We should have been at a place where we were getting people help through the Department for the Economy, much earlier on. What I am keen to do is to get the new powers and to get a scheme up-and-running as quickly as possible.

In an interview with Ulster Business, Nichola Mallon said being handed down the powers in just recent days has meant a huge delay in those needing financial assistance amid Covid-19.

“But I have to be honest with people – I believe it would have been much quicker to amend an existing scheme. Now that it has come to me, given that we don’t have the expertise or the experience, we are going to have to devise a scheme from scratch, and that will necessitate time.”

By John Mulgrew delay in deciding who has powers to assist hauliers, taxi firms and bus operators has been a “source of great frustration” amid a “matter of survival” for many in the sector, the Infrastructure Minister has said.

And she said it would “have been much quicker to amend an existing scheme”. The First and Deputy First Ministers decided that, because of the other pressures facing the Department for the Economy, Infrastructure should take on the responsibility of providing financial assistance to the haulage, taxi and coach industries. She said it’s a “matter of survival” for many of those in the private bus operator sector. “I have to say, this has been a source of great frustration,” she said. “For months I have been setting out that I didn’t have the powers to bring forward financial hardship schemes. I wasn’t saying that to be obstructive, because it was the truth.

Meanwhile, she says she expects to have a report from her new infrastructure advisory group at the end of September, before presenting it to the Executive in the coming weeks. “The focus will be on hard infrastructure – roads, wastewater, but inevitably they will look at the wider picture. For me, I think it’s about looking at infrastructure in a more holistic way, and that means cutting across Minister Poots’s department (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs), Minister Dodds’s department (Department for the Economy), as well as my own.” Read the full interview on page 20-23

“Now, for several months, people in these



Security of local food supply ‘key to recovery’


secure and sustainable local food system is key to recovery from “the biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War”, it’s been claimed.

Michael Bell, executive director, Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), echoes calls for increased focus on a sustainable supply here. “Covid-19 has demonstrated both the necessity and the ingenuity of our food manufacturing industry, and the wider ‘eating ecosystem’ of other co-dependent industries along the supply chain, such as farming, transport and logistics, cold stores, packaging, catering, food service and retail,” he says.


“In March, as the country went into lockdown, the eating ecosystem had to keep going. We needed to ensure quality food could continue to make its way to supermarket shelves, and into people’s homes. The situation we faced was unprecedented, and as a sector we had to adapt to it at a rapid pace.” And Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president, Victor Chestnutt, said: “This pandemic has shown us how insecure our ability to import food is and how the food chain, our supply of food that is needed to feed the nation, could be severely impacted if we were too heavily reliant on such goods coming into the country,” Read the full article on page 25-28

Michael Bell


NEWS Michael Graham

Firms ‘revisiting construction plans’ but Belfast may see influx from London By John Mulgrew


ome businesses are revisiting construction and development plans post-Covid to see whether they still wish to proceed but it could be next year until the full impact is felt, the head of Northern Ireland’s largest construction giant has said

But Michael Graham, executive chairman at Co Down’s Graham Group – Northern Ireland’s eighth largest company – said Belfast could seen an influx of workers in the medium to long-term as companies and staff up sticks and leave major cities such as London. Speaking about whether office schemes or similar may be relooked at post-Covid, he told the Ulster Business Podcast with Bank of Ireland UK: “I think it’s not just unique to Northern Ireland… there are clients revisiting plans and just checking that the plans they had in place, (that) they still want to proceed with.


“It will maybe wash out clearer next year because a number of the projects were already at a stage that they progressed and had to go… we haven’t just seen it yet.” The boss of Graham Group – which posted turnover of £735m in its latest accounts – said the construction sector as a whole “is a bit more fortunate as we had a relatively short period of lockdown compared to other industries”. “I think in general the pandemic really focused minds in the industry… it’s been slow to change historically, particularly in regards to technological advances. What we are starting to see is change getting forced through at a more radical pace than we would have seen other wise as we try to get new approach to try and compensate for loss of product. “Potentially in Belfast we have opportunity in that we may start to see offices and people moving from big metropolitan places like London and relocating to somewhere they are better able to carry on their work, and Belfast

is well positioned for that. “… Belfast is well placed for growth in the medium to longer term as companies seek to capitalise on the cost we have here.” And he says retail and hospitality are likely to suffer the biggest impact. “They won’t come through as quickly,” he said. “But as sectors open up… business will be going through a process. “I’m reasonably positive. From our own experience, our team, everyone has come together – getting their heads down and potentially working closer than before to try and steer a path through.” Mr Graham says while office “for the most part is still going to be needed” that it may see redesign and a rethink – moving away from high-density offices to one which “focuses on the user experience”. “We may see an increase in more flexible or shared office space… business hubs.”


Growing demand for home with gardens: survey


orthern Ireland house prices are seeing the highest growth of any UK region – with a burgeoning demand for gardens and outside space.

That’s according to the latest RICS and Ulster Bank NI Residential Market Survey. It points to a large majority of surveyors who say they saw an increase in new buyer enquiries during August. The survey shows “near term” sales expectations remain positive but 12-month sales projections are still in negative territory.

Terry Robb

changes taking place in household behaviour in the wake of the pandemic. Increased demand for properties with gardens and near green spaces has if anything increased further.”

“The latest survey provides firm evidence of a strong uplift in activity in the NI housing market over recent months which should help support the wider economy,” Samuel Dickey, RICS Northern Ireland residential property spokesman, said. “Meanwhile the results provide a further pointer to more substantive


Terry Robb, head of personal banking at Ulster Bank, said: “We know it has been an uncertain number of months for people wanting to own their own home or to move property. To help buyers, we have a range of competitive mortgage deals available as well as options for coownership mortgages which have been very popular.”



Billion pound water upgrade moves step closer By John Mulgrew


long-awaited billion-pound upgrade of Belfast’s ageing water and sewage system has taken a leap forward amid fresh procurement plans and engagement between the Government and contractors, it can be revealed. NI Water and the Department for Infrastructure have held a series of events to meet with firms and suppliers concerning the delivery of its Living With Water Programme, a major development that would be enacted over the course of more than a decade. NI Water has previously indicated that it needs £2.5bn to deal with capacity issues and to continue providing water and wastewater services. Many major building projects and housing schemes are effectively on hold because of a lack of capacity. While the plan is moving forward, the necessary funding has yet to be ring-fenced. The Department for Infrastructure said it “intended to publish the draft Strategic Drainage Infrastructure Plan for Belfast later this year for public consultation”. “NI Water and the department are developing a procurement strategy to plan how best to deliver the many construction projects that will be needed over the next 12 years,” it added. “As part of this strategy, NI Water is engaging with the construction industry to discuss key issues relating to the delivery of such an extensive programme of work.

NI Water will also deliver presentations designed to give companies “an understanding of the preferred procurement model and (an opportunity to) ask any questions they may have in reference to the preferred procurement model”. It is “vital” that NI Water undertakes the pre-procurement exercise so contractors are in place to be able to deal with the needs, according to Mark Spence, managing director of the Construction Employers Federation. “While we have no concerns with the appetite of local contractors to get involved in these opportunities, it remains the case that the funding envelope for the Living With Water Programme remains completely uncertain,” he said.

“(Infrastructure) Minister Nichola Mallon is committed to fighting for further investment to secure the future of water and wastewater infrastructure.”

“Fundamentally, we know that the infrastructure requirements cannot be delivered by existing block grant funding alone, so we must, again, urgently look at the governance and funding arrangements.

The pre-procurement strategy meetings were scheduled for the middle of September.

“Without this, there remains significant risk that contractors are appointed to programmes


which have limited works available for delivery, further exacerbating the challenges that we know we face in terms of being able to meet Northern Ireland’s infrastructure needs.” A spokesperson for the Department for Infrastructure said it was “anticipated that approximately £1.4bn of investment will be needed to upgrade the drainage and wastewater infrastructure as part of the Living With Water Programme”. It said the next stage “is an information sharing exercise to gather information that will help complete a procurement strategy for the Living with Water Programme so that the programme can move quickly should funding be secured”. “The Minister for Infrastructure has consistently made the case that further investment is required in order to maintain services, and to increase housing supply and support economic development. Without drains there won’t be cranes. Minister Mallon is committed to fighting for further investment to secure the future of water and wastewater infrastructure.”


NI growth sluggish despite Government ‘eat out’ scheme By Margaret Canning


opes of a V-shaped economic recovery for Northern Ireland are fading even though the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme did give restaurants a lift, a survey has said. And Richard Ramsey said Brexit difficulties, and the rise in reported cases of Covid-19, will compound pessimism about the road ahead. The Ulster Bank chief economist spoke as the bank’s purchasing managers index for August reported a fall in the rate of economic recovery. Jobs were cut at a faster rate than in July as there was not enough work to go round – and although costs were going up, firms cut their prices in a bid to attract trade. Mr Ramsey said four regions in England had posted their fastest rate of growth on record during August – but the same was not true of Northern Ireland. Instead, the province’s anaemic growth was the second-weakest behind Wales. On all the main indicators, growth in Northern Ireland slowed down in August compared to July. However, the services sector – which includes everything from estate agents to restaurants – enjoyed its first month of growth since the pandemic. But Mr Ramsey said that “the scale of the rebound was much weaker than anticipated despite the boost from initiatives such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme”. “Indeed, Northern Ireland’s service sector recovery is lagging well behind the UK and is mirroring the lacklustre performance of the Republic of Ireland’s service industry.” Mr Ramsey warned that any recovery in the


labour market was a long-way off, particularly with the furlough scheme, which has preserved the jobs of nearly 250,000 people in Northern Ireland, and is due to end later this month. “Northern Ireland’s private sector saw employment fall for the sixth month running in August and with the furlough scheme due to end, this trend looks set to continue,” he said. He said jobs had fallen in all four sectors – retail, manufacturing, construction and services. Mr Ramsey also warned that the loss of momentum in August’s recovery did not look temporary. “New orders fell at a significant rate in August after rising in July for the first time in 18 months with the rate of contraction most marked within export markets.

“The rise in the number of cases of Covid during September to date, combined with the heightened tensions surrounding Brexit, make the landscape a very challenging one.” Across the survey, there was a weaker increase in output as firms caught up on work delayed by lockdown. Both the construction and retail sectors saw activity plateau following rebounds in July. And while new orders dropped, the rate of slump was slower than during the worst of the pandemic-related downturn earlier in the year. Firms reported that they had made some redundancies due to the pandemic. And even those who welcomed staff back from furlough found that their expenses were up as a result, while other Covid-related spending meant that input costs were going up. Overall, businesses were pessimistic about Covid’s long-term effects.



Standing out from the crowd is more important than ever By John Moore, managing director, Hays NI


ou may have seen the story about a former royal butler who secured several job interviews by holding up a cardboard sign and handing out his CV at Leeds train station after struggling to find work since losing his cruise ship job because of the pandemic.

While it’s not an approach I’ve advise everyone to follow, the gentleman in question must be applauded for doing his best to stand out from the crowd and get noticed by potential employers. Anyone embarking on a job search at the moment may be feeling unsettled considering the disruption caused by coronavirus. But while we’re certainly in challenging times, there’s no reason why jobseekers should put finding a new job that meets their career ambitions on hold. Our research shows upwards of 40% of employers are actively recruiting across the UK and the picture is similar in Northern Ireland. However, as you’d expect, the volume of applications for roles has increased and competition is high for jobseekers. So, what do candidates actually need to know to secure their next role? Here are five ways to stand out from the crowd in your job search.

your application and also give you vital context for discussion if you go through to an interview.

BE OPEN TO NEW OPPORTUNITIES Going into your job search today requires an open mind. The global situation has caused changes in demand across skills and industries, so try to be flexible and perhaps look outside your usual field. Consider what factors you are willing to compromise on, and what factors will be integral to your workplace wellbeing and career goals. If you’re working with a recruiter, make sure they know what these are, so they don’t pass you up for a promising opportunity just because it didn’t match all of your criteria. GIVE LINKEDIN A REFRESH Consider LinkedIn a living, breathing version of your CV which is accessible for employers to discover more about you. When used properly, your LinkedIn profile can help you establish your professional identity, grow your network and share content, all of which will make you stand out to potential employers. LinkedIn is certainly a key platform used by recruiters and hiring managers and is worth investing some time in to make sure it’s up to scratch. TAILOR YOUR APPLICATIONS At this time, it’s really worth doing some research so you can tailor your applications accordingly. Organisations and entire industries have gone through an incomprehensible amount of change in recent months, so read up on what impacts the pandemic might have had which are relevant to where you’re applying. This insight will come through in


BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR USPs To determine your unique selling proposition or USPs, answer the following questions. Why should an employer hire you over any other candidate? What is it that you can bring to the table that other candidates can’t? What unique skills or experiences do you have that could add real value? Do you consider yourself to be particularly creative or innovative? Also, it’s important to think about any specific examples you can cite which clearly evidence your USPs to both recruiters and hiring managers. Don’t forget to include these on your CV. AGILE WORKING REQUIRES AGILE THINKING We are moving into a rapidly evolving world of work – one that will involve new practices and different ways of collaborating with each other. Obvious as it might sound, the ability to integrate quickly and adeptly into this new era will be fundamental, as well as a willingness to improve existing skills or acquire new ones where needed. Many elements of workforce practice, including communication, management and strategy will need to adapt, and those who demonstrate open-mindedness and willingness to embrace the ‘new’ will be best placed to succeed. Think about how you can address this in your job search, either demonstrating flexibility and adaptability through your application or when you get to interview stage. This will be critical as we all start to move forward. ■


Rapid response and recovery fuelled by innovation Mid and East Antrim Borough Council reacted and responded rapidly to the needs of businesses as the coronavirus crisis took hold. Now in recovery mode, the focus is on innovation, investment and reskilling within key industries and expanding the tourism offering. Ulster Business speaks to its chief executive Anne Donaghy and Graham Whitehurst MBE – the man tasked with helping to rejuvenate the region’s manufacturing sector


id and East Antrim Borough Council is renowned as a heartland of manufacturing and in recent years has grown its burgeoning tourism sector. Now, more than ever, innovation is central to this region’s road to economic recovery.

When a crisis unlike anything else we’ve experienced first struck, Mid and East Antrim was proactive – developing an action plan and response mechanism to ensure businesses of all sizes were able to survive and adapt to the everchanging and uncertain environment. That rapid response has now ramped up to recovery, rebuilding and reskilling companies


and workforces to ensure the region gets back to growth as soon as possible.

another economic shock – the current Covid crisis.

“For me the future, post-Covid, is one based around innovation,” Anne Donaghy, Mid and East Antrim, chief executive says. Mid and East Antrim is a region which boasts a rich manufacturing legacy, with firms such as bus builder Wrightbus – now headed by chief executive Buta Atwal – saved from collapse, and now at the forefront of electric and hydrogen vehicle production.

“Our passion and our skills helps set us apart,” Anne says. “We have been through an economic shock before and survived.”

Having to deal with the sharp shock of the loss of former industry giants such as Michelin and JTI Gallaher in recent years means Mid and East Antrim is now better prepared to deal with

Alongside a central Manufacturing Taskforce, advisory and mentoring facilities, an online BuySupply portal and financial assistance, Mid and East Antrim is moving from immediate response to developing the region into a stronger economic force than pre-coronavirus. “When it struck, we responded immediately,” Anne said. “We contacted our businesses to let them know the assistance we could give them,


Graham Whitehurst MBE, chairman of Mid and East Antrim’s Manufacturing Taskforce, Buta Atwal, chief executive of Wrightbus with Mid and East Antrim chief executive, Anne Donaghy

so communication and effective signposting was key”. “It was about practical advice – from financial assistance to guidance on furlough. And it worked because we had a huge response and engagement through our telephone helpline and across our social media and website platforms. It told us that we were doing it right.”

bus-maker, Graham intrinsically understands the business landscape across the wider Mid and East Antrim region. “The taskforce was created about 18 months ago on the back of the closure of Michelin and JTI Gallagher,” he said. “The main aims are to both create and sustain jobs in the area, and to build confidence in the manufacturing sector in Mid and East Antrim.

companies and organisations secure key and crucial personal protection equipment (PPE) as the coronavirus crisis spread across Northern Ireland. There are now 500 companies using the Covid portal in addition to 120 companies registered on the original site to enable local sourcing of products and components for the manufacturing, construction and engineering sectors within Northern Ireland. Mid and East Antrim initiated a series of

While the pandemic continued, it was clear that action plans were needed to assist companies’ progress. Mid and East Antrim was already well ahead of the curve, thanks to its Manufacturing Taskforce and also BuySupplyNI – the online portal connecting local firms and suppliers together. And for the man helping shape the future of Mid and East Antrim’s manufacturing sector and legacy, Graham Whitehurst MBE, he is very much at home standing beside one the newest hydrogen buses emerging from Ballymena’s Wrightbus factory. As the former head of Michelin here, and also the former operations director at the Ballymena


webinars at the start of the crisis – bringing in experts within areas such as health and safety and risk assessment in order to help companies develop and modify their workplaces to deal with the changes required and get back to work safely.

“Almost 50 companies now form an integral part of the taskforce – actively helping each other and this includes larger firms in the borough such as Ryobi and Caterpillar, alongside smaller companies and key stakeholders.” As well as a steering team which oversees strategic direction, the taskforce encompasses a number of sub groups examining a range of key areas including productivity, training and skills, R&D, and supply chain.

“It was also about investigating the impact that Covid has had on each business, finding out are the skills there, and if not how can we upskill’’, Graham said.

With additional investment, the original BuySupplyNI portal set up by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, was adapted to help

“We’ve had a really strong response and as a result we set up a series of webinars, alongside upskilling and reskilling systems to assist, >



Graham Whitehurst MBE and Anne Donaghy

in particular, those people who have been on furlough or been made redundant.”

while Carrickfergus Castle has also now opened its doors to the public, once again.

The initial impact of Covid on the local economy was devastating, but as Government packages of support were put in place the next step focused on signposting companies to the financial assistance available including eligibility for Government loans – before moving on to rebuilding businesses, and now planning for the end of the furlough scheme in October.

“It’s a critical cog in our economic recovery plan,” Anne says. “It was important before but it’s even more critical now. There aren’t many locations like Mid and East Antrim that can boast a Norman castle that is still intact and the Gobbins – which is simply breathtaking.”

“We put together a furlough-ending action plan,” Graham said. “The first and most important thing to highlight to companies from this is, ‘can you keep you activity levels up?’. If companies can get activity levels up then this can help prevent redundancies.” He said “firms must look ahead, examining workforce requirements, upskilling employees and ensuring staff receive key training for potential redeployment elsewhere in the business”. Mid and East Antrim’s future plans for support include a series of masterclasses over the coming months and beyond, examining a range of areas including how firms can be more productive, leaner and more efficient. Tourism is a key strand in growing the economy. The Gobbins Cliff Path in Islandmagee is now seeing unprecedented demand by visitors, buoyed by a surge in domestic tourism amid wider travel restrictions,


And for that recovery, Anne says innovation, investment and a focus on emerging and growing sectors, such as green and cleaner energy, will be central to Mid and East Antrim’s success. The recovery is based around core skills and experience – Mid and East Antrim has a bedrock in manufacturing, a growing tourism offering, but also has companies who are diversifying to survive and flourish. The area’s ambitious plans include; developing a multi-million pound next generation science park on the former St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena, investing £12m in extending the Gobbins Cliff Path, a programme of investment to regenerate, reposition and rebrand the town of Carrickfergus placing it firmly on the map as an authentic heritage led tourism hub and the development of a £600m green energy park at the Kilroot power station. “Mid and East Antrim is the heartland of manufacturing in Northern Ireland,” Anne

said. “Around 20% of our workforce is within manufacturing and the sector accounts for around £1bn in sales every year.” That includes international giants of industry such as generator maker Caterpillar and car parts producer Ryobi, alongside burgeoning local success stories such as Moore Concrete in Ballymena. “We are constantly innovating and have set our sights on becoming the hydrogen hub for the UK, based in Ballymena. “Innovation in the energy sector is key with ambitious plans for a new energy park at Kilroot power station and strong diversification within our manufacturing base. Key to this is skills development and making sure that the people of Mid and East Antrim have the skills necessary to provide labour to new companies in the green industry and the skills, knowledge and support to enable diversification. Our plans include the establishment of a Northern Ireland Hydrogen Training Academy in Mid and East Antrim. “We have been through an economic shock before, we had the highest drop in GVA in the UK, we moved on and put plans in place to work collaboratively and innovate. This partnership approach means we can continue to facilitate and support the growth of our companies and enhance the skills of our people. Our passion, flexibility to adapt and perseverance really does set us apart”. ■

Julie Gibbons

New name in NI insurance is a big deal


wo of Northern Ireland’s most established local insurance brokers, Abbey Insurance and Autoline Insurance have joined forces to become AbbeyAutoline.

“To see them coming together heralds the start of not only a bigger and stronger insurance broking business, but greater choice for all our customers, with an expanded panel of insurers.”

provide a tailored business insurance package. In so doing, we give our clients the peace of mind to continue running their business, safe in the knowledge that their insurance needs are in the hands of the right people.

Prestige Insurance Holdings, the parent company of Abbey Insurance, acquired Newry-based Autoline Insurance at the end of 2018. Since then, the two businesses have been aligning their operations and the new brand was launched on September 1, 2020.

The newly combined insurance broking business now has 22 branches province wide and employs 470 staff, making it the biggest insurance broker in Northern Ireland.

“On the personal insurance side, we can now offer our customers a broader range of products, alongside our core car and home insurance, including young drivers, travel, van, motorbike, taxi and a fantastic offering for farm insurance, making AbbeyAutoline the one stop shop for all insurance needs here in Northern Ireland.

Julie Gibbons, managing director of the newly combined broking business, AbbeyAutoline, said: “This is one of the most significant developments in the insurance industry here for decades. “Both of these home-grown broking businesses have developed side by side for over almost 50 years, with Autoline established in Newry and Abbey in Newtownabbey, only years apart, in the 1970s. It is testament to both that they have grown so much over this time and now stand together going into the future.


Julie is firmly focused on the growth opportunity for commercial insurance that comes with the increased geographical footprint, scale and buying power. “Business insurance is an area of particular focus under the new AbbeyAutoline brand,” she said. “As a broker our success lies in our passion for building relationships with both clients and insurers, which gives us the buying power to secure the most competitive and bespoke solutions for our clients. “With over 45 years’ experience, our team of commercial account executives get under the skin of their clients’ business so they can fully understand their insurance requirements and

“Customers will start to see our new name rolled out in our high street branches across Northern Ireland in the coming weeks and whilst our name may have changed above the door, our customers can be reassured that our commitment to quality, friendly, local service remains firmly in place. “As AbbeyAutoline, while we will be bigger, we will remain firmly focused on delivering the same trusted, expert, personal customer care that has successfully grown our two businesses for almost five decades.” ■


Nichola Mallon: pragmatic planning, investment and ‘frustration’ The desk of the Infrastructure Minister has been heaving over the last few months, and it’s not going to see any easement in the foreseeable future. John Mulgrew speaks to Nichola Mallon about the “frustration” over the process of being handed powers to deal with taxi and coach operators amid Covid, examining and reviewing our planning system with a pragmatic approach, seeking £1bn for wastewater funding and presenting long-term infrastructure plans to the Executive in the coming weeks


t the top of Nichola Mallon’s in tray is now the responsibility of providing financial support to the haulage, coach and taxi industries – struggling amid slumps in business. But there remain a litany of major regionally significant developments, schemes and infrastructural concerns – the majority around well before the impact of Covid. “We haven’t just had the impact of Covid… we didn’t have an Assembly or Executive for three years, and undoubtedly that has had an impact as well,” the Minister told Ulster Business. “I’m keen that we have infrastructure at the centre of recovery from Covid. That is what other countries and governments around the world are noticing… if you invest in infrastructure there’s a multiplier in terms of the economic benefits, but also around climate action as well.” Nichola says she expects to have a report from her new infrastructure advisory group – headed by the IoD’s Kirsty McManus – at the end of September, before presenting it to the Executive in the coming weeks.


“I felt it was important to bring in external experts to this and I gave them complete independence in terms of how they would set about pulling a report together,” she said. “I’m hugely impressed at the pace at which they are working and the progress being made. “The focus will be on hard infrastructure – roads, wastewater, but inevitably they will look at the wider picture. For me, I think it’s about looking at infrastructure in a more holistic way, and that means cutting across Minister Poots’s department (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs), Minister Dodds’s department (Department for the Economy), as well as my own.” That could include an examining of our planning process – something industry here has long said is a much too exhaustive and a needlessly lengthy process. And industry and the construction sector has been calling for a speeding up and improvement in both the procurement and planning process. So, is now the time for an overhaul of the system here? “I think we have made some improvements in planning and it’s an issue that needs a

clear focus,” she said. “When you examine the planning performance statistics for local councils on smaller applications, they are meeting their targets, but undoubtedly there are difficulties when you look at more significant planning applications – how long it has taken for them to be processed through councils. “But also through my department, as well. We are seeing a much better engagement. We are getting better engagement with the councils. We are about to go live with the new planning system (online) which will bring improvements.” She said a cross-departmental planning forum is examining case management, the quality of applications, improving advice and guidance and examining consultee response times. “That is a big issue, certainly in my department, it is something we need to get much better at,” she said. And she says she’s written to the infrastructure committee to inform them she intends to carry out a review of the Planning Act (NI) 2011. “I would be keen to get that underway and get a report out this year.” >




Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon

“We have a number of projects underway, the A6 (connecting Belfast and Derry). At the beginning, we thought the impact to construction would be a lot more. The resilience of the construction sector in getting back to work quickly and safely means we are maintaining progress on that.”

the green light by civil servants and then refused permission on court appeal.

Earlier this summer, John Ahern of Indaver UK and Ireland – the firm behind a proposed £240m incinerator for Mallusk – said he’d hoped to hear of a decision from the minister on the scheme this year.

“It moves to public inquiry when all the information has been received and analysed – we are not at that point yet,” she said.

Asked about that likelihood, Nichola said: “I’m not in a position to say because officials are waiting for additional information. Then that has to be analysed and all due processes followed.” It’s a scheme which has rattled on for almost 15 years – turned down by former Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, given


And on Dalradian’s plans for a huge gold gold mine in Co Tyrone, Nichola says her department is not ready to announce a date for the public inquiry.

“But I felt it was important, given the very controversial nature of this application, that I signalled what my intention was (announcing an inquiry) at an early outset.” With conversations already leading back to some construction schemes in Belfast and beyond effectively on hold until the new landscape can be determined, Nichola says the Belfast Transport Hub, active travel agenda, pop-up cycle lanes and a “pragmatic”

approach by councils in dealing with applications such as pavement cafe licenses are there to help bring people back into the city. “Businesses are struggling enough and they don’t need to be faced with bureaucratic hurdles,” she said. The latest addition to her workload has come after the First and Deputy First Ministers decided that, because of the other pressures facing the Department for the Economy, Infrastructure should take on the responsibility of providing financial assistance to the haulage, taxi and coach industries. “I have to say, this has been a source of great frustration,” she said. “For months I have been setting out that I didn’t have the powers to bring forward financial hardship schemes. I wasn’t saying that to be obstructive, because it was the truth. “Now, for several months, people in these


Belfast area’s sewage and water systems – with the organisation liaising with potential contractors in a market engagement exercise. So, will the Minister be able to ring-fence and secure the necessary funding to avoid our water system bursting at the seams?

industries that haven’t been able to avail of help have been left sitting there. We should have been at a place where we were getting people help through the Department for the Economy, much earlier on. What I am keen to do is to get the new powers and to get a scheme up-and-running as quickly as possible. “But I have to be honest with people – I believe it would have been much quicker to amend an existing scheme. Now that it has come to me, given that we don’t have the expertise or the experience, we are going to have to devise a scheme from scratch, and that will necessitate time.” She said it’s a “matter of survival” for many of those in the private bus operator sector. A recent report in Ulster Business highlighted that the next step has been taken in NI Water’s Living With Water Programme – a muchneeded £1bn modernising of the greater


“I have been making the case now since I took up the post, as we had a very dire financial situation in respect of our water and wastewater, pre-Covid,” she said. “With Covid we have seen a dramatic reduction in the income NI Water was receiving. We have around 100 locations that are at, or just about to be at, maximum capacity. “We know it is under huge pressure from years and years of neglect. We know if we don’t invest in the Living with Water Programme or in the waste and water infrastructure, that we are not going to be able to deliver on our Programme for Government outcomes – that’s across all the departments. “There’s not an endless pot of money, so you do go into a bidding process with other ministers. But as an Executive as we are agreeing our strategic approach to recovery from Covid, then we have to agree on

strategic priorities. For me, this is a strategic priority that we all can agree on.” On Translink, which has announced it’s ending its Ulsterbus Tours business and aiming to make cuts of £20m, Nichola said: “For me the starting point is ‘do we as an Executive believe we should be honouring our commitment to having a publicly-owned public transport network?’ “I believe we should. It’s about more than just having profitable routes. It’s about connecting communities to opportunities. “Translink has suffered, like everybody else, from a dramatic loss in income. I have made a number of bids through to the Executive on their behalf. A number have been successful. I have one in with the Finance Minister (Conor Murphy) but he hasn’t made an allocation as yet. “We have to have efficiency in our public services as well. It has found £10m of savings and is committed to find a further £10m – that’s a significant amount of money. “It’s deeply concerning, particularly for the employees involved. It will have to move in to the space of redundancies… it’s the financial difficulty and the reality that is now facing all of us.” ■



Olga McAteer and John Donnelly

Ronan Valley Business Park: commerce in the heart of Mid Ulster


Northern Ireland business park is offering companies of all shapes and sizes top-end office and commercial space in the heart of Mid Ulster.

Ronan Valley Business Park, located on the edge of Magherafelt, is an expansive 32 acre business park – the brainchild of businessman John Donnelly. The park offers up a range of industrial and commercial space, from ground floor office space to larger units of 10,800 sq ft. Located on the Ballyronan Road, the park has already helped create around 120 jobs, offering up high-specification units, or custom-build to buy, or let, units. It plays host to a range of companies, already. That includes businesses such as Setanta, Top Gear NI, Stronghold Preservation, ESR Enterprise, Bloc Blinds, Revolve Ireland, EMC Trailers, Smartworks Plus, Apex Fitness, Plumbvent, MC Autosales and Endzone Ltd. Ronan Valley Business Park has been created by businessman John Donnelly – a leading

advocate for enterprise and growth across Mid Ulster, and beyond. The region is now one of Northern Ireland’s leading areas in terms of innovation, and has been known as the heartland of much of our leading manufacturing sector, over the decades. Mr Donnelly says he wanted to create the park to build a community for businesses, to offer them top-end facilities and managed services, along with the advantages the new bypass road brings. It’s now one of the leading business parks in Mid Ulster, boasting a wide mixture of commercial, industrial, warehouse, office space and storage – each able to be modified in order to meet a tenant’s need. Olga McAteer of McAteer Solutions, which is the agent for the business park, says the area has already established itself as an increasingly popular choice for companies of all shapes and sizes. “There is an ever-increasing thirst and demand for commercial property of this quality in the Mid Ulster area,” she said.

Unit 4C Shivers Business Park 21 Hillhead Rd Toomebridge BT41 3SF


“We are seeing a real increase in demand for a range of different property needs here – ranging from around 200 sq ft to 2,000 sq ft. “We are proud to work with Ronan Valley Business Park. The business premises really does offer up an excellent opportunity for both established companies, and new start-ups, which want to take advantage of modern and high-specification premises – combined with the transport links. “In just a short space of time the park has already attracted a wide range of businesses – from manufacturing, to services, vehicle sales and fitness. That demand looks certain to continue with plans for the development of more units, alongside customer requirements.” The entrepreneurship of John Donnelly has helped turn what was once a derelict site into a business park which has helped play host to a wide range of companies – creating 120 jobs along the way. ■

For more information on the commercial units and office space available, contact McAteer Solutions on 028 7965 9444.

Telephone: 028 7965 9444 Email: Online:

Food, drink & agriculture


Victor Chestnutt

Keeping it local and sustaining our food supply A reliance on a sustainable and self-sufficient food supply chain has never been more important, with Northern Ireland recovering from the ‘biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War’ and with a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit still on the cards. John Mulgrew speaks to the industry and those on the food front line about keeping it local in changed times


arly market mornings and chatting to the producers, walking around picking new seasonal produce that’s just arrived, hearing the hustle and bustle of growers, suppliers and other chefs is a little gift in these crazy times’, Stevie Toman says. Stevie is one of those who is already well informed about the importance of local produce – one of the keys to the success of his Michelin-starred Belfast restaurant OX, co-


owned by Alain Kerloc’h.

supply has never been more important.

“The situation has given us an even deeper appreciation towards our growers and amazing local produce... it’s great to be back,” Stevie told Ulster Business.

The last few months has shone an ever brighter light on our ability to have increasing self-sufficiency and self-reliance, especially in a worst case scenario again, or with the looming uncertainty around what a Brexit deal could look like for Northern Ireland and beyond.

But while it’s far from surprising that amid some of the highest levels of cooking to be found on the island, a strong focus on both seasonality, and ingredients found close to home are key, now, the issue of our food

“This pandemic has shown us how insecure our ability to import food is and how the food chain, our supply of food that is needed to


Stevie Toman and Alain Kerloc’h

feed the nation, could be severely impacted if we were too heavily reliant on such goods coming into the country,” Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president, Victor Chestnutt, says. “The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of local food production and food security here in Northern Ireland as it exposed our vulnerability as a society very early on. “After initial panic buying scenes across the country prior to lockdown, shelves where filled


as quickly as they were emptied because of our local farmers and producers who continue to produce high-quality food farmed and grown to some of the highest environmental and animal standards in the world. “However, there are issues within the current policy that need to be addressed to make sure that going forward, the UK has adequate food security. In particular, farmers and growers need better returns from the market place and this can be achieved without increasing the

cost of produce for consumers.” He said there must be additional support for our food sector here “so it can develop allowing us to become more self-sufficient post Covid-19”. “Currently the UK is approximately only 58% self-sufficient in food and expansion policies will help us to improve this,” he said. “The UFU is a proud promoter of our local high-quality produce and we will continue to encourage consumers to buy local food




and support local food production. We won’t see a dramatic increase in our self-sufficiency right away but in time with the right policy in place it will strengthen not only benefiting our farmers but the people of Northern Ireland, the economy and the environment.” According to Stevie Toman, his team at OX have had to develop their own skills over lockdown, having less access to some of the produce they normally rely on. “Some of our growers have had to limit their productivity too – fewer hands to help with the planting and harvest due to the restrictions, so my crew and I have been learning new gardening skills over the lockdown – lots of the herbs, flowers and even some tomatoes and courgettes are arriving from our own chef’s gardens, which is another silver lining to these difficult times. “This has giving us an even deeper appreciation towards our growers and amazing local produce. It’s great to be back.” Michael Bell, executive director, Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), echoes calls for increased focus on a sustainable supply here as “we recover from the biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War”. “Covid-19 has demonstrated both the necessity and the ingenuity of our food manufacturing industry, and the wider ‘eating ecosystem’ of other co-dependent industries along the supply chain, such as farming, transport and logistics, cold stores, packaging, catering, food service and retail,” he says. “In March, as the country went into lockdown, the eating ecosystem had to keep going. We needed to ensure quality food could continue to make its way to supermarket shelves, and into people’s homes. The situation we faced was unprecedented, and as a sector we had to adapt to it at a rapid pace. “Both industry and government had to take bold decisions to address the challenge of Covid-19. Now we need to deliver a pathway to recovery for food and drink, as we recover


Michael Bell

from the biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War.

a balance of trade benefit of up to £8bn could be realised.

“In the short term we need to protect our capacity in food production, ensuring our domestic food and farming industry is able to emerge from this crisis intact. Initiatives such as the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme have gone some way to kick-start the foodservice market, but there is still more to be done.”

“We should address balance of trade in food as well as move the public towards healthier diets, minimise the environment impact of food production and maximise animal welfare. Investing in automating and up-skilling, expanding our exports and increasing our domestic food security will help us achieve these goals while keeping prices to low.

But he says, looking towards the longer term, the UK Government “has the opportunity to rethink its approach to food and drink”. “For too long, successive governments have been content to witness the continual decline in the UK’s ability to feed itself.

“A successful recovery for food and drink will require a new collaborative approach between industry and government, as well as serious investment – but the economic, public health and environmental gains would be immense. Doing nothing will only invite success for our competitors.

“The strain that Covid-19 has put on the food chain has exposed the weaknesses in this approach, and now we have the opportunity to reverse that trend. It is hard to argue with the economics – the UK currently has a trade deficit of some £24bn in food. Assuming 30% of this could be produced efficiently in the UK,

“Local food production is the only way we can guarantee that no matter what is happening in the world, we still have access to highquality local food when we need it which is why it is so important that everyone supports local, helping the agri-food industry to flourish enabling NI to become more self-sufficient.” ■


Almost three million meals claimed in NI during Eat Out to Help Out


orthern Ireland diners enjoyed more than 2.7 million meals as part of the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme to drive postlockdown business mid-week, it has emerged. Some 2,207 outlets across the region were signed up to the scheme. However, this only relates to businesses with fewer than 26 locations, meaning the actual figure could be much higher. A total of 2,789,000 meals were claimed, amounting to discounts of over £16m. The average discount for a meal was £5.79.

The scheme ran for the first three days of the week throughout August and offered half price meals up to a total of £10 off. It was aimed at helping rejuvenate the beleaguered hospitality trade, blighted by the coronavirus pandemic. Figures from HMRC, which administered the scheme, showed South Belfast was the location which claimed the most meals, with over 374,000 claimed across 326 outlets. That compared to the West Tyrone area which saw 68,000 meals across 66 outlets. The biggest discount was available in Strangford with an average of £6.49. The lowest was in North Belfast with an average £4.69 claimed. But some Northern Ireland restaurants said they were unable to take part


– because the Government support was only for meals prepared on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays

cost of cuts himself. Chef Niall McKenna said he was keen to see how the public would react and what “normality would look like”.

Erica Lutzman of the Lighthouse Bistro in Whitehead said: “It just didn’t work for us. We only open at the end of the week – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That meant that to open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday would have meant disrupting our whole team’s arrangements.

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said his organisation lobbied for an extension and they would continue to appeal to Stormont for support as the industry moved into a quieter period.

“So, while it was a great scheme for restaurants able to open six or seven days a week, it just wasn’t beneficial for us. I think we’d like to see the scheme reintroduced in a way that covers Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and helps small restaurants that cannot open every day of the week.”

“You have to remember that what looked busy was actually operating at a reduced capacity,” he said. “We had the summer ‘staycation’ business, which has gone and we don’t have the offices and the business tourism that comes with it. There is a challenging period ahead.

Some restaurants across Belfast and beyond have pledged to continue to offer discounts despite the end of government support.

“This is not about making money, it is about breaking even and keeping jobs safe because on furlough they are only preserved. We are just trying to get through this period and there has still been no help for traditional pubs because if you don’t serve food, you can’t open.” ■

Michelin-starred chef Michael Deane said he would take a financial hit to continue his own version of the scheme, shouldering the



McDonald’s: putting local suppliers at the forefront of building back

Over the last 30 years, McDonald’s has ensured some of Northern Ireland’s biggest producers, farmers and growers are at the heart of both its business, and the wider community. Northern Ireland-born Beth Hart, vice-president of supply chain and brand trust, speaks about growing both its franchisees and supply chain, the focus on local and sustainability and building back up after Covid-19 30



or Beth Hart, her roots in Northern Ireland are as local as many of the ingredients used by the restaurant chain which she works for.

McDonald’s has grown its presence, locations, staff numbers and ever-increasing focus on local suppliers, with the use of top-end ingredients right across Northern Ireland, over the last 29 years. It’s a company which is also now undergoing a strong resurgence in demand following the recent reopening of restaurants. And many here may not know quite how ‘local’ many of the key ingredients that go into flagship products, are. The beef is from UK and Irish farmers, the cheese from Kerry Group and packaging for products sold across the globe comes from Huhtamaki – which has operations in Belfast, Antrim and Lurgan. There is also an ever-increasing focus on sustainability, along with green packaging to ensure everything that can be re-used or recycled. “Often it comes as a pleasant surprise to our customers who often don’t realise just how many of our ingredients are local, especially as we are such a large brand,” Beth says. “For example, for 21 years our eggs have been free range, all our beef is British and Irish, our milk is organic, the cheese slices in your Big Mac are from Kerry Group in Coleraine.

Beth is the first ever executive member for supply chain, a role that is wide ranging encompassing, buying and sourcing both food and packaging, safety standards as well as relationships with farmers, growers and producers – with an eye on sustainability and ethical sourcing. A core focus of Beth’s leadership over the last few months has been ensuring the well-being of McDonald’s customers and staff, making the right decision on closing and gradually reopening the company’s restaurant estate across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. “We made the decision to close ahead of Government guidance,” Beth says. “That was taken to protect the tens of thousands of employees based across the UK and Ireland. “Throughout the Covid period we recognised the importance of regular communication with our employees, customers and politicians. This has been welcomed and reinforces our commitment to protect our crew, customers and suppliers“ And part of the ability of McDonald’s to get back up off the ground and return to serving millions of customers each day, remains the resilience, expertise and experience of its supply chain partners. “Once someone is in our supply chain, if they do a good job, build good relationships then we will work with them for a long time,” says Beth.” We need to get better and better, and make sure everyone’s business is thriving.”

“This is real food, with real farmers and producers – produced to a very high standard. That’s why we aim for our customer experience to always be positive and the same. It’s the Big Mac you love, wherever you go.”

“Northern Ireland punches well above its weight,” Beth says. “Companies like Kerry Group and Huhtamaki don’t just have contracts here – but across the global business. It’s fantastic that manufacturers can start supplying the UK but then grow to supply McDonald’s right across the globe.”

Lurgan born, Beth is now vice-president of supply chain and brand trust for McDonald’s in the UK and Ireland and has a long 25-year career working across all strands of the food sector.

Beth says the company’s business here gives back around £26m a year to farmers in Northern Ireland, and good business remains about also ensuring good communities in which McDonald’s operates in.


“McDonald’s has a famous model – the three-legged stool,” she says. “One leg is the McDonald’s business, one is the franchisee and the other is the supplier. If we keep all of that balanced it’s a real true secret of competitive advantage. “We consider the full life of all our products from start to finish – from the food to the packaging. We look at circular solutions. That includes converting oil into bio diesel which is then used to fuel the lorries which deliver the food to our restaurants.” McDonald’s has grown its footprint to 31 restaurants across Northern Ireland and employs more than 3,000 staff. It’s also counted on franchisees who have worked with the company here for decades. “We view ourselves as a crucial employer in lots of areas,” Beth says. “We invest in people and employ a lot of young staff – it’s a great opportunity for them to build key skills and discipline. “In terms of health, we have over recent years made significant moves, reducing salt and sugar and providing our customers with a more varied menu. “ “We ensure that more than 50% of the menu is non high in fat, sugar or salt. Our new kiosks also flag the healthier options, so a customer can elect to choose that, or not. “After Covid-19 we’ve had a more limited menu, but it’s important we offer a broad choice which includes healthier options.” And Beth says the business is in a strong position following the safe, phased reopening of its stores right across the UK and Ireland. “We started slow, with the drive-thru, then delivery,” she says. “It was only at phase five when we opened the restaurants for dine-in that we realised just how much people had missed us. “And when we came back, our suppliers came back, too. That’s testament to the 29 years we have been trading in Northern Ireland.” ■



‘It’s now all about rebooting the business’ The travel sector is one of the sectors facing some of its most turbulent times amid lockdown and closed borders. Emma Deighan speaks to Sandra Corkin of Oasis Travel about rebuilding business and hoping for a return to better sales in 2021


andra Corkin, managing director of Oasis Travel, has spent over 35 years building her six-shop travel agency business. This year was to mark its best year yet. Instead, she says, it’s facing its worst. “This pandemic has been the most devastating event the industry has faced and travel has seen its fair share of tragedies, from terrorist attacks to war and ash clouds, but I don’t think anything has impacted world travel like this,” she says. “This year our business is down 80%. Today it’s about rebuilding, about acknowledging the fact that it’s going to take us a few years to get back to what we had last year.” When lockdown was announced in March Oasis’ 55-strong team went into damage limitation mode, organising refunds and rebookings in what Sandra says was an exhausting process. “Everyone thought it was for a period of six to eight weeks. We had two jobs at first – contacting those who had booked to go abroad and to cancel or change their travel plans and to get those who were abroad, home. We never imagined it would last for six months and counting. “We worked morning, noon and night dealing with over 10,000 people. It’s been tough.” Sandra, who is one of the trade’s most respected leaders in Northern Ireland, has become part of a travel agency support group which will set out to lobby the Government to get those in the sector more support, particularly after current schemes such as furlough end.” To date, agencies like Oasis have benefited from the furloughing and rates relief schemes and Sandra has availed of the Government’s


Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Support Scheme (CBILS) through Danske Bank. She says the support from the bank during the crisis has been “vital in getting our business through the lockdown” and will play a part in getting the company back up and running in 2021. Next year’s business is up by 25%, she says. The appetite among travellers is there – but she warns that bookings will only be realised if travel restrictions are eased and quarantines lifted. “We need to be okay next year, there is no doubt about it. For the whole health of the travel industry we have to be okay.” To prepare for a small flow of fresh demand, Sandra’s son Scott went on a tour of Europe on a familiarisation trip. Oasis has long been known in NI as a cruise specialist among its loyal customer base. It has hosted, for 15 years running, a cruise fair that has, year-on-year, welcomed more and more visitors. It will still host that fair but the grand Waterfront backdrop will be replaced

by an online set-up instead. Sandra has admirably soldiered on through what has certainly been her most challenging year to date, not just professionally but personally. She lost her brother, Gary (62), just weeks before lockdown, to cancer. Gary was another well-known figure in the travel trade and was Oasis’ Travel’s financial director. Sandra says she misses her brother deeply, and that he’s also much missed by the rest of the staff and the wider community in the trade. “We’re in the worst possible situation but now it’s all about refocussing and rebooting. We’ve started a ‘reboot camp’ for our staff, to help get them focused because this has been a very difficult year for all of them. “The company lost Gary, we’ve had a tough year already and we hope we come out of it stronger, and I do believe the travel industry will bounce back better than others because the desire to travel is still there.” ■


Duke of York owner Willie Jack

Belfast bars planning new beer gardens and outdoor dining areas A series of bar and restaurants have submitted fresh planning applications in a bid to deal with changes around coronavirus, including social distancing and outdoor dining, writes John Mulgrew


host of leading Belfast bars are planning major outdoor beer gardens as they adapt to restrictions and regulations around coronavirus. That includes top publican Willie Jack. He’s planning a large “alfresco” dining area to the rear of his Dark Horse venue at Commercial Court – adjacent to his Duke of York bar.

Dark Horse’s sister premises’ the Duke of York and the Harp Bar are renowned for and creating a licensed al fresco dining area.” Meanwhile, the Tipsy Bird on Ann Street now wants to turn a rear service yard into a beer garden. “The proposal represents a complementary use to the existing Tipsy Bird pub, located within a prime city centre location,” a planning document says.

A planning application says, following the outbreak of coronavirus “establishments such as the Dark Horse are seeking to adjust and take advantage of their outdoor space to maximize the numbers of patrons they could safely cater for, thereby allowing for social distancing requirements”.

“Off the back of the current Covid-19 crisis, and government’s encouragement to the public to sit outside when visiting restaurants and pubs where possible, the current proposals will allow for an additional bar area and seating space which will assist during the pandemic by increasing opportunities for social distancing.

“This planning application seeks to do so, continuing the attention to detail on creating quality external amenity that the

“This will enhance the safety of all patrons, allowing them to be appropriately spaced out from other patrons and to access the facilities


without have to enter the main building. In addition, this proposal will allow for the increase in vitality and viability of the existing Tipsy Bird bar especially through this difficult time for local businesses” Elsewhere, The Errigle Inn on Ormeau Road wants to add two new retractable roofs to its existing outdoor areas, according to a fresh planning application. A number of other businesses in Northern Ireland have already developed new beer gardens in order to serve customers outside, while also continuing to maintain distancing. That includes The Bone Yard, which is a new 16,000 sq ft venue off Bedford Street, while the owners of We Are Vertigo have turned a section of car park in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast into a beer garden called Cargo. ■

Business finance & banking




Going dee into the red p Northern Ireland and the UK is being left with a legacy of ‘exceptionally long-term debt’, with a likelihood of increased taxes as means of repaying the huge dent in public finances, caused by key support for businesses amid the Covid crisis, it’s been claimed. But what impact will be felt on future investment by the State, and will we see a ‘more strategic and targeted approach’ to business lending in a much more uncertain economic world? Ulster Business takes a look


he inevitable question arising from the scale of government intervention is how it will be paid for, according to Andrew Webb. But the chief economist for Grant Thornton NI says “there is probably a consensus that austerity will not fly again and I don’t see a strong move towards the Modern Monetary Theory approach of just printing the money, but who knows”. With more than £50bn in loan support from the UK Government, in order to keep business heads above water, alongside additional assistance and a fall in GDP, the UK’s national debt has now cracked the £2tn mark for the first time. And while Government assesses what it will do to chip away at that, whether it’s borrowing from investors, raising taxes, or cutting spending, closer to home, businesses and individuals here will also have to deal with their own borrowing in a market now fraught with uncertainty. “From a corporate and banking perspective there’s a possibility that banks’ priorities will be on managing current exposure with their existing customer base,” Neal Shanks, a corporate finance director at Grant Thornton NI, says.


“Given the distinct differences from the financial crisis, which was primarily driven by a lack of liquidity and property bubble, we expect the approach of banks to be one of ‘restructure and renewal’, rather than ‘recovery and exit’, as was the dominant approach through the financial crisis. While some businesses will inevitably fail due to the impact of Covid-19, we would expect funders to support viable businesses for their mutual benefit. “In terms of new lending, we would expect to see banks tighten up on credit policy for higher risk sectors, especially where this involves ‘new-to-bank’ customers. However, banks will still need to do business, and as such we would expect to see a more strategic and targeted approach to certain sectors, such as those benefiting from the ‘new normal’ and low risk sectors, including proven green technologies, such as wind. “There is also a growing concern among business around taking on new lending in the current climate. The picture in terms of property lending is difficult to predict, but it is likely that this will tend towards lower risk transactions and there will be caution around previously strong investment areas such as hotels, offices and retail.” And looking towards what the financial

recovery could look for the UK Government, we may have reached an “inflection point where government spending and taxes will both increase over the long term”, according to Gareth Hetherington of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre. “When the potential economic consequences of Covid-19 became clear, the Government moved very quickly to introduce a range of loan schemes, such as CBILS, CLBILS and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. Since inception, over £50bn of loan facilities have been approved through these schemes,” he said. “Their key aim was to help businesses with their cashflow through the worst impacts of the pandemic, however the debt overhang this has created could discourage those same firms from future borrowing and investment. The Government has been very clear that these loans will not be written off, but even speculation of this possibility has the potential to affect investment decisions as businesses may wait to see if the Government changes tack. “It is highly unlikely the Government will change policy, not least because it would result in a very significant increase to an already huge budget deficit. Although this year’s deficit is being funded largely by the Bank of England’s latest quantitative easing >



Gareth Hetherington

programme, the Government must not lose sight of its longer term fiscal credibility. “There is widespread acceptance that significant tax hikes in the short term would choke off any nascent economic recovery but signalling a clear intention to manage deficit down to sustainable levels, through either reduced spending or higher taxes in the longer term is important. “Over the last 40 years, the UK Government tended towards lower taxes whilst keeping a lid on spending, however, the decade of austerity following the financial crisis and now the economic impact of Covid-19 could have changed the public mood and we are now at an inflection point where government spending and taxes will both increase over the long term.” According to Andrew Webb, it won’t be a great surprise if an income tax increase is something on the cards in the coming months ahead.


“The inevitable question arising from the scale of government intervention is how it will be paid for,” he said. “There is probably a consensus that austerity will not fly again and I don’t see a strong move towards the Modern Monetary Theory approach of just printing the money, but who knows. “That leaves exceptionally long-term debt and tax increases as the likely approach. An ‘all options’ approach seems to be narrative at the moment. The EU has floated the idea of paying for its stimulus through carbon taxes, digital taxes and taxes on non-recycled plastics so there might be something in that for the UK to pursue. “There are also reports that UK corporation tax could edge up and that the VAT base could be broadened. Under the cover of how much we all appreciate the NHS, it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see an income tax increase wrapped up as being solely for the NHS.”

And while there has been an overall drop in insolvent business debt during across the UK, during the second quarter – according to Red Flag Alert – that’s likely to be short-lived. Corporate insolvencies may increase this winter, with new research from insolvency and restructuring trade body R3 indicating that a steep rise may start as early as this October. The R3 research – based on a member survey of insolvency and restructuring professionals – highlights that an overwhelming majority (93.7%) of respondents expect corporate insolvency numbers to rise over the next year, with more than 50% predicting that the increase will occur between October and December 2020. “More than half (56.1%) of those surveyed said that they expected corporate insolvency numbers would be significantly higher in 2020 than in 2019, while 37.6% thought they would be somewhat higher,” the organisation said. ■


Diaceutics secures fresh £4m growth funding Peter Keeling


elfast-based medical technology firm Diaceutics plc has raised a further £4m from Silicon Valley Bank’s UK branch to fund growth. The loan funding will support increased working capital requirements over the next three years to support international expansion and accelerated product development, including of its DXRX platform, the company said. The term loan from Silicon Valley Bank is an increase from the last term agreed between the parties, when £2.5m was raised to support working capital needs during 2018 and 2019.

need for a global standardised diagnostic process used in development and commercialisation of precision medicine diagnostic testing. There are 1,000 new precision medicines, which can be targeted to patients, currently in pharmaceutical company pipelines. Diaceutics shares were admitted to the London Stock Exchange’s junior Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in March 2019. Its 2019 annual results saw a 30% increase in revenues to £13.4m. Diaceutics spent £23m over several years developing DXRX, named after an industry shorthand for “diagnostics and therapy”.

Diaceutics, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) provides outsourced specialist services to clients including big pharmaceutical companies. It uses data drawn from a massive “lake” of 227 million anonymised patient records.

The diagnostics data platform is designed to connect 35 pharmaceutical firms, with more than 2,500 drug-testing labs worldwide and allow their anonymised patient data to be shared across a common platform for the first time.

Diaceutics says its DXRX product meets a

Commenting on the renewed partnership with


SVB, Philip White, chief financial officer, Diaceutics, said: “Our research shows that currently half of patients are missing out on precision medicine drugs due to inefficiencies in the testing ecosystem. In addition, the average precision medicine drug is launched four and half years before its companion diagnostic test is readily available to the eligible patient population. “We are actively working to reduce this lag time, driving testing standardisation through our services, enabled by our DXRX platform. “The DXRX network, in which more than £20m has already been invested, has the potential to completely transform the way key precision medicine stakeholders collaborate and to solve the problems facing the global precision testing ecosystem.” The firm employs 128 people in 19 countries including its headquarters in Belfast and a staff of 20 in Dundalk, Co Louth. ■



Does a magic money tree exist? Economist John Simpson assesses the case for and against extending the Government’s furlough system – which comes to an end this month – and what other avenues remain open for support to increase employment numbers in Northern Ireland


he Northern Ireland Executive has told the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it would like to see an extension of the furlough wages subsidy, created as a response to the pandemic.

The Chancellor has said that he and the UK Government are very reluctant to simply extend a scheme that, in terms of fiscal impact, is adding an exceptionally large amount to the UK borrowing requirement. John Simpson

The furlough scheme, initially paying up to 80% of employee’s normal earnings, was unique. As a defensive response to the pandemic it was an impressive and effective response to an unexpected crisis.

how and when (if ever) the large increase in Government debt can be repaid.

In the context of normal UK budgetary policies, the cost was well above any other recent emergency form of financial support to the economy.

In a time of exceptional emergency, today’s Government has passed a bill to succeeding generations. Voters will remember, when thethen Government faced budget cuts in a time of austerity, the defence of the cuts was, in easy language, that there is “no money tree”.

For some professional observers, there were initial doubts about the size of the cost. For the future, Governments will face the decisions on

That defence, sincerely meant at the time, now seems misplaced. The needs of an exceptional crisis have been met by drawing


down huge amounts from today’s money tree: Government borrowing to finance the furlough scheme and the Covid-19 spending has taken public sector finances off the scale for a peace-time economy. The request to extend the furlough scheme attracts two overlapping objections. First, the Government cannot reasonably go further continuously, in an open ended process, to borrow more funds from the financial markets. Second, the furlough scheme supports


the incomes of people to allow them to do nothing. Both of these arguments are unsatisfactory.

person is sitting outside their normal place of work but the business simply has no commercial workload to offer.

If the UK Government pushes its demands to borrow funds too far, then the risk is that the financial markets would begin to doubt the credibility of the UK finances and, as an initial response, interest rates would begin to rise and, going further, the UK might lose credibility as a stable financial base.

The Chancellor has tried to soften the strain of phasing out the furlough payments. Gradually, in October and November, the original employer is being told that they must pay an increased proportion of the costs, initially another 10%. Employers were told of this formula right from the outset.

The second objection is well founded. The UK government (and the devolved administrations) should have a higher priority for the support of people gaining employment than for a scheme that provides funding to people based on a statement that they have no real job to do.

The incentive is there for businesses to rebuild their order books and get back to normal market conditions.

Funding to encourage people back into employment is to be preferred. Those objections are easily understood but not if a


In turn, the Kick Start scheme and similar new employment schemes can form a more enduring response. The injection of support funding for the completion of apprenticeships also

complements the shift to seeking new jobs. In the search for a market led economic recovery, there remain questions for the local Executive. The Chancellor has a critical role in harnessing UK wide responses. That, however, still leaves room for local initiatives by the devolved institutions. Stormont Ministers have been allocated a much larger Stormont budget. There are critical questions to be asked about the use of Stormont discretion in job creation, whether in capital projects or other community support projects. The Minister for the Economy has launched two small but useful schemes. Northern Ireland needs well targeted policies to rebuild the economy; both UK wide and local. Do Executive Ministers have a supportive agenda ready for delivery? â–



Walled City Brewery seizes opportunities to diversify with help from Bank of Ireland UK


ames Huey and his partner launched the Walled City Brewery in Londonderry in 2015, to in his words, “create an experience and to tell the story of their city through food and drink.” And that is where the relationship with Bank of Ireland UK began. James says: “Bank of Ireland UK understood our idea and could see the potential, because it was never simply about opening a brewery.” From the outset, their plans included developing new lines, expanding the premises to enable tours and tastings, building a function room and creating a larger distillery, allowing the team to think beyond beer. The first of those plans came to fruition in March with the launch of Earhart Gin, named after the aviator Amelia Earhart, who landed north of Derry in 1932. With an attention to detail that has won the business multiple awards since opening, James sourced the drink’s botanicals from the meadow where Amelia landed her plane. Soon after the high of the launch came the blow of lockdown, and after taking the difficult decision to close their doors, place staff on furlough, and reduce costs where possible, James says there was a real sense of ‘what now?’.

Ian Stone, relationship manager, Bank of Ireland UK with James Huey, co-founder of the Walled City Brewery

space to look at what we could do as a business, so we focused on gin production and looked at ways we could help locally.” First came the launch of ‘Community Spirit’, turning donations of unwanted spirits from the local community into hand sanitiser which they donated to local charities who were struggling to get sufficient such as Age Concern. Then at the start of April, James launched ‘Tap Fresh’, their craft beer on tap, bottled and delivered to customers right across the city. Crucially, the initiative enabled James to keep brewing as well as staying in touch with his valued customers.

Their priority was to ensure local suppliers were paid. James spoke to Bank of Ireland UK and they provided an emergency overdraft to ease cashflow. Ian Stone, relationship manager, Bank of Ireland UK said: “When lockdown happened, as well as providing the overdraft we also discussed the newly available Bounce Back Loan and moved swiftly to secure that to give James the support he needed through what was to be a very challenging period.” James says: “The loan gave us the breathing


James’s creative response to lockdown saw him create multiple revenue streams that as he says – helped the business to jump into “wee lifeboats”. With an often busy Ebrington Square filled with walkers getting their hour of fresh air during lockdown, James opened Brewdock, from where they now sell takeaway coffee for passers-by. As the summer arrived, James wasn’t contemplating re-opening the restaurant,

but with social distancing eased, it made it feasible to break even. The newly developed Eat Out to Help Out scheme also made it a viable and an indeed attractive proposition. Welcoming staff returning from furlough who were eager to come back was a real milestone in the business returning to a new normal and with the success of the Government scheme, James moved very quickly to opening seven days a week to meet demand. James says: “The bank’s support throughout the pandemic was invaluable. I was in very regular contact with Ian talking about ways to manage. We realise now that for all our plans, developing an outdoor space is a huge priority. In recent months we’ve learned the importance of adapting and diversifying and they’re important lessons that have brought us through 2020 and will make us a stronger business going forward.” Ian Stone said: “We’re delighted to see James and the business come through this crisis so positively. We know how ambitious he is and we will do all we can to support him. It was fantastically rewarding seeing him reopening his doors to the public while he continued to diversify.” ■


Long-awaited interconnector given full green light


new long-awaited cross-border electricity connection will lead to lower consumer costs and ensure a secure long-term supply, its been claimed Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon confirmed the North-south interconnector has been given planning permission.

electricity supply. SONI managing director Jo Aston said the interconnector is “undoubtedly the most important infrastructure scheme on the island today”.

It will create a 400kv overhead electricity line stretching for 138km from Co Tyrone to Co Meath, and has been described as “crucial” for handling growing demand across the island.

Paul Stapleton, managing director of NIE Networks, said: “It will bring increased benefits including improving the reliability and security of supply, enabling cheaper electricity generation and facilitating the connection of more renewable energy to the network.”

Applications were previously approved by the Department for Infrastructure in 2018. However, a legal challenge saw the applications quashed and sent back to officials for determination. Ms Mallon said the project was “of strategic importance for our island economy”.

Steven Agnew, head of the Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG) says the interconnector is “the most significant infrastructure project of our generation and will deliver very real, tangible benefits for consumers, the economy and the environment”.

“The North-south Electricity Interconnector remains crucial to handling growing demand across the electricity transmission systems across the island of Ireland, promoting greater competition within the Single Electricity Market (SEM) for wholesale electricity trading and to protecting security of supply,” she said.

“This is a particularly significant moment for the renewables sector, as the interconnector’s construction is vitally important in our fight against climate change. Its creation will allow for the efficient flow of renewable electricity across the border in both directions, allowing us to capitalise on the scale of opportunity that exists locally.”

“It will also enhance network stability and support the future growth of renewable generation and help support our economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. These economic and system benefits will benefit citizens across our community.”

Jim Lennon, chairman of Seat (Safe Electricity Armagh and Tyrone), said: “The world has changed dramatically in the past eight months, let alone the 13 years since the rationale for the interconnector was first put forward.

SONI, the electricity System Operator for Northern Ireland, welcomed the decision, which it said will be a “catalyst” for the region’s response to climate change, reduce consumer costs and provide a secure long-term

“Given the painful shortcomings which were exposed by the RHI scandal, it would be rash to proceed with one of the largest investments ever in our energy infrastructure without an up-to-date energy policy framework.” ■


The NI asset finance sales team: Jenna Gass, Emma Blair, Garvan McCauley, Rose McMullan, Cathy McGale and Frank Coffey


Close Brothers appoints new sales director in Northern Ireland


lose Brothers Commercial Finance, part of Close Brothers Group plc, has appointed Frank Coffey as sales director in Northern Ireland. He has joined the Belfast office as sales director for Co Antrim. His new role will focus on business development, as Close Brothers Commercial Finance aims to grow its businessto-business customer base in the area.

“I hope to demonstrate my enthusiasm, talking directly to business owners to help them find innovative and bespoke funding solutions.” Emma Blair, regional sales director, said: “At Close Brothers, we are committed to a peoplecentred approach which allows us to work closely with businesses and tailor supportive solutions.

Frank has over 22 years of experience in finance. He started his career at Bank of Ireland and most recently held the position of relationship director at Lombard North Central, based in Belfast.

“Frank is a highly experienced and wellrespected professional. His appointment to sales director further strengthens our Northern Ireland sales force, enabling us to continue offering funding expertise and exceptional service.

“I am delighted to join Close Brothers. The banking group’s reputation for excellent customer service precedes them, and I look forward to supporting businesses in Co Antrim and surrounding areas,” Frank said.

“Having lived in Northern Ireland for many years, Frank has both the local knowledge and skill to develop strong relationships with all kinds of businesses in the area. I look forward to working with him to help SMEs.” ■

“The role presents a great opportunity to contribute to the local economy, drive commercial objectives forward and ensure customers have the best experience possible.

Visit the Close Brothers Commercial Finance website to find out more about the sustainable finance packages it offers: www. or call 028 9099 6935


Frank Coffey

CLOSE BROTHERS: modern merchant banking Close Brothers is a merchant banking group in the UK and Ireland providing lending, deposit taking, wealth management services, and securities trading. Close Brothers Group plc is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is a member of the FTSE 250. The firm’s core purpose is to help the people and businesses of Ireland and Britain succeed over the long term. To achieve this, all of its diverse, specialist businesses have a deep industry knowledge, so can understand the challenges and opportunities that our customers and clients face. The company supports the unique needs of its customers and clients.



The full economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet known and may not be known for some time, writes Maeve Hunt, chairman of Chartered Accountants Ulster Society

Maeve Hunt



Help is still needed for the approaching storm


usinesses in Northern Ireland are making unprecedented efforts to stay afloat and retain as many of their employees as possible. Brexit negotiations are also continuing, overshadowed for many at present by the public health emergency. These challenges create a perfect storm for the business community as we move towards the final quarter of the year. Some businesses will be required to reimagine how they function and how they provide goods or services to their customers; others will have to divert into entirely new business areas. Chartered Accountants Ireland, Ireland’s largest professional body for accountants, in its recent policy document ‘The Next Financial Year’ has published key recommendations for government to help SMEs to survive this time of crisis, and to rebuild into the future. The Government, regulators and tax authorities have provided support, through various initiatives and this is to be commended. However, there are areas which need improvement. Public policy must be focused on providing maximum support and, most importantly, flexibility to businesses. The priority must be supporting the businesses that are viable into the future and ensuring that they do not fail due to lack of funding or because of unworkable supports.

The Bounce Back Loan Scheme for instance has not required any test of future viability and there has been significant uptake (Danske Bank reported £50m in the first week), with approval subject to a simple application and the level of funding capped at £50,000, subject only to a cap of 25% of turnover. There are some concerns that many businesses


will avail of this loan scheme but ultimately be unable to repay for a variety of reasons, and as yet there has been no clear guidance on how government guarantees and debt recovery will work in practice. Such guidance would be helpful for businesses to fully understand their position in the event that repayment is not possible. Similarly, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Scheme (CLBILS) are and will be a vital element of support for businesses, particularly as other schemes (such as job retention and tax deferrals) are withdrawn. These loan schemes support the banks with 80% government guarantees and therefore benefit businesses, increasing the probability of successful loan applications in these challenging times. The availability of these schemes however has been confirmed only for an initial six-month period from their launch on March 23 this year. Chartered Accountants Ireland has called for these to be extended for at least a further six months, and ideally longer, as without them the banks will have to take on the full risk and are therefore likely to be challenged in lending to businesses in financial distress through a combination of the economic impact of Covid-19 and the planned withdrawal of other supports. Withdrawing all supports without the option of debt through a government-guaranteed loan scheme to soften cash-flow impacts would present significant challenges for both banks and businesses. Chartered Accountants Ireland has also called for increased support for the education and adoption of digital competencies across the business community through increased grantfunded programmes.

Businesses that have digital capabilities and presence have fared significantly better since March than those that do not. The Covid-19 lockdown has highlighted the power of online retail and remote working, which have created a demand from customers and staff that will continue post-pandemic. Embracing digitalisation will strengthen the resilience of businesses into the future and will be expected by their customers and employees. Many SMEs, however, are unsure about how to approach this challenge, so government supports should be put in place to support digitalisation within businesses. DigitaliseSME was an EU-funded programme supporting the digital transformation of SMEs, connecting companies to digital experts, referred to as ‘Digital Enablers’. It held its closing conference in February 2020. Chartered Accountants Ireland has called on the Government to consider establishing similar supports to those that were available under this programme, which should also include toolkits and methodologies to enable businesses to digitalise. Furthermore, it is essential that business leaders have the skillset and are empowered to drive digital transformation. These support programmes could be run by Invest NI. The pandemic has exposed a vulnerability in the ability of SMEs to survive, but many have risen to the challenge with the help of various government supports and initiatives. This must continue into the months ahead. ■ A full programme of suggested business improvements, taxation suggestions and SME proposals to help Northern Ireland businesses adapt to the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis are available in Chartered Accountants Ireland’s ‘Next Financial Year’ document, available at



Belfast’s Hillview Retail Park to relaunch as Lidl signs up By Emma Deighan


iscount retailers Lidl and Home Bargains are snapping up key units at a north Belfast retail park which has lain dormant for a decade.

Hillview Retail Park on the Crumlin Road, owned by Killultagh Estate’s Hillview Belfast Limited, has announced Lidl, Home Bargains and a day centre for the elderly as its first tenants when it reopens next year. Alan Mains, who is a consultant to the developer, said the new tenants will “harmonise together, driving footfall”. He said: “There are several units there, with three or four still to be filled, but there is work ongoing at advanced stages to secure names and we know that now we’ve established the big brands, the rest will follow.” He said further interested parties include a mix of retail and leisure businesses. Mr Mains said work on the site would begin this month with an opening planned for January for Lidl, and Home Bargains set to open soon after. “It’s a retail park that will offer leisure and essentials. It’s a product that everyone can use,” he said. “This is a good news story for the area. The site has been empty and it will now create jobs and serve the community who had ordinarily been travelling a lot further to shop.”


Lidl will create 30 jobs while Home Bargains will recruit around 15 staff members. During the construction phase is it anticipated that a further 30 roles will be created.

Killultagh Estates, led by Frank Boyd, also owns Connswater Shopping Centre in the east of the city.

Mr Mains said the development will amount to “several million pounds of investment”. The businessman, who has acted as a negotiator between the developer and potential clients, has also submitted plans for 18 new homes on the same site.

Securing Lidl as an anchor tenant is now a major step in its redevelopment. Dunnes, the last anchor tenant on the site, left in 2007. Lidl confirmed that it will be the anchor but said it had no further statement. The site could also be in line to feature a drive-through restaurant – which was part of plans previously approved in 2016.

“They will be ready late next year,” he revealed. “We hope to be on site building the properties within the next six months.” It is likely that the new residential development will become a social housing scheme.

Hillview Centre Belfast is also in talks with other potential clients to fill a further four units. While Alan Mains, a facilitator for the deals, would not reveal the identity of those also due to come on board, he said they feature both retail and leisure businesses. ■

Commercial property & construction Sponsored by


Infrastructure and investment: what happens to our major schemes now? Billions of pounds have been earmarked for both huge infrastructure schemes and private masterplans in Northern Ireland. But after the initial shock of a crisis like no other, a fraction of office workers returning, Belfast hotels running at 21% capacity this summer and reported demand for properties with gardens and private outdoor areas, John Mulgrew examines where some of the schemes sit now, and what impact the last few months could have on their futures  CITY QUAYS 3 What is now the tallest office building in Northern Ireland after being topped out, City Quays 3 is the largest office scheme to be developed by Belfast Harbour – a 16-storey structure. The Harbour has the ability to build without any significant prelettings due to the strength of its balance sheet and the fact it owns the land. At the time of print, work was well-progressed for the scheme, but no tenants had been announced. The City Quays developments have been significantly quieter in the last few months – some of the international firms which call the area home have been entirely, are almost entirely, working from home. There remains a requirement for a large new head office for an international financial services business in the city and City Quays 3 could remain one option when completed.

 NORTH-SOUTH INTERCONNECTOR Another regionally significant planning application which would see electricity grids connected between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A secure and stable connection and supplying chain is likely something which will only be seen as more important post-crisis and with Brexit on the horizon. The scheme has now been given the green light in Northern Ireland and already has permission in the Republic.



 ARC 21 WASTE-TO-ENERGY PLANT A scheme which has rattled on for around 15 years, the proposed £240m development would deal with 300,000 tonnes of black bin waste from six Northern Ireland councils. It was turned down by former Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, then green lit by civil servants and permission was then overturned in the courts with a lack of Executive in place. Now, it’s on the desk of Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. The Covid-19 crisis is unlikely to play much of a part in whether the scheme receives approval.

 YORK STREET INTERCHANGE A long-awaited development, thought to cost between £120m and £165m, the project is intended to address a major traffic bottleneck to the north of Belfast city centre. It was subject to a successful legal challenge over the tendering process, and is now subject to a review. While it’s been earmarked for some time, no funding has been ringfenced for the scheme’s construction, so an assessment of Executive priorities is likely to be examined to see whether government coffers are sufficient, once the current, and future cost, of Covid can be examined.


 KING’S HALL HEALTH AND WELLBEING PARK The grand plans by Benmore of converting the former King’s Hall in south Belfast into a large health park remain well on track, according to the firm. It’s a scheme which is likely to be in increasing in demand amid a health crisis which we haven’t faced in multiple generations. The extended site will include care for the elderly and assisted living accommodation, a mixed-use medical facility and a multi-storey car park. In May, it was announced Nugent Hall, which is adjacent to the main King’s Hall building, had been made watertight and refitted with electricity to allow the safe storage of face masks, protective gowns and other PPE.

 TRIBECA A huge mixed-use scheme dating back more than 20 years, the proposed development – formerly called Royal Exchange – has just received outline planning permission for a claimed £500m total proposed investment. But even in just the last few of years, it has undergone several iterations – moving from a huge retail-led scheme, to one bolstered by office and residential. But an almost 500,000 sq ft allocation of grade A office space is one element which is likely to be at least re-examined, if not revised down. Work has already begun on some early elements of the development, by Castlebrooke, around the Lower Garfield Street area of the city centre. While there is already provision for around 380,000 sq ft of residential, it’s not clear whether some of the office elements could be repurposed, depending on how office demand fares over the coming year or two.



 SIROCCO Another of Belfast’s large-scale legacy proposed schemes which would see a huge £400m development at the former Sirocco Works close to the city centre. It’s as equally as ambitious a scheme as Tribeca, purports to be able to create more than 8,000 jobs and provide homes for 1,500 people. It’s a mixed-use proposal, with serviced apartments, hotels and restaurants. But again, there’s a huge focus on grade A office space – more than 800,000 sq ft in this case. Outline permission has been granted but again, a reassessment of the office demand is possible while plans for significant residential could help Belfast City Council achieve its very ambitious target of increasing the number of people living in the city to rise to 66,000 by 2035 – an increase of almost double the current levels.

 MERCHANT SQUARE One of the major office schemes pre-let in Belfast before the onset of the coronavirus crisis. The building on Wellington Place by Gareth Graham’s Oakland Holdings is now in possession of its new tenants, PwC, and is beginning the shift from its previous offices at Waterfront Plaza. The company has signed a long-term lease for the entire building, which comprises 200,000 sq ft of office space across nine floors.


 BEDFORD SQUARE Not far from Merchant Square, work is well under way on Bedford Square. It will see a major new 17-storey building connected to the listed former Ewart’s Warehouse. Last year, professional services firm Deloitte announced it would take on the building as its new head office in Northern Ireland. Work continues on the building by Northern Ireland construction giant McAleer and Rushe and given an anchor tenant is on board it’s likely any changes to the plans at this stage would only be around smaller amendments to the overall scheme’s internals to deal with elements such as social distancing.





Several large student schemes are either completed, or now well under way in the north end of the city centre. However, it’s not yet clear what a reduction in the number of students attending university in the coming term, and in particular students from abroad which are the main targets for new highend accommodation schemes, will have on both demand and the speed in which other buildings are constructed. The completed scheme at 26-44 Little Patrick Street has already submitted a temporary change of use for seven of the building’s floors from student accommodation to ‘apart-hotel’ use.

What is probably the most controversial regionally significant planning application to be dealt with here in the last few years, Dalradian’s plans for a gold mine in Co Tyrone have continued for several years. But it was announced this summer by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon that the planning application for the Dalradian mine project will be the subject of an independent public inquiry. Elements of the scheme have changed since it was first mooted, including the removal of the use of cyanide in its extraction process. In June the company said the inquiry was a “key milestone in the planning process of a


One of the only major office developments to submit full planning for Belfast this summer. The scheme is a proposed 14-storey office building, of around 225,000 sq ft at 102-127 Grosvenor Road, opposite what will become the new Belfast Transport Hub. Developers worked through lockdown to design and prepare the requisite supporting report for the planning application, which was submitted in August. regionally significant project which will be a major economic opportunity for Northern Ireland… the inquiry will provide a further forum in which to engage on the facts of the project and to hear from all stakeholders”. A decision on granting the scheme or whether the developers continue to push ahead is unlikely to be impacted directly by the current crisis. ■



The office is changing… but development underway By Richard McCaig, associate director, Osborne King


he struggles and benefits of home working have been discussed at length in recent months either virtually or over a socially distanced cup of coffee for those who have returned in some form to the office.

has suffered significantly and there is a long way to go before we will see the numbers on city centre streets that was so common in a pre-Covid world, but the proposed investment in a new £12m aquarium should further enhance Belfast’s offering as a destination city.

Many professional services businesses offered a level of flexibility and home working but I am sure few foresaw such a sea change within

Additionally we saw the launch of The Vantage a 67,500 sq ft office project on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street by MRP, which has

a few weeks. There is no doubt that many aspects of work across differing sectors can be completed from home effectively but what does that mean for businesses, their employees and the office space that they occupy?

demonstrated its commitment to Belfast by investing £25m in a former government office building to deliver a high-end space.

In recent weeks we have seen significant announcements regarding developments across Belfast. The Tribeca scheme which has caused controversy in many quarters was granted planning permission by Belfast City Council, like it or loath it, there is a significant commitment of private sector money in Belfast. Having been working from the office for a number of weeks it has been great to see tourists starting to return. Clearly the sector

Having spoken to a number of office occupiers in the last few months ranging from small local firms to multi-nationals two main themes have been consistent. A flexible approach to working is here to stay for the foreseeable future and business still require some form of office presence to give them prominence and identity. Furthermore the amount of space occupied may indeed reduce but the quality of the space will have even more importance. The traditional image of rows and rows of desks with calls and emails be made and What The Vantage could look like when completed

Richard McCaig

received in earnest is gone, but the need to meet and converse face to face will remain in most sectors. This may be to deliver knowledge or training to new staff, meeting colleagues to discuss a major project or indeed delivering a personal touch when trying to generate or win new business. The office environment is changing, but it will still exist. People’s opinions may differ on whether they physically be in the office the majority of the week, which will be influenced by their job role and circumstances, but you can guarantee that employees will ultimately want to feel a sense of ownership and belonging, things which are also key if an employer is to get the best of someone’s skill and talent. Northern Ireland has established itself as a ‘go to’ destination for tech companies over the last few years, mainly based on the quality of our graduates. Against the backdrop of wider uncertainty in the jobs market there have been a number of positive announcements including PEAK6 creating 160 jobs over the next four years. Additionally New York based Qarik have grown their Belfast team to 50 people. ■



A busy summer but headwinds and stasis remain Mills Selig director Anne Skeggs and her team have had a busy summer dealing with the commercial fall out from a struggling high street and beyond. But while there’s a pause in the big deals, there remains some activity in the property market, buoyed on by Government assistance


hile there may be some pause for thought among commercial property investors here as the industry gets a grasp on demand, for

“Then when lockdown happened, large commercial acquisitions went very quiet and we moved towards management of properties for landlords and tenants, especially hospitality

residential market, as once furlough is lifted we are expecting to see businesses collapse, alongside redundancies.”

Anne Skeggs and her team, other areas within the department have significant uplift.

sectors – some tenants unable to pay their rents.

However, she says high-value residential property sales have surged following the reopening of the property market postlockdown, while developers are both “busy building and looking for new sites”.

And according to the director of Mills Selig’s property division, the last few months have seen a renewed surge in both the residential sales market, and the further acquisition and development of new housing sites. Anne is one of Northern Ireland’s leading commercial property lawyers, and is highly experienced in all aspects of commercial property transactions, acting for developers, investors, financial institutions, landlords and tenants. And unsurprisingly, one of the areas she’s seen a surge in activity in the last few months is advising both landlords and tenants – many struggling to keep their head above water amid lockdown, and the subsequent decrease in demand and footfall. Looking back, she says that the property market was going well prior to lockdown; and that her team continued to complete large commercial property deals during the early stages.

“We have been on the end of the phone and email to advise landlords and tenants on the moratorium on enforcement and the Government’s voluntary code of practice for the commercial property sector. With the moratorium being lifted at the end of September a number of tenants are trying to reach agreements with their landlords on unpaid rent before enforcement options are back on the table once more,” Anne says. “There remains a big legacy of debt, with tenants in difficulty and not being in a position to pay rent.” She says the team has been busy all summer helping to document concession and deferral agreements, such as rent free periods, and regearing of leases. However, as far as big office or investment deals go, the sector is on somewhat of a hiatus, until investors can establish what the landscape will look like in the coming months.

“The market was improving, after a lumpy 2019 when it was reacting to Brexit negotiations and a lack of local government.

“When we look at the big deals, they aren’t really happening,” she said. “There is a lot of pause for thought around ‘what is going to be a good investment’ and ‘is the market going to see a drop off’?

“Going into lockdown, the atmosphere in commercial property was ‘let’s get things done’.

“And there are some concerns around the property market, which could impact not only commercial business premises, but also the


“What we have seen with the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) holiday is demand in the higher end of the residential property market during the SDLT holiday, while the saving does not impact so much on a large number of residential property transactions in Northern Ireland where SDLT was already at a very low rate. “We have to see. I would expect as redundancies bite, there may be some cooling off in the current attitude to house buying.” But as far as the rhetoric around ‘the office is dead’ amid a massive surge in homeworking, Anne says while the sector will undoubtedly see change that there will remain demand, especially as some firms look towards larger, more spaced out workplaces to deal with social distancing. Working from home I am sure is here to stay but not as a permanent or every day feature of working life. We are social beings who enjoy the interaction that comes with working together in person – be that collaboration, training, innovation or simply a bit of craic. Also travel to the office is not onerous or uncomfortable for most office workers in Northern Ireland having


on average a short and pleasant commute compared to other cities in the UK. “There’s some argument that people may invest in more space – some companies may have been crammed into small buildings. Equally, businesses will be assessing how flexible they can be with space – some working from home and some in the office. “From our own perspective, here at Mills Selig, its

Anne Skeggs

all about our relationships with our clients and we have found our clients want to meet with us in person. Nothing is quite the same over Zoom. “When things have gone back to ‘normal’ its about learning the lessons and making sure businesses behave as effectively and efficiently as they can, so they are in a position to react to a situation such as this again. “As for particular sectors showing difficulties at the moment, it’s no surprise given the landscape that retail, hospitality and leisure are those being hit hardest.“Some particular businesses in the industrial sectors in the property market.” Anne’s been with Mills Selig since 2007, studying at Birmingham University before beginning her legal career with a City law firm in London. She now heads up a nine-strong team of lawyers – working across a range of areas of property, including specialisation in sectors such as telecoms and energy. “We do all things property – from everyday conveyancing of houses to the commercial property aspects of the Wrightbus acquisition,” she says.


As for the future, Anne sees a quiet end to 2020 but says the true impact to both the office and retail market won’t be fully felt for some time yet. ■



Work starts on £25m city office


ork has begun on a new £25m ‘hybrid’ office development in the heart of Belfast city centre which is due to play host to almost 600 staff when completed. The Vantage will open on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street in the second quarter of 2021. It’s being developed by MRP, the property division of construction business McAleer & Rushe. Construction has already commenced during which 150 jobs will be supported, with a further 750 permanent roles to be facilitated within the building across a range of business sectors upon completion of the works. The scheme will see 67,500 sq ft of premium city centre office space being developed. Lambert Smith Hampton and Osborne King have been jointly appointed as letting agents for the project. “The Vantage is a real show of confidence in the local economy following the disruption caused by coronavirus,” Stephen Surphlis, managing director of MRP, said: “We are excited to be bringing to the market a building that offers tenants a truly next generation working environment. Born for


21st century industry, the building’s city centre positioning and unrivalled transport connections offer tenants an enviable location at the centre of all that Belfast has to offer. “The excellent natural light combined with attractive open ceilings creates a superb environment where employees can collaborate, be inspired, be comfortable, thrive and grow. Conscious that more people than ever before will be connecting with colleagues virtually, the building will also be certified for the highest level of internet connectivity.” The office scheme is being designed around a “hybrid working model” as an increasing number of companies and staff work from home. “The Vantage will fit traditional working arrangements and also appeal to companies who are adjusting to a more flexible, hybrid working model, where remote working can fit seamlessly into their daily operations,” it said. The building will also include an 11th floor penthouse balcony, double-height reception and “a range of staff wellbeing amenities including showers, drying cupboards, changing facilities and bicycle storage”. Richard McCaig, Osborne King, said

that “when it opens in early 2021, the building will be an excellent option for occupiers given limited stock of genuine grade A space in the city”. “The level of detail from the project team has been second to none and we are excited to show off the finished product,” he said. Greg Henry, Lambert Smith Hampton, said: “The Vantage offers a level of quality that more than meets the needs of today’s modern office, whether that be for a growing tech firm or established professional services firm. The building benefits from superb amenities, which we know will be increasingly important to employers who may have more of their workforce working remotely or in the office part time for the foreseeable future.” ■


Dublin city centre

Irish builders call for £13.7bn to be pumped into sector to fuel growth By John Mulligan


reland’s construction sector body says €15bn (£13.7bn) needs to be injected into infrastructure and housing projects over the next six years to tackle the impact of the pandemic on the sector. The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) made the plea to government in its pre-Budget submission made after a meeting between the federation, Ireland’s Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath. An analysis prepared for the CIF by economic advisory EY-DKM that forms part of the federation’s submission predicts that for every €1bn (£900m) invested in infrastructure, and additional €1.85bn (£1.69bn) is added to gross domestic product. It also results in 1,200 additional full-time jobs, €140m (£128m) in revenue for the Exchequer, and €680m (£620m) circulating in the economy in terms of wages and profits, the research claims.


The lockdown here saw the construction sector here effectively closed for a number of weeks earlier this year. The Ulster Bank Construction Industry Purchasing Managers’ Index showed that activity in the sector sank last month following a post-lockdown surge. Most construction firms have also reported a fall in orders. “The Government has a unique opportunity to drive our recovery, solve the housing crisis, build climate change resilience and facilitate our Covid-19 response by increasing investment in infrastructure, housing, and other construction activity,” according to CIF director general Tom Parlon. He said CIF members have reported a 45% year-on-year decrease in housing starts and infrastructure projects, particularly in regional Ireland. “The CIF will engage with Government to identify key projects based on the immediate

need for stimulus and sustainable and balanced regional development within the National Development Plan and Project Ireland 2040,” Mr Parlon said. But even if, the Government decided to plough money in infrastructure projects, they could be so delayed that their economic impact would not be felt for years. Dublin’s Metro project, for instance, has been talked about for decades. Mr Parlon said that the potential for the construction sector to lift the economy will be “stymied without radical changes in how the State engages with the industry”. “The current system, involving multiple bureaucratic, regulatory and political objectives, adds cost and delay to the delivery of private and public construction,” he said. The CIF wants the Government to extend the generous help-to-buy scheme for homebuyers until at least 2025. ■



Entrepreneur of the Month How is business? There is no question that these are challenging times for businesses, and Workplus is no exception. Workplus, which helps organisations develop talent through apprenticeships, was established as an independent company last year. Little did I think in March 2019 that that my first year of business would involve a global pandemic, lockdown and then a recession. While the picture of the first 18 months of start-up is different than originally planned, it is not entirely bleak. We have been financed by the UK Government through Innovate UK to develop our platform as a response to Covid-19 and we are working with leading companies across various sectors in Northern Ireland as we change how our culture views apprenticeships. How did you get started in the industry? I’m a civil engineer by trade – I still love a well-designed bridge. That led me to take up the position of regional director for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in 2011. It was in that role that I established Workplus, which was born out of an appetite from ICE members to create a civil engineering apprenticeship programme. It soon became one of my favourite aspects of the job and I loved the ethos of it – working with young people, employers, educators and government to offer young people opportunities to ‘earn and learn’, gaining debt-free degrees and developing and growing their knowledge and experience. Typically, who are your clients and customers? Workplus originally began as an apprenticeship scheme for civil engineering firms. Since it was established as an independent company last year, Workplus has broadened its apprenticeship offering and today my clients, which include AECOM, Farrans, Liberty IT and NIE, are employing apprentices in IT, engineering, construction, administration and accountancy roles. Do you enjoy what you do, and what in particular? I was recently asked ‘what’s your exit strategy?’ I had to answer truthfully that I don’t have one because I don’t ever want to stop


helping people find work. As a business owner, I’ve come to realise that your business is an outworking of who you are. One of the highlights of my job has been speaking with young people and parents. It is always great to see their reaction when I tell them that our apprentices get real jobs, a starting salary up to £19,000 depending on entry level, as well as access to training and professional networks that will transform their lives. They also benefit from being mentored at work and avoiding student debt. Fundamentally, I believe in the ethos behind apprenticeships, of young people, employers, educators and government working together. It’s collaboration in its purest form and that in itself is deeply motivating and refreshing. What is the most difficult part of your job? Workplus is redefining work and education. Changing a culture is never going to be easy. Proverbially speaking, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon – and one I believe that’s worth running. While many employers – including some of the world’s biggest blue chip and financial corporations – have already caught the vision and experienced the benefits: fresh, enthusiastic new talent which can been trained and moulded to fit a company’s exact needs, other businesses have yet to learn how well it can work for them. It is also about changing a culture among young people and helping them to see the opportunities available for all levels of academic ability. What are the challenges facing your sector and the economy in general? These are unprecedented times across many sectors, but challenges also present opportunities. The value of apprenticeships and their role in ‘bouncing back’ is widely recognised, including at government level. Economy Minister Diane Dodds said recently: ‘The role of apprenticeships in our economic rebuilding cannot be over-stated. We need a skilled workforce to drive forward recovery’. I would agree and would add that we can rebuild better. We can rebuild in a way that embeds a culture of apprenticeships across all sectors in Northern Ireland, helps our people develop new skills and grows our economy. ■

Health at work


Keeping us healthy in a new working environment Working from home could become the biggest corporate legacy of Covid-19, but the emotional fallout of being cooped up at home is taking its toll on workers and work performance. Emma Deighan looks at the role the employer plays now the office has moved into the front room... at least for now


emote working can create feelings of isolation and employers should be sensitive to the aspects of environment’.

Professor Durkin says staff should always be the primary asset of any business with their safety and wellbeing key to performance. He advises employers to take a flexible approach.

That’s according to Professor Mark Durkin, executive dean at the Ulster University Business School, who says the safety and wellbeing of staff has never been as important, and firms here must take a flexible approach to the changing working environment.

“The safety and wellbeing of staff is the key objective we must all have in mind and, for me, safety and wellbeing are linked,” he said.

As Government guidance still supports working from home (WFM) where possible, the shift in how we live and work has, in many instances, impacted on the emotional wellbeing of employees. The top business professor here a leading mental health charity both advise employers to take action to prevent the backlash of homeworking damaging not only business, but their primary assets, the employees.


“As staff feel they are being kept safe their sense of wellbeing is bolstered but more generally a sense of wellbeing can be instilled through the adoption of a more flexible working model. “Many staff will have, or have had, caring and home schooling responsibilities and may feel a greater sense of well-being where there is an explicit commitment from employers to allow staff a greater level of empowerment to deliver to work deadlines and objectives in ways that best suits their specific circumstances.

“For some this might be early morning or late evening work patterns with some downtime through the day (parental visits/checks, school pickups).” He also said employers must monitor staffing workloads, ensuring an ‘overcompensatory’ mindset does not manifest in the WFM team. “Guarding against presenteeism is also important as working from home some staff may find the work/home life boundary more


difficult to observe and may overwork for a range of reasons,” he said. “Employers demonstrating enhanced levels of empathy, flexibility and trust around this current crisis will instil a greater sense of wellbeing in staff and likely engender higher levels of employee commitment.” A ‘stress awareness study’ carried out by one UK firm unveiled the biggest challenges about working from home.


It cited a loss of interaction with colleagues as the biggest emotional challenge facing teams around the UK. Of the 1,500 people it surveyed, more than 30% cited it as a direct cause of stress. This was followed by 27% citing childcare provisions as a cause of stress with almost 12% saying the online conference is the most stressful thing about working from home. Lack of satisfaction in the workplace can

reflect in a loss of productivity, sales and financial performance for many firms. It’s a stark reminder that taking care of employee wellbeing should be a priority for every business regardless of the current environment. Supporting employers on their quest to ensure staff wellbeing is top of the agenda for Action Mental Health. The training and consultancy service which works with some of Northern Ireland and the UK’s leading employers. >



Professor Mark Durkin

It has adapted its offering to reflect the new mental health issues facing employees today by providing new toolkits, digital and face-to-face training options including ‘Building Resilience through Uncertain Times’. These, and similar initiatives help equip employers and employees when negotiating the stress of the continuing pandemic. Within the offering is Action Mental Health’s ‘The Five Ways to Well-Being, Managing Stress and Building Resilience through Uncertain Times’ and ‘The Mindful Manager’ as well as ‘Working at Home to Keep Focus’. Collectively

a series of toolkits that will provide top tips on looking after your own mental health and managing stress, managing staff remotely, approaching conversations with staff around mental health issues, and direct you to sources of further support should you need it. “We know this is only a small step in the journey through Covid-19, but using some of the techniques from the toolkits, it is possible to surf the wave, and believe it or not – cope and work better together.

these courses will contribute to employees’ wellbeing as the home becomes a more permanent place of work for them.

Courses can be carried out on-site but, today, and more commonly, these are executed online.

The programmes not only help to improve employee engagement, but also to enhance performance and productivity, promote better employee retention, reduced employee absence and stress levels, it said.

Professor of management Dr Argyro Avgoustaki from ESCP Business School, which has six campuses across Europe, said any negative impacts WFM has on business should also prompt employers to avoid the ‘one-size-fits all’ approach to health and wellbeing.

Shelly Wilson, Action Mental Health works manager, said: “The outbreak of Covid-19 has brought with it many new challenges, both personally and professionally. With this in mind, the AMH Works team have developed


“Companies will experience negative employee outcomes such as a decrease in employee satisfaction and commitment and

increase in deviant behaviour,” he said. They will also experience negative firm outcomes such as lower productivity, sales, and financial performance. “The times when employers could rely on a one-size-fits all approach are ending, with employees progressively requiring and employers offering more customized arrangements.” Professor Durkin said: “It’s important to make sure staff feel connected both to each other and to their managers. Remote working can create feelings of isolation and employers should be sensitive to the aspects of environment and context that individual employees now find themselves.” We live in an extraordinary time and no one is certain as to what the future holds. What is certain though is that employees will need much greater support from their employers as they continue to work in unstable or uncomfortable environments, and we slowly return to some form of normality. This is not only crucial to individual success, but also for businesses as a whole. ■


Former north coast lifeboat shelter to become restaurant By Lisa Smyth


n old lifeboat shelter in Portrush will be turned into a licensed restaurant after plans were approved by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. The approval of the application, which was lodged by the council itself, followings warnings from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) that the building is under threat from flooding. Marine and fisheries officials at DAERA said they did not consider the scheme appropriate and would not be prepared to support installation of coastal protection measures if the restaurant plan goes ahead.

about the projected cost of the project or whether it plans to renovate the building itself and lease it out, or sell it with the planning permission in place.

“We were proposing using grants to carry out the work, which would allow the use of the building to remain true to the Landsdowne masterplan.”

Charity secretary John McNally accused the cash-strapped council of pressing ahead with the plans in an ill-advised attempt to generate revenue.

Mr McNally said it was hoped the building would subsequently be used by a variety of watersports’ groups, as well as helping to encourage more people into the area with the development of Portandhu Harbour.

The lifeboat shelter at Landsdowne in the town was built around 120 years ago and is currently empty. Mr McNally said: “We’re disappointed at the decision, we’re a not-for-profit organisation and we submitted a proposal to develop the building into a community, maritime heritage and water sports centre, and coffee shop, at no cost to the council.

And Portrush Building Preservation Trust has also hit out at the decision to convert the B2 listed building into a restaurant. It argued that another restaurant is not needed as there are already 15 restaurants, 15 cafes, two pizza outlets and four other fast food outlets in the area. The council has not responded to a query

The current old lifeboat shelter in Portrush

He also said a maritime centre would be at less risk from storms than the proposed restaurant due to the glass proposed for the spot. It will also have a roof terrace, surrounded by glass. A council spokesman said the planning department had presented an application for provision of a single storey side extension to existing vacant building, including internal refurbishment for the change of use to a licensed restaurant with a recommendation to approve. This was accompanied by a recommendation to grant consent for an associated application for listed building consent. “At the meeting the planning committee resolved to approve both applications,” he said. ■


Raising a glass to a whiskey dream Jack Teeling

Jack Teeling always wanted to succeed in his own business. With Teeling Whiskey Company, he has achieved that, writes Sean Pollock


multi-million-euro business deal may not be the life-changing news those in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin, expect to receive. Still, Jack Teeling, founder and managing director of Teeling Whiskey Company, didn’t have a choice.

was sitting in the pre-labour ward awaiting news of the birth of his second child.

In late 2011, Teeling, who was then managing director of the Cooley Distillery, a business his father John had set up in 1987,

He was shocked. “My wife was there, it was probably around two or three o’clock in the morning, and I had my BlackBerry at the time,”


A glance at his phone brought news, and it wasn’t the birth of his daughter. US drinks conglomerate Beam had received board approval to go ahead and buy the Cooley Distillery for €73m (£67m).

he says. “I got an email from a Beam director who said it just got board approval for the deal to happen. “It was the most surreal moment, just before my second daughter was born. Basically, Cooley was gone. I had gone through the whole year trying to keep the business going.” With the distillery now in the hands of the US drinks giant, Jack didn’t feel like sitting around. He felt now was the time to go out and stand on his own two feet.


Three months after news of the Beam Cooley deal, in March 2012, he registered his own business; Teeling Whiskey Company. A month later, after finishing his contract with Beam, he got to work on his own firm. Much like the phoenix rising from the ashes on the company’s logo, Teeling Whiskey has flourished in a market dominated by multinationals. It sold over one million bottles in 2019, with revenue hitting €18m (£16m) – well ahead of its forecast. But the rising phoenix of Irish whiskey has had its wings clipped this year. Covid-19 has forced Jack into an uncomfortable position – facing a year with no growth. “We are probably going to go back to where we were in terms of consolidated revenue in 2017 or 2018,” he says. “We are trying our best; working our hearts away.” While Covid-19 might put off the most enthusiastic entrepreneur, a passion for Irish business runs in the blood.

months, but 12 years later, I was still there.”

launch the brand into the US market.

Cutting his teeth at Cooley proved a shrewd move. Lessons learnt over his 12-year stint provided a clear vision of what he wanted his whiskey venture to be.

Three years later, he decided to go with international drinks conglomerate Bacardi for the US expansion, selling it equity in the business that valued Teeling Whiskey at around €80m (£73m) in 2017.

“I was very clear from the start that I knew what I wanted to do, I knew the type of brand I wanted it to be, and I knew the distillery location,” he says “It was great saying it, but the reality of delivering it was a different kettle of fish.”

Around this time he also received an unusual approach. Through an associate, Conor McGregor contacted Jack to ask him if he would be interested in providing the liquid for a then-unnamed Irish whiskey brand.

With the company set up, his brother

The brand became Proper No. Twelve.

Stephen left Beam in 2013 to join as sales and marketing director and helped drive the business on.

McGregor’s brand, which takes its liquid from Bushmills, was valued at around €200m (£182m) and has had success in the US.

Innovation was and continues to be at the heart of Teeling Whiskey. He felt Cooley was held back by its legacy brands. Alongside master distiller Alex Chasko, he set about using different casks to develop a unique taste. The culmination of this work was the launch of Teeling Whiskey’s first product.

“I hope it is successful,” he says of the brand. “What’s unusual [about] most of these brands that do well very quickly is that they tend to be faddish. The question would be whether it has staying power over the long term. “It’s something other than Jameson. People said it was Jameson’s category,” he says, referring to Jameson’s dominance of the industry. It’s not. Now it needs people doing different things within it to make it a proper, diverse category.

Growing up, his entrepreneurial father, John, known for his interests across whiskey, exploration and mining, instilled the importance of business in his family.

Taking a moment to enjoy success doesn’t come naturally to Jack. He was already thinking of the next challenge, finishing the first distillery to be developed in Dublin for 125 years.

As he grew older, Jack embraced the business world. In the late 1990s, he got into investment banking at Anglo Irish Bank, before moving to Australia to work in finance.

He chose a site in The Liberties, Dublin, 650 metres away from a distillery his family established in 1782. In 2015, following a €10m (£9m) investment, the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and its visitor centre were ready.

Upon his return to Ireland in 2001, he did something he never thought he would do – he accepted a role with Cooley Distillery to work for his father.

Despite progress, Jack was still looking to the next challenge. “Everyone was saying, ‘Can we not just stand here and take a minute?’. I was like no, that’s business; you have to keep moving forward.”

“The reality is, people will realise how tough it is,” he says. “They will realise that just having a product or owning a couple of pot stills doesn’t mean you are set up for success.

The company was in a better position to spread its wings and to take advantage of the inherent opportunity in the international market – particularly in the US. Teeling Whiskey’s first foray in the US came before the launch of its Dublin distillery. In 2014, He selected US distributor Infinium Spirits to

“There will be successes though, there has to be as there is the demand for it. I think the ones that will be successful are the ones that have like-minded shareholders that take a long-term view and bring strength in (the) route to market. Some have pulled that together.” ■

“I must have been in a really good frame of mind because my dad said, ‘Ah, come into Cooley for a couple of weeks and see how we do it,’” he says. “I remember my girlfriend at the time saying ‘He is going to drive you mad, you are going to kill each other, what are you doing?’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The plan was six


Jack feels Irish whiskey has experienced a bit of a renaissance, though Covid-19’s impact on that is still unknown. A record 12 million cases sold globally last year, while the number of distilleries across the island also hit 33, a 120-year high.



Infrastructure and energy: the new future The need for a new energy strategy, based on a green future, has never been more important, while progressing with key infrastructure schemes alongside continued investment will be crucial to the rebuilding of the economy, post-crisis. We take a look back at our first special Ulster Business Top 100 digital roundtable, with A&L Goodbody, and the heads of some of our leading firms, about what’s next for Northern Ireland

What has changed for development in the last few months?

were doing, and the clients. It was the impact on workstreams.

David Henry: The main area is about the office environment, and people talking about not going back to the office until 2021. Developers that had planned for big office development, they may be on hold. There are still priorities. We need the key connections. York Street Interchange still needs to be done no matter what happens, whether people are back in their offices or not. Wastewater – a lot of developments have been put on hold because the infrastructure isn’t in place to deal with demand.

What impact has Covid had on planned infrastructure, greener energy initiatives and cleaner public transport?

Michael Scott: In all of this, it’s new and hasn’t happened before. The fact that it affects us in the wider society as well. We are all in the same boat together from both economic and societal view. How have firms dealt with the crisis and coped over the last few months? Mark Thompson: We were fairly fortunate as our technology platforms are very advanced and we were able to move to remote working seamlessly. What we weren’t prepared for was the immediate and direct impact to what we


GUESTS Mark Thompson, Partner, A&L Goodbody Mark Stockdale, Partner, A&L Goodbody Paul Stapleton, Managing director, NIE Networks Michael Scott, Managing director, firmus energy David Henry, Managing director, Henry Group Paddy Anderson, Chief financial officer, Translink John Mulgrew, Editor, Ulster Business

Paul Stapleton: It has created a great opportunity as we are all looking at things differently now. We have talked about the world of work being different – if that’s different then how we live, and where we live, could be different. The societal models around that could be very different. From an electricity network perspective, we would see Belfast city centre as a huge demand. But there may not be the same demand in the future. It may now be about balancing the regions and investing in areas where there may be new growth centres.

towards those very challenging targets. We are powering ahead.

Paddy Anderson: I think you have to draw on some positives. There has been an awakening about the importance of us investing in sustainable infrastructure… it applies to how we move around and connect with people. There is a huge emphasis now on sustainable transport and public transport has to lie at the centre of that. In an unusual way, Covid has reemphasised the importance of moving rapidly

Mark Stockdale: (For our clients) I don’t think much has changed just yet. The world has changed in a big way and renewable energy and the green recovery is being talked about openly. Ten years ago, no one talked about it. The problem we have is that nothing has changed politically, it’s very much seen as a priority for government… Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland that has


Roundtable guests: Michael Scott, John Mulgrew, Paul Stapleton, Mark Stockdale, David Henry, Mark Thompson and Paddy Anderson

no support mechanism for any (green energy) development. What engagement have you had with the Northern Ireland Executive so far and has it been beneficial? David Henry: Any of the discussions we have had with (Economy Minister Diane Dodds) she has been been listening and very practical and pragmatic in what she is doing, or trying to do… but they need to get quicker. Michael Scott: We met with Diane Dodds, who was a recent gas customer in Banbridge and we were putting services in. She was very accommodating and we had talked about the challenges we faced with the construction teams out on site. Paul Stapleton: The Executive has been very open and accessible. I think they, more than anybody, understand the extent of the challenges we are facing. Mark Thompson: Standing back and looking at this as a businessperson, the pinch point is the Northern Ireland commute bubble… we need to do more with our public transportation system. If I was encouraging


the Executive to do something creative it would be a step change as to how we manage public transport, run Translink in a way in which it can be creative because this is the new normal. Paddy Anderson: We have had a lot of engagement with a lot of the political parties. I think there is a better understanding of the challenges of the carbon targets that we have. What has been the concern from company bosses, historically, about staff working from home? David Henry: There may have been a lack of trust over the years as it wasn’t the norm. Once you get over that, it’s not so much about that, it’s about getting the best out of the people coming together, and that’s something I’ve missed over the last few months. Paul Stapleton: It’s not really about productivity, but about purpose, teamworking and engagement. That’s what is lost in a working-from-home model. How long do you see the recovery taking for the Northern Ireland economy and what are the next challenges?

Paul Stapleton: One way or the other we are facing a difficult winter, and probably into next year. As the Job Retention Scheme runs out we will see the impact of that. How quickly will depend on the urgency and how quickly we can get strategies in place. David Henry: I think it is going to be a slow recovery and I don’t think it’s going to be anything like what the UK is going to have – I think we are going to be a lot slower and behind the curve. Paddy Anderson: We are in for a tough road. The autumn will be interesting to see what impact schools going back will have on the workforce and will that encourage people to get back into the city centre. Mark Thompson: All of us need to look at our businesses and assess ‘what jobs do we do, and who does them’. Looking at what aspects of those jobs can be done from home and those which cannot… it’s preparing for that. Mark Stockdale: I think Covid has probably overly impacted the younger generation as well. In many cases it is more junior members of staff who have been furloughed, which is impacting their training and development. ■



Loganair looks ahead to new air links from City Airport Lisa Smyth speaks to Kay Ryan, Loganair’s chief commercial officer, about setting up at Belfast City Airport and filling the gap left behind in the wake of the demise of Flybe


he demise of Flybe in March was a devastating blow for its customers, staff and Belfast City Airport.

But very quickly, Scottish airline Loganair stepped in and announced plans to take up 16 Flybe flights across the UK, including an intention to run some of the former Flybe routes in and out of Belfast City Airport. However, as the coronavirus came crashing down on the world, its plans to fill the void left at Belfast City Airport were thrown into chaos. Several months on, while the effects of Covid-19 are still being felt, air travel is starting to get back on track and Loganair is preparing to launch two new services from Belfast in a matter of days. In addition to the flights already running between Inverness and Aberdeen, passengers will be able to fly between Belfast to and Glasgow from Friday, while flights between Belfast and Dundee first got off the ground on September 18. Despite the turmoil faced by the industry in recent months, Loganair’s chief commercial officer, Kay Ryan, is optimistic that the time is right for the expansion plans to go ahead. But she has sounded a note of caution for the industry as a whole, warning of further job


losses and even the potential for more airlines to fold in the wake of the global pandemic. Asked why she believes Loganair will succeed where Flybe failed, Kay says: “There are a couple of reasons – our aircraft size and type are right for the routes. “We were very selective in the routes that we chose to restart, they’re all ones that feed into our hubs, they’re all part of our existing network and now we are the largest regional airline in the UK. “These routes really fit in with our strategy and we’re able to provide point to point access for people going up and down the country. “We have got a bit of history with Belfast in particular, as we were actually the first airline to operate out of Belfast City Airport. We provided the first passenger flight in that airport in 1983, so we know the Northern Ireland market. “There’s a real affinity between Scotland and Northern Ireland, there’s a lot of visiting between friends and relatives and a lot of business done as well. In fact, one of the reasons we’re launching the Dundee route when we are is to fit in with the university commuting traffic.” Of course, nothing is being taken for granted

and the airline has also carried out extensive analysis of the market to ensure there will be adequate customer demand. The effects of Covid-19 mean they are running fewer flights than originally anticipated but so far it is a strategy that appears to be paying dividends and the firm is already looking at expanding further in the coming year. “The demand is in line with where we would expect it to be,” Kay said. “Everything is being done in a conscious and planned way. We’re being asked by customers why we’re not doing this flight or that route, but we need to be able to make sure any routes we start are sustainable. “We don’t want to start routes that we don’t have the utmost confidence in, but we’re really glad to be back in Belfast in a bigger way and there are two or three other routes that we definitely like.” So, while Loganair is looking to the future, the last few months have been anything but easy. Kay said: “This year was supposed to be our


Kay Ryan

year of consolidation because we had done so much with the rebrand, we had created a new reservation system and then came the sad demise of Flybe. “It was an open secret they were having issues, so we had plans that if they didn’t continue operating their routes, it would be a good opportunity for Loganair as we thought they were a good fit for us. “It was literally a few weeks later that Covid-19 happened and the whole world changed for everyone.” Loganair ran a scaled-back schedule throughout lockdown but Kay described the months during the first wave of the pandemic as “very tough”. “We’re like a lot of other airlines in that we were operating through Covid to some degree, we didn’t switch off the lights and lock the door,” she said. “We had a mixture of passengers on the flights, there are a lot of essential workers on the routes, a lot of them are on the medical side and a lot of routes carry oil and gas workers.


“It has been incredibly tough and anyone who says they knew how difficult it was going to be, I’m not sure they are telling the truth. The scale of recovery has been slower than I thought it would be, now we’re just trying to establish the trend of demand from customers. “We’ve seen customers are booking very late which I think is just to do with uncertainty on every level. I think next summer is going to be different and certainly other areas are seeing demand for next summer, I think people are thinking that they have missed their holiday this year and they’re not going to miss it next year.

“The Government has helped a lot of different sectors, we have seen things like Eat Out To Help Out, but there’s been nothing for the airlines. The redundancies in the industry have been well publicised, it’s going to be a long hard winter, that’s for sure, and I would be surprised if there aren’t further casualties in some shape or form.” Kay has also experienced the devastation of redundancy, although it was this apparent setback that brought her to her role with Loganair. She started out her career working in the hotel sector before moving to Thomas Cook.

“We’re getting a lot of requests from people wanting to know when the flights for next year are going to be on sale and we’re planning to have summer 2021 up (soon). It isn’t far off from where we would normally be, maybe a little bit earlier than usual.

From there, she moved to Eastern Airways where she worked for seven years. She was aware that Loganair was rebranding so sent an email to the firm’s chief executive, Jonathan Hinkles, and they arranged to meet for a chat.

“In terms of support, we would like to see air passenger duty abolished, you’d be surprised if I said anything different. We have campaigned for an end to it along with other airlines, we’re not alone.

“We discussed how we saw the role because it was a new role for the company and I was really excited to be a part of the rebrand. The opportunity to be part of a restart doesn’t come along very often.” ■


The column with an ear for experience... How did you start out in business? I trained as a lawyer with the Nabarro legal firm in London (now part of a larger firm CMS). Living and working in London was a great experience. Nabarro gave me the opportunity to get experience in a wide number of areas of law. I found out quite quickly that I had more of an interest in the non-contentious areas of law and enjoyed being involved in transactions on the corporate side. Post training in London I spent a year working with a law firm in Sydney arriving in Belfast to set up camp in a cold January – thankfully just squeezing in ahead of the credit crunch. What have you found the most challenging during your years of business, so far? Rather than one specific challenge I think I suffer a little from an inability to switch off. While I love it, the nature of the work I am involved in is quite all-consuming with tight deadlines and meeting client expectations. I have improved my work/life balance over the years and having three young children means that there is often no other choice. How would you describe your management style? In as much as I lead anyone (rather than work with them) I like to think I am seen as fair and approachable. I believe I am good at listening to others and trying to encourage them. The type of work we carry out means we generally work in teams on transactions, both within your own department, and across departments so it pays to have a collaborative approach. Much to the chagrin of certain colleagues I might sometimes be guilty of overegging the urgency of deadlines on matters but it is always with the goal of delivering results for clients as I very firmly understand that we work


Name: John McGuckian Position: Partner, corporate, Tughans in a service industry. I believe I lead by example as I work hard both at the legal detail we are required to cover but also at building new and existing client relationships, which I really enjoy. What would you change if you could go back and do it all again? I think I would have added more of a financial string, or strings, to my bow. We deal with seriously impressive entrepreneurs, finance directors, corporate finance experts and other financially trained parties and, while I am getting there slowly, it would have been very useful to have more of their skill sets. Have you done it all on your own? Absolutely not. From the start I have great role models and support around me with my parents instilling the values of hard work and collaboration early on. In each different role I have held there have always been strong and different characters from whom I have learned.

I believe I am good at listening and learning. The team, not only within the corporate team at Tughans but the full firm, are all pulling in the same direction which makes life a lot easier. How would you like your business to be remembered? I would use the term ‘my’ business in the loosest sense of the word as Tughans outdates me just a bit having been set up in 1896. I truly like the fact that it is a strong, well-known, indigenous firm working with some great people and loyal and supportive clients. We aim to work hard and deliver results both for existing clients and those yet to come. What piece of advice would you give to a 20-year-old you? Borrowing a slogan I like, I would encourage myself to 'never stop, never settle'. Work hard, listen to others and never stop learning. ■


Gavan Corr, Qarik, Kevin Holland, Invest NI, Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Joe Schenk, Qarik

New York tech firm creating 50 jobs


New York technology firm founded by a Co Armagh man is setting up in Northern Ireland and bringing 50 new jobs. Qarik has already hired 37 people for its operation here. When filled, the 50 jobs in areas such as software engineering and data science will contribute around £2.2m in salaries to the economy every year – an average of £44,000. The business, co-founded last year by Gavan Corr, specialises in cloud-based data management and analysis software development for US corporations. Its operation here is a research and delivery hub aiding colleagues in America develop solutions for clients’ data analytical processes. Economy Minister Diane Dodds said she was pleased the company had decided to set up here after meeting Mr Corr and co-founder Joe Schenk in New York in March.


“As well as roles at a senior level, the project also includes 10 positions specifically aimed at new graduates,” she said. “The combination of opportunities for those starting out in their career and roles for those with experience brings a lot of benefit to our growing software development sector, as well as contributing nearly £2.2m in annual salaries to the economy.” Mr Corr said that after studying at Queen’s and Ulster University, he knew that Northern Ireland was the right place for his research team. He said the new roles were being filled much faster than anticipated. “This not only gives us confidence in our decision but optimism for future growth here,” he said. Mr Schenk said the work would enable financial clients to manage large volumes of data and comply with regulations. Invest NI has offered £325,000 towards the new roles. Chief executive Kevin Holland said the speed at which the jobs had been filled

reflected the skills base available locally to potential employers Meanwhile, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit also increased by over 0.6%. Overall unemployment rose to 2.9%. The latest labour market statistics show just over 9,000 redundancies have been proposed in the 12 months up to the end of August. That was more than double the previous 12 months. The redundancies cover 15 of the 21 industry sectors in NI and around 90 different employers. The previous year that was across six sectors involving 20 firms. During August, 700 redundancies were proposed, a decrease on the previous month’s 1,940, and 820 redundancies were confirmed, an increase from the 670 in July. A further 880 were proposed in the period to September 14. ■



The Ulster Business

Podcast with

The Ulster Business Podcast with Bank of Ireland UK is now established as one of Northern Ireland’s leading business podcasts. We take a look back at some of the highlights of the latest episodes


orthern Ireland looks set to face a ‘unique’ recession due to the unprecedented knock-on effects of the Covid-19 crisis here, it’s been claimed.

Michael Neill, head of Belfast office at corporate law firm A&L Goodbody told the Ulster Business Podcast with Bank of Ireland UK: “As a restructuring lawyer I have worked through a nunber of recessions over the last 20 years and the key take away point might be this: it’s not just going to be different because of its severity, but because of its uniqueness and because it will pervade many types of business. “It’s not one caused by the financial crisis in 2008, not one where we witnessed structural issues with our property market in Ireland, one caused by something we have never experienced before.”

“Quite possibly it will be a high water mark (for firms) through no fault of their own,” he said. “You cant lose sight of the fact that the Top 100 is such a backbone of our economy. Even if you just focus on jobs across those Top 100, their importance is fundamental to our economy. “Any business which can hold its ground in terms of steady year-on-year performance will be doing very well indeed. “In terms of this year, yes there was an 11% increase in turnover to £28bn, but it was the underlying 10% increase in profit which was the real story. “What stands out is the resilience and determination. That said, you could say that about many businesses in Northern Ireland.”

But speaking about the performance of Northern Ireland’s biggest businesses making this year’s Ulster Business Top 100 list, Mr Neill says it continues to highlight that they remain “such a backbone of our economy”.

Looking at the overall future of the Northern Ireland economy, Mr Neill said: “From a macro sense, Northern Ireland’s economy has come through many challenges. The thing about this is the unpredictability

But he said that the surge in turnover and profits among firms on this year’s list – mostly based on account filings between 2018 and 2019 – may be a “high water mark” for some time.

“While you can stabilise economies and eventually they return to normal, you just can’t lose sight of the people cost. (It’s the) public health crisis first, then a second with severe economic implications.



“There are clearly a lot businesses within the Top 100 which are still performing strongly. “While many others might not have returned to normality, with many good businesses they are agile enough to pivot their business and reposition as their market demands. “An interesting anomaly we noticed this year was it was busier in July than in August. That’s the reverse of what we would typically see in Northern Ireland. “On the slowdown, clearly there are sectors which are suffering – tourism, leisure and hospitality, or any business affected by social distancing rules. For me, one of the devastating parts of this pandemic is that it has crippled good businesses overnight. “To see that happen through no fault of anyone involved is very demoralising.” ■




etailers are seeing sales dropping by as much as 60% in Belfast and beyond amid industry calls to bring back office workers here to secure the future of our cities and towns, it’s been claimed. Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, says he hopes a newly established High Streets Taskforce by the Executive will “help create a co-ordinated response across government, councils and business, to identify solutions”. “It is very much the calm before the storm,” he told the Ulster Business Podcast with Bank of Ireland UK. “We are just beginning to see the furlough tapering off. We are beginning to see the effects of what the recession will look like. It will get worse before it gets better. But it’s important to point out that it will get better.” Mr Roberts is keen to see a return to offices among many of Northern Ireland’s biggest businesses, with the high street relying on footfall and spend from workers. He says a number of large businesses which he has spoken recently have said they are planning to bring back more workers to their offices. But he says “a lot of well-known businesses” are still “not going to survive” the crisis, as the furlough scheme comes to an end in October. “Retail going in to this crisis was in a very challenging situation and I think sadly there will be a lot of retailers that were in difficulty before the pandemic, who will not survive it,” he said. “I think that is a sad reality. That is going to have a huge impact on our high streets. We are no longer facing a high streets crisis, it’s actually a high streets emergency.


“Many of our food members continue to trade very well. On the non-food side, that’s where the challenges are… there is concern in the high-end of retail, more luxury goods, that they may take a serious dip as the recession begins to bite and as we see growing numbers in unemployment and redundancy. I think that is the immediate concern.” Speaking about the return to offices, he said: “It’s not about forcing companies or staff to go back into the office. It should be a voluntary approach. “Generally, if you take Belfast and other major towns and cities in Northern Ireland, office workers provide a high amount of footfall… we are seeing that having an impact in Belfast city centre.

“Our members in the city centre relied on buying an evening meal. There has been a large drop in that… I think there is a negative for Belfast and our bigger towns and cities. “In saying that, when we ran our awards, the interesting thing around the voting is that it showed people were actually shopping and socialising in their local towns in a way in which they weren’t before.” He said reports of falling sales of 40-60% among many firms highlights the “huge importance office workers” bring to city centres. Mr Roberts said he’d also like to see an increasing volume of city centre living – something which Belfast City Council has been championing. ■

Listen to the podcast at, on Spotify, SoundCloud and iTunes



NI car sales rise bucking UK trend


ew car sales in Northern Ireland were up by almost 7% in August – bucking the overall UK trend.

A total of 3,618 new cars were sold here in August – a 6.6% bump on the same period a year earlier, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). It was the highest increase in sales out of any UK region for the month of August, with England faring worse, with a reduction in sales of 7.5%. Looking at car sales figures for the entire year to date, Northern Ireland’s purchases are still in negative territory due to showroom closures halting operations during lockdown. The percentage change in car sales for the year sits at a drop of 39%. In the year to date, 23,179 new cars have been sold here compared to 37,989 over the same period last year. The five best-selling cars here in August were the Hyundai Tucson, Ford


Focus, Ford Kuga, Volkswagen Golf and the Renault Capture.

figures to get a better handle on the true underlying picture.”

The best-selling new cars here over the past year were the Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Tucson, Volkswagen Golf and the Volkswagen Tiguan.

Mr Ramsey said he expects 2021 to see a “meaningful pick-up”, “but to what level remains to be seen”, after Government support packages, including the furlough scheme, end, impacting on consumer spending.

While August figures marked a positive boost for the sector, they were not as high as July’s, during which sales rose by 17% on the previous July. Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey says the real visibility of how the sector is performing will not be evident for another few months. “Clearly there remains an element of pent-up demand in the latest figures which follow the best July in 13 years. Back in July new car sales increased by 17%. Following the lockdown from late March to early June a few months of out-performance were expected. It will take another few months’

Speaking about the overall UK figures, Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: “The decline is disappointing, following some brief optimism in July. However, given August is typically one the new car market’s quietest months, it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from these figures alone. “With the all-important plate change month just around the corner, September is likely to provide a better barometer. As the nation takes steps to return to normality, protecting consumer confidence will be critical to driving a recovery.”

Motoring By Pat Burns

Sponsored by


Emotive, efficient and electrifying: The new ENYAQ iV


aunching its new ENYAQ iV, SKODA is now taking the next systematic step in the implementation of its e-mobility strategy. The all-electric SUV is the Czech car manufacturer’s first production model to be based on Volkswagen Group’s modular electric drive matrix (MEB). There are two battery sizes available. The entrylevel 62kWh battery powers a 132kW motor that gives you a total output of 180PS and a WLTP tested range of up to 242 miles. The more powerful option has an 82kWh battery and a 150kW motor for 204PS of power and an impressive range of up to 316 miles. SKODA is continuing to develop its emotive design language – to this end, the new SUV features an all-new interior concept offering design selections instead of classic trim levels and a brand-new structure of the options available. The ENYAQ iV is also extraordinarily spaciousness. It offers a similar amount of


interior space as a SKODA KODIAQ, despite being shorter in length than a SKODA OCTAVIA. At 13 inches, the ENYAQ iV’s central touchscreen infotainment system is larger than in any other SKODA. What’s more, the all-new SUV is always online and cleverly connected. Battery charging and the interior’s air conditioning can also be conveniently controlled remotely using the SKODA Connect app. One particular highlight is the exclusive ENYAQ iV Founders Edition, which is limited to 1,895 units and is commemorating the company’s anniversary celebrating 125 years of success. The ENYAQ iV is available with a range of charging options. It is compatible with direct current chargers with a 125kW capacity that can charge the battery from 10% to 80% in as little as 38 minutes. Alternate current chargers are also compatible so you can charge overnight using a wall box or even a standard domestic socket.

MySKODA Powerpass ensures owners can easily and conveniently recharge their vehicles at most of the charging points in the European Union using just a single card. In addition, SKODA is also involved in building the Ionity quick-charging network throughout Europe. The new SKODA ENYAQ iV will be available to order in the UK from late 2020 for delivery from spring 2021, starting at £33,450 (excluding UK plug-in car grant). ■ To find out more, contact John Mulholland SKODA Randalstown or Campsie.


Ford’s Raptor raptures


he Ranger pick-up truck has been one of Ford’s best successes and it’s no surprise that it is the top selling pick-up in Europe. A new range topper called the Raptor is now available with even more aggressive styling along with suspension and transmission upgrades. Developed by Ford Performance, the Ranger Raptor is powered by a bi-turbo version of Ford’s 2.0 litre EcoBlue diesel engine that delivers 213 PS and 500 Nm of torque; and Ford’s new 10-speed automatic gearbox first seen in the Mustang. The commanding presence delivered by the ultimate Ranger’s imposing dimensions and extreme styling is supported by a unique Ford Performance chassis optimised for high-speed off-road driving and go-anywhere capability. The Raptor’s race-bred suspension has been specifically crafted to tackle all terrains at highspeed while remaining in complete control and comfort, using a 150mm wider track and 51mm taller ride height compared with the Ranger XLT. Special Fox shock absorbers with position sensitive damping provide higher damping forces at extremes for unparalleled off-road


capability, and lower damping forces in more moderate conditions for a smoother ride on-road. A new coilover rear suspension arrangement features an integrated Watt’s linkage that allows the axle to move up and down with very little lateral movement. Braking is improved front and rear while the all-terrain BF Goodrich 285/70 R17 tyres have been specially developed for the new model. Drivers can select from six terrain management system modes to tackle a wide range of terrain and driving scenarios, including Normal, Sport, Snow, Sand, Rock and ‘Baja’. Baja is tuned for high-speed off-road performance, just like drivers need in the famous Baja desert rally. Driver assistance and safety technologies that boost confidence for drivers facing unknown off-road challenges or demanding working environments include an enhanced version of Ford Stability Control incorporating roll mitigation function and electronic stability control, trailer sway control, hill start assist, hill descent control along with load adaptive control. The Raptor is also equipped with Ford’s SYNC 3 communications and entertainment

system, which enables drivers to control audio, navigation and connected smartphones using simple, conversational voice commands. The system delivers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at no extra cost, and features SYNC AppLink for voice-activation of a range of smartphone apps. The Ranger Raptor remains a true workhorse. A modified rear bumper features an integrated tow bar with 2,500kg capacity. Two front recovery hooks are able to shift up to 4,635kg, and two at the rear are rated 3,863kg. A 1,560mm by 1,575mm load tray has been designed with the weekend explorer in mind, able to accommodate bikes or jet-skis, in addition to work tools and supplies. For convenient access a lift assist tailgate uses a new torsion rod assembly, which gives the owner a 66% reduction in the force required to close it. Ford Performance DNA is present throughout the interior, with blue stitching and leather trim throughout. Racing-style magnesium paddle shifters are easily accessible near the perforated leather hand grips of the bespoke steering wheel, which uses an on-centre marker to help drivers keep track of wheel position off-road, and is embossed with the Raptor logo. The Raptor costs £48,785. ■


The ultimate grand tourer


he new Bentley Flying Spur is the an ultimate luxury grand touring sedan, offering the perfect combination of performance and fourdoor, limousine-style comfort.

For the first time on a modern-day Flying Spur, the retractable Bentley ‘Flying B’ mascot is displayed on the nose of the new model. Electronically operated, it rises from beneath the Bentley badge.

With a bold road presence that is unmistakably Bentley, plus a luxurious cabin offering unrivalled levels of comfort and refinement, the new Flying Spur has been uniquely designed to satisfy both driver and passengers alike. New from the ground up, the four-door sedan integrates the very best in craftsmanship with innovative features.

The interior is unmistakably Bentley, incorporating natural materials while also offering a host of new technologies. The unique Bentley rotating display is the central feature of the crafted dashboard. The HD instrument panel has the choice of 12.3-inch digital touchscreen, analogue dials, or a digitaldetox wood veneer finish. A touch screen is the centrepiece of the rear seat experience.

The third generation Flying Spur is built on an entirely new platform, its athletic stance benefits from the front axle being moved forward to extend the wheelbase. The elegant, muscular proportions, especially at the rear, are highlighted through the marque’s latest generation cut-crystal effect LED matrix headlamps and new wrap-around rear lamps incorporating ‘B’ motifs. Stylish new 21 and 22-inch wheel designs further enhance the Flying Spur’s personality.


This unit can operate all the major functions, including the blinds, climate control and rear seat massage functions. It can also control the Flying Spur’s multi-configuration mood lighting system. The all-new Flying Spur leads the way in the luxury car segment for technology. Driver assistance systems include a night vision infrared camera, traffic assist, blind spot warning and head-up display. A raft of

advanced connectivity features, including an integrated wi-fi hotspot, help keep the driver in touch with a range of real-time functions and services. Thanks to a totally new and advanced aluminium and composite chassis, the Flying Spur is a technological tour-de-force. Electronic all-wheel Steering is used for the first time in a Bentley, combining with active all-wheel drive and Bentley Dynamic Ride – the world’s first 48V electric anti-roll system – to deliver phenomenal handling and ride. Another major advance comes in the form of new, three-chamber air springs, which offer a much greater range of suspension adjustment between limousine-style ride comfort and sporting levels of body control. At the heart of the Flying Spur is the latest version of Bentley’s 6.0-litre, twin-turbocharged W12 engine, mated to an eight-speed transmission for faster, smoother gear changes. The new TSI engine delivers 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 207mph. Prices start from £165,000. ■



Compact SUV has big personality


uzuki’s small SUV, the Ignis, has been given a new facelift and equipment upgrades giving it a more rugged appearance. In line with many other Suzukis, the new Ignis now has a new Hybrid powertrain. The new styling on the Ignis further reinforces its position as the only ultracompact SUV on the market. It might be small, but it has a big personality inside and out. Standard equipment for all Ignis models in the range is comprehensive and the SZ3 model includes six airbags, air conditioning, DAB radio with Bluetooth, 15-inch wheels, LED headlights, body coloured door mirrors, front electric windows, rear privacy glass and five seat capacity. SZ-T adds rear view camera, 16-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, wheel arch extensions and four seat capacity with individually sliding rear seats and smartphone link display audio with Apple Carplay and Android Auto. The SZ5 adds auto air conditioning, satellite navigation, dual camera brake support, lane departure warning, weaving alert, keyless


entry and start, rear electric windows and front foglamps.

components of the system add just 6.2kg to the overall weight of the car.

The updated K12D 1.2-litre engine powering the new Ignis features a new dual injection system and offers both a quick response and high fuel efficiency. Maximum power output is 83PS with a torque figure of 107Nm at 2,800rpm.

For the Ignis with 2WD manual transmission the Hybrid system helps Suzuki reach a CO2 emissions figure of 114g/km (WLTP regulation) plus achieve a fuel consumption figure of 55.7mpg (WLTP) on the combined cycle.

Fuel efficency is further enhanced when paired with the self-charging hybrid system powered by a new lithium-ion battery with capacity upgraded from 3Ah to 10Ah to improve energy recovery efficiency. Available as standard equipment for all Ignis models, the upgraded 12V Hybrid system is a compact and lightweight unit that incorporates an integrated starter generator (ISG) which acts as both a generator and starter motor, the ISG is belt driven and assists the engine during vehicle take off and acceleration and also generates additional electricity through regenerative braking. The ISG unit has a power output of 2.3kW with a torque figure of 50Nm and the

Suzuki’s CVT powertrain is available as an option on the facelifted Ignis SZ-T and SZ5 models with 2WD, and is combined with the 1.2 Dualjet Hybrid powertrain. The Ignis also adopts Suzuki’s Allgrip Auto four-wheel drive system which is available optionally on the SZ5 model with manual transmission. First introduced in Swift, this is a well-proven and simple fully automatic and permanent four-wheel drive layout which transfers additional torque to the rear wheels when required via a viscous coupling. It is also an ideal choice for customers living in rural areas who may need additional mobility across rougher terrain or for crossing slippery surfaces during winter months without owning a more conventional SUV sized vehicle. Prices start at £13,999. ■


The first all-electric BMW X


he first fully electric-powered BMW X model has broken cover. The BMW iX3 combines emissions-free travel, dynamic handling and performance with the comfort, functionality and spaciousness that customers would expect of a BMW sports activity vehicle. The technological expertise amassed in the development of BMW i models is now coming to the fore in a fully-electric model from the core BMW brand. The X3 will be the brand’s first model to be available with a pure-electric drive system, a plug-in hybrid system or highly efficient petrol and diesel engines. The advances achieved since the market launch of the BMW i3 in 2013 now culminate in the company’s fifth-generation eDrive technology which comprises of a highly efficient electric motor, optimised energy density high-voltage battery and a high charging capacity. It will be the brand’s first model to be built for export at the BMW Shenyang plant in China. The highly integrated drive system technology at the heart of the new BMW iX3 plays a particularly important role in optimising


efficiency and power development. The electric motor, transmission and power electronics are now arranged together in a single housing. The electric motor in the new BMW iX3 works according to the principle of a currentexcited synchronous motor, without the use of magnets. This design eliminates the use of rare earth materials of the motor. The power density of the electric motor in the iX3 is 30 per cent greater than that of existing fully-electric vehicles within the BMW Group portfolio. The motor is up to 93% efficient, compared with under 40% for combustion engines. The new drive system unit generates maximum output of 286 hp and peak torque of 295 lb-ft which, unlike with many other electric motors, is sustained at high revs. The iX3 sprints from 0 to 62 mph in 6.8 seconds, putting it in the same territory as the conventionally powered BMW X3 xDrive30i. Top speed is electronically limited to 112 mph. The storage capacity of the battery has been substantially increased with 74 kWh now available and this allows the iX3 a range of up to 285 miles (WLTP test cycle).

Plugging the vehicle into a direct current rapid-charging station means the high-voltage battery can be charged from 0 to 80% of its full capacity in 34 minutes. Drivers can inject the power required to add 62 miles to the car’s driving range (in the WLTP cycle) in just 10 minutes. The standard adaptive suspension includes electronically controlled dampers, with characteristics that adapt to the road surface at any given time. This enables carefully judged optimisation of the car’s ride comfort and dynamics. The alternative Adaptive M suspension is tuned to deliver an even sportier damper response. New aerodynamic wheels making their debut on the iX3 and reduce its drag coefficient by around 5 per cent over an equivalent vehicle with conventional light-alloy wheels. This is achieved with the help of sophisticated inserts in the V-spoke base wheel whose surfaces keep the air flowing smoothly. The resulting improvement in efficiency adds around six miles to the range of the new BMW iX3 (WLTP test cycle). This combines with aerodynamic enhancements to the underbody’s rear diffuser and chassis strut area, as well as with the air flap control system, to give the all-electric SAV a drag coefficient of 0.29. ■



Marv van Niekerk joins Flowlens as head of operations and customer success, bringing a wealth of additional experience in finance, operations and business advisory to the team. Hannah Simpson has been appointed as a solicitor with Millar McCall Wylie. She will now work within the Belfast law firm’s litigation department. Belfast firm Millar McCall Wylie has appointed Hayley Cummings as a newly qualified solicitor. Ms Cummings will work within the law firm’s corporate department.

Linda Lonsdale joins ABL Group following a deal by the firm to acquire the renewal rights to Aon’s Northern Ireland business. Ms Lonsdale has experience in risks such as public utilities, power generation and construction accounts. Belfast firm Millar McCall Wylie has appointed Michael Wilson as an associate. Mr Wilson will now work within the law firm’s real estate department. Hugh Brennan joins ABL Group following a deal by the firm to acquire the renewal rights to Aon’s Northern Ireland business. Mr Brennan has more than 35 years’ experience in the industry.

Belfast firm Millar McCall Wylie has appointed Ross White as a newly qualified solicitor. Mr White will work within the law firm’s private client department. Close Brothers Commercial Finance has appointed Frank Coffey as sales director in Northern Ireland. His new role will focus on business development, as Close Brothers Commercial Finance aims to grow its customer base. Genesis Bakery has appointed Mark Mitchell as general manager. Mr Mitchell previously held several senior roles at Wrightbus over the last seven years.




1. Mid & East Antrim Borough Council has hosted a virtual ‘Start a Business’ workshop. Pictured are Will Kerr, Le Jardin Sauvage, Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Peter Johnson and Melanie Christine Boyle, Ballymena Business Centre. 2. Torax Biosciences has launched a new hand sanitiser proven to kill 99.99% of bacteria and viruses. Pictured is Stephen Mullan, laboratory technician alongside Dr Lawrence McGrath, managing director. 3. Ellen Matthews, business banking manager at Danske Bank, and Stephen Stewart, managing director of Mervyn Stewart, as the firm announced a £2m investment to expand its operation at Boucher Crescent in Belfast. 4. Belfast City Airport celebrates 23 students graduating from the airport’s inaugural IGNITE Youth Leadership Programme. Pictured are Michelle Hatfield, Belfast City Airport, Rachael Goldring, IGNITE participant, Cool FM radio presenter Pete Snodden, and Joan BurneyKeatings, Cinemagic.



5. Children and young people across the UK will be supported with £1,000 grants from Tesco as part of a new scheme launched in August.






6. Economy Minister Diane Dodds has launched Tourism NI’s new programme to provide financial assistance. Pictured at Castle Ward in Co Down is Michele Shirlow, Tourism NI board member along with Economy Minister, Diane Dodds and Brian Connolly, Tourism NI. 7. Software provider Bazaarvoice has revealed it has continued to recruit throughout the first half of this year, despite the impact of coronavirus, with 25 new recruits joining its Belfast team. Pictured is site lead Seamus Cushley. 8. Launching the Cross-Border Workers Coalition to tackle remote working tax rules for cross border workers is Sinead Logue, Paul Quinn and Conor Dowds.



9. Laura Donaldson from Bangor has launched Baby of Mine, which is an online business offering high-quality reusable and eco-friendly cloth nappies. She’s pictured with Maeve Killingbeck, business adviser with North Down Development Organisation Limited. 10. Economy Minister Diane Dodds speaks to beauty student Chloe McDowell at Northern Regional College’s Newtownabbey Campus, welcoming the broader return of students to the campus and others.







11. Ulster Bank is partnering with Ulster University, Young Enterprise NI and Blick Shared Studios to promote female entrepreneurship. Pictured are Esther Mogada, Carol Fitzsimons, Lynsey Cunningham, Ulster Bank, Naomi Browne, Ulster University. 12. Holly Fellowes, project manager for Harmoni’s Keys to Life programme with James Hagan, founder of Hagan Homes. The Ballyclare-based homebuilder has donated £27,000 to charity Harmoni to enable the recruitment of a new project manager. 13. Robin Walker MP, Minister of State for Northern Ireland and Paul Clancy, chief executive, Derry Chamber, as the minister paid a visit to the city and the north west region. 14. Belfast restaurant Shu is investing £1m in a major refurbishment of its Lisburn Road location. Pictured are Brian McCann, co-owner, Andy Bradley from fit-out firm McCue, Alan Reid co-owner and Julian Henry, manager.



15. Belfast Chamber chief executive, Simon Hamilton and Michael Stewart, president, welcome Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Anneliese Dodds MP to a roundtable event held in Belfast.






16. Construction firm Graham has ‘topped out’ its LIV Student Belfast complex at York Street in Belfast. Pictured are representatives from Graham and developer Valeo Group. 17. The Slieve Donard in Newcastle has announced the completion of a £550,000 renovation of its award-winning spa. Pictured are Gemma Reilly, acting spa manager and Michael Weston, general manager of the Slieve Donard. 18. Emma Swan, Asda buying manager Northern Ireland tries out the Extra Special Sausage Ladder with the help of John Cowen, Finnebrogue’s account manager for Asda, and Sarah Savage, Finnebrogue 19. Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality



Ulster with Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Anneliese Dodds MP and Danny Coyles, chairman of Hospitality Ulster during a visit to Ballycastle. 20. Phoenix Natural Gas Sports Bursary recipients, Fionnuala Mulholland, Reese McCann, Molly Curry, Lucy Johnston, Amelia Tyler and Rebecca Spence, pictured with Jonathan Martindale, director of business development at Phoenix Natural Gas (centre right).







21. Announcing a £250,000 investment in a new philanthropy fund to be managed by the Community Foundation is Terry Cross, Siofra Healy and Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilin. 22. John McLean, chief executive at Radius Housing, at the site of the new housing development set to bring 18 new homes to Hopewell Crescent, alongside Belfast Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey. 23. Gas supplier firmus energy has announced a 12.5% reduction in natural gas tariffs across its Ten Towns network. Pictured is firmus energy’s managing director, Michael Scott. 24. Jack Hamilton, Mash Direct, pictured with former Ireland rugby captain, Rory Best OBE and Lance Hamilton, Mash Direct, launching the Mash Direct Sports Champ-ionships. 25. Christine White, head of business, Diversity Mark NI with John Healy OBE, managing director, Allstate NI, pictured receiving the first Silver Diversity Mark Award.








26. Huhtamaki Foodservice Delta is to invest over ÂŁ2m in skills development at its west Belfast and Antrim facilities. Pictured are Patricia Lavery, Huhtamaki, Economy Minister Diane Dodds, Kevin Holland, Invest NI and Ciaran Doherty, Huhtamaki. 27. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon (right) has asked Kirsty McManus of the Institute of Directors (IoD) to chair a new Ministerial Advisory Panel which will comprise of a small group of independent experts and key stakeholders with an interest in infrastructure. 28. Acheson & Glover has recently implemented a software system which has transformed how the business records critical health and safety information and compliance requirements.



29. Jim Burke, director of sales and acquisitions at Hagan Homes and Mark Anthony, MCA Building and Joinery. Hagan Homes has started construction on 16 two-bedroom apartments at The Tides development in Carrickfergus. 30. Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has leveraged Esri’s digital mapping technology. Pictured are Nial McSorely and David Jackson, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council with Philip McLaughlin, Esri Ireland.






Inside the Myrtle truck

Smoke, the sauna and the Swiss Army truck Larchfield Estate’s converted Swiss Army truck and sauna may be located little more than a (quite) long walk away from home, but John Mulgrew discovers a transporting experience which lingers in both the mind and the olfactory system, and is like no other


faint, lingering, but pleasant whiff of a once astringent phenolic oak smoke is more than enough to revive memories of an evening gone by sitting by the fire outside our place of rest for the evening, just a short while ago. The 1952 Saurer Swiss Army – now converted into digs for two – sits just around the corner from one of the courtyards on the Larchfield Estate, secluded and far enough away from any prying eyes.

owners Gavin and Sarah Mackie. The dark army green truck has been converted into cosy accommodation. Inside, it’s a double bed (complete with proper linen), a couple of tables, wood burning stove and a small sofa. Space and features are probably not the truck’s selling point, but it’s certainly more than enough for two, even if the weather outside is in a mood. It’s also fully electrified and includes under bed heating. I’ll ensure I use the ‘G’ word when talking about luxury camping with the inverted commas it deserves.

Something of a byword for top-end wedding venues in the last few years, the estate sits almost equidistant between Lisburn and Ballynahinch, and around 20 minutes from Belfast.

Outside, there’s a small table and chairs at the top of the stairs to the double doors, and to the left, a large fire pit, with wooden tree stumps to perch upon.

But aside from a grand converted barn, accompanying walled gardens and a handful of cottages and standalone rooms, the Myrtle is the estate’s most interesting place to spend an evening. It was the brainchild of Larchfield’s

But what helps truly set Myrtle apart as an entirely different experience in getting away is the personal sauna – attached to the side of the truck itself. The barrel wood sauna includes a full glass window, and is heated by a wood-


The Myrtle truck at Larchfield Estate

The view from inside the sauna

burning stove. Upon entrance to the sauna, you’re first greeted by a shower and toilet room, before entering the sauna itself. And it works. On this visit, with some adherence to the instructions provided and sufficient splashing of water on the hot stones which sit above the cast iron stove, we managed to get the temperature up to a rather balmy 65C – more than enough for the


authentic cleansing experience. Staring out at the dense foliage and forest from the humid confines – which isn’t actually too far from another road, but feels like you’re significantly more remote – with glass of something in hand and taking in the rich, homely aromas of warming resinous wood, is an experience which I can imagine hard to replicate elsewhere. While the luxuries of home are provided – cutlery, pots, pans and other essentials – there’s something of an onus on the guest to make the most of both the huge outdoor fire pit and indoor stove, with bags of chopped oak plentiful in order to facilitate any cooking needs. There’s also a convenient Bluetooth speaker (taking the look of an old gramophone to keep up appearances) but, and it’s a welcome but, no television. Our packed iPads remain in their cases. During our stay, the weather had a couple of


brief moments of unwanted dampness, but a brief downpour brought skies more than clear enough to start the fire pit. A chunk of dry-aged ribeye and fatty lamp chops were seared and finished quickly on the greying embers – fire licking around the fat to ensure a suitable char and Maillard reaction. The venue highlights a range of food spots which do takeaways (some also may deliver) but it’s slightly defeating the point of the whole experience. Sitting by the fire pit, you’re very much cut off from both the rest of the site – although the courtyard is only around 20 metres away – and the rest of the world. ‘Where are you travelling from today?’ we were asked by the helpful staff member on our way in. It almost feels absurd replying ‘just up the road’. But unlike the prospect of staying at a hotel in your home city, or popping to a grand resort just 10 minutes away, the whole Myrtle truck experience is genuinely transporting.

The Myrtle is designed to sleep two people and no more, and can be booked between April and October. Our stay was for one night and priced at £235. The fire pit was home for the evening, on and off, while moving in to truck itself – warmed by the glow of the stove and a dram or two. I’m trying to think of an apt descriptor to avoid just saying ‘cosy’, but it is. The design makes the best use of the space – a large wall-high and wide mirror at the rear giving a false sense that it’s bigger than first appears. Also topping off the ‘glamping’ element is the selection of local products offered as part of a hamper, which greets you when you arrive, and makes a welcome surprise in the morning, especially after a late night stoking a fire, eating washed-rind cheeses and sipping something distilled and the age of a dog well into its later years. Abernethy Butter, eggs, good bread, homemade jams, granola, milk, apple juice, yoghurt, and the not so local, chilled prosecco. An experience worth returning to. ■



From ports to forts: Some enchanted evenings in Kinsale History, culture, food so fresh it practically swims to your plate and ‘unicorn horsies’. Barry Egan explores a magical West Cork


sip of whiskey on the balcony of the Trident Hotel one evening overlooking the port of Kinsale sent my mind all the way back to the 16th century. It wasn’t the strength of the whiskey that did it, though. The story goes that Hugh O’Neill’s men were defeated in the Battle of Kinsale, that started on Christmas Eve, 1601, because his attack plan was given up to Sir George Carew for a bottle of whiskey by Brian McHugh Oge MacMahon. However, according to the history buffs, it’s just that – a story.

Ballinacurra House, two miles outside Kinsale, where Emilia and her two-and-a half-year-old brother, Daniel, were given a special lesson on how to make pizzas. The estate’s head chef David Rice taught them how to prepare the dough and put their toppings on before putting their pizzas into a giant outdoor woodfire oven. Having worked up an appetite from the pony trekking (Daniel and I were also hungry from the walk around the lovely grasslands of Commoge), we all tucked into the pizzas prepared by Emilia and Daniel.

Back to the balcony. What allowed me and my wife to enjoy – uninterrupted – the spellbinding views out to sea from our hotel that particular evening was the fact that our two young kids were fast asleep in their beds after a full day of fun.

After our tasty al fresco feasting, we took a leisurely stroll around the house and then, through the fairytale woodlands right down to the tributary of the Bandon river. The gentle silence was broken only momentarily by birds landing on the still water.

My five-year-old daughter had spent the afternoon pony trekking at the Kinsale Equestrian Centre in Commoge with her mother. The delight on her face as she trotted off gently into the fields on Wally, her little ‘unicorn horsie’. (Emilia’s mother Aoife seemed pleased with herself too as she rode off on the slightly bigger Phantom.)

An hour later, my family and I were gazing out on bigger waters aboard the Spirit of Kinsale as we explored the harbour and further out to sea. The charming captain brought us on a wonderful journey that included everything from the sights of seals and otters to a stunning view of the Old Head of Kinsale to James Fort, built in 1603, Charles Fort, built in the late 1600s, and Ringrone Castle, built in the 12th or 13th century.

Ninety minutes later, when the child returned with Wally, I saw a unique beam of happiness on her face. Unicorn horsies are indeed magical. Afterwards, we drove to the magnificent


The captain also told us the tale of the passenger liner, the Lusitania, which lies at the bottom of the sea off the Old Head of Kinsale – torpedoed without warning by a German

U-boat in May 1915. Around 1,200 people perished, and it changed the course of the First World War. The marinas harbouring the endless yachts (many of them state-of-the-art, some of them straight out of a James Bond movie) should give you some idea of the wealth in and around this special place in Ireland, only a 35-minute drive from Cork city. Its boating fraternity apart, the wealth of fantastic restaurants in Kinsale is extraordinary, especially for such a small town. It is not difficult to see why it is has such a culinary reputation, some even dubbing Kinsale the gourmet capital of Ireland. The food throughout is world class. Even a plain bowl of seafood chowder in a local pub in Kinsale is like something you’d get in a swanky hotel abroad. You know you are eating the best of locally caught seafood whenever you’re in a restaurant in Kinsale. Something you can’t say in every establishment around Ireland, but I digress.


Kinsale, Co Cork

We had a meal one night in the Trident Hotel that was second to none. The fish was so fresh that you’d swear it had swum up on to the plate. The following night we went to Man Friday’s up on the hill overlooking the inner harbour and the food was out of this world. Within 48 hours, my wife and I had two of the best meals we’d had in a long time. We needed it too after months of lockdown with the kids. The wine in Man Friday’s never tasted sweeter, too, for the same reason. We got the taxi to stop off at the playground on the way home so that the kids could have a play before bedtime. The town was relatively bustling, which was great to see after all Ireland has been through during Covid-19. You stop noticing after a while that everyone is wearing masks. All you notice that is they are out, observing social distancing guidelines, trying to enjoy themselves as best they can during all the madness in this great little country of ours. I felt that Kinsale was a haven from it all… a


place where you could have lovely food with lovely views and beaches to match – and your mind, if you let it, would escape thoughts of certain viruses. Early the following morning, we went for a drive along the Old Head of Kinsale. The views, not just of the Atlantic Ocean, but of the sky and the land, are utterly spectacular. Returning, we spent the rest of the morning at Dock Beach, which is on the other side of the Bandon river near the Castlepark Marina with all its fancy boats.

entertained with stories of the restaurant down through the years. Less entertaining was that our kids were running to the playground nearby in-between their courses with me following behind them.

I read that the Victorians on holidays here used to come to Dock Beach for a swim. Like them, my wife and I and the two kids swam here all morning. It was a beautiful summer’s day. The children happily made sandcastles while my wife just as happily sunbathed.

The kids were exhausted – mercifully – again from all the activities and were asleep as soon as their little heads touched the pillows. It was our last night. Nothing else for it. My wife had a glass of wine. I had a glass of whiskey (in honour of Hugh O’Neill). We sat on the balcony of our gorgeous suite at the Trident and watched the sun go down. The mist hovering over the harbour made Kinsale look like something from The Lord Of The Rings. Sea and beaches, history and culture – to say nothing of food and hospitality – combine to make Kinsale one of the most wonderful places in the world. ■

Afterwards, we packed up all our sandy gear, changed in the car and drove to a restaurant I had long heard about, but never been to: Fishy Fishy in Kinsale. We enjoyed this loveliest of lunches, and the bon vivant/owner, Martin, kept me wildly

There was entertainment for grown-ups later that evening at Hamlet’s where our own private cocktail maker taught my wife and I the basics of cocktail making and the like. We also had a beautiful meal in the restaurant.



Irish Venture Capital Association says industry has now created 25,000 high-skill jobs Adrian Weckler [AW]: Do Irish venture capitalists (VCs) have too short an investment time horizon? Are they too limited in their ambition and scope? More and more Irish founders that raise significant funds say they now automatically look abroad first, partially because the time allowed to grow and scale the startup is longer with VCs overseas, particularly in the US. Gillian Buckley [GB]: I don’t think we have too short a time horizon. VCs do have to make a return for their own funders. There need to be other mechanisms to do that, like secondary markets and IPOs as alternatives for early investors. It would be great if there were more opportunities for people to get off the bus early on while still allowing the companies to drive on. The IVCA is constantly highlighting opportunities around developing a fund of funds, that would allow more institutional investors, who have a much longer time horizon, to participate more. This would include the pension funds and insurance companies. Also, bear in mind how far we’ve come in the last 30 years. When I started 20 years ago, the term venture capital was hardly understood. So we’ve come an awful long way in Ireland and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit.

In its 35-year history, the Irish Venture Capital Association has only appointed one woman as its chairperson: the Western Development Commission’s investment manager, Gillian Buckley. Adrian Weckler asks her whether the venture capital business is a boys’ club, whether Irish financiers lack ambition, and what the sector is doing to keep things going during a pandemic AW: Are we really to be congratulated for keeping pace with the growth of the VC industry? Have we performed that well relative to other western European countries our size? GB: I think we have. If you look at IVCA portfolio companies over the last 15 years, they’ve supported the development of 100,000 jobs with 25,000 directly created. Those are high quality jobs with 77% graduate employment and relatively high salaries. I think we’re doing an amazing job for a small country on the periphery of Europe. AW: But Sweden is a fairly small country on the periphery of Europe and it produces Gillian Buckley, chairperson, Irish Venture Capital Association


companies like Ericsson and Spotify. You could say the same for Finland and others. GB: Okay, but think where Ireland has come from in the last 50 to 100 years. I think it is a very different scenario. Our starting point was very different from most other countries AW: Is 25,000 jobs over 15 years, or 100,000 with a presumed multiplier, really a high figure? In the context of all the industrial development here by multinationals? GB: I believe it is. These are all very high quality jobs. If you take the medtech sector, we’re on the third generation of entrepreneurs here. The first generation came from the multinationals. The second and third generation are coming out of the startups. So that’s a relatively short period of time. I certainly think that the tech sector in Ireland is very strong. And our talent base is very strong. We wouldn’t have nine of the top 10 multinational tech companies here unless Ireland was offering something very significant. Sure, we need to develop our own multinationals. And that’s where I think a lot more needs to be done in drawing in more private money so we can look at the long term horizon and then we can really scale those businesses to the next level. You mentioned Sweden earlier.


AW: The IVCA has been lobbying for a ‘fund of funds’ for several years. Do you think it will actually happen? GB: We’d be hopeful that we would see some movement on it in the next year or two. AW: On supports for indigenous tech companies, do you think there needs to be more stimulus or aides from the state? GB: If you look at some of the recent supports, startups fell into a difficult category. A lot of startups are pre-revenue. There is still a danger that they will fall beneath the cracks. And this is happening in a time of Brexit. We need to make sure we’re not disadvantaged vis a vis the UK, especially with the very aggressive tax rates the UK government is introducing. We need to keep on top of ensuring that we have a level playing field for our startups and that we don’t lose new startups to another jurisdiction. AW: What do you say to those who see just another lobby organisation looking for public purse interventions? GB: Well, we represent members who invest in Irish indigenous startups and companies that want to scale. We help create jobs. That’s


the bottom line. Job creation is one of the most important ways of creating a vibrant economy and society, not to mention regional development. So ensuring that we have a vibrant venture capital market, which itself has long term access to sustainable finance, is the aim. The VCs themselves are in a continuous fundraising mode. If you can take that pressure off them, they can spend more time developing their portfolio knowing that they have different types of funding mechanisms. The companies are in it to scale globally. I think that’s to all our benefit. AW: What about gender balance in tech and venture? You’re the first female chairperson of the IVCA in its 35-year history. Is it generally a boys’ club? GB: I suppose I don’t have that experience. We ourselves [in the Western Development Commission] are a small team with a 50-50 gender. More widely, it’s improving. But we’ve definitely more to do. AW: Yet the ratio of VC money that goes to female founders is still very low in Ireland, as elsewhere. GB: Yes it is. As a country, we have things to do to encourage more female tech founders.

We want them to become the norm, not the outliers that they currently are. We need to encourage girls to take science and technology subjects at second level. If they’re not doing it a second level, they won’t be doing it later and there won’t be competition to your tech founders. It might take 10 years before you see that fully coming through. But I’ve already seen it happen somewhat in the medtech side of things. One lecturer I spoke to found that biotech and biomedical engineering had a much higher intake of female students than any of the other engineering disciplines. When asked about this, the female students said that they were giving something back. Women arguably have this caring aspect to our nature. We need to understand how to talk to girls and women about how they can impact on society through taking technology jobs. AW: In terms of your day job with the Western Development Commission, is there politics involved in that? Is there a quota for investments by county? GB: We don’t have a quarter on sectors or counties. Because it’s an evergreen fund, we have the flexibility of taking quite a long term horizon. So we’re not under pressure all the time to exit. ■


Uncovering the 9-5 NAME: Dr Lynsey Hollywood POSITION: Manager, Food and Drink Business Development Centre, Ulster University 5.30am The first thing in the day before anything else can happen is to feed our 13-month-old Hugo. Once he’s content then I can move on with getting our breakfast together and start sorting out the day ahead. My partner Robert is a radio programme producer who has to be an early bird too. He is away at 7am so that’s working out well. 7am I then get Hugo ready for the nursery. The wonder of where we live in Bangor is that the nursery is literally across the street from the house. Then it’s emails time. I’ve been working from home since lockdown and as I have to wear lots of different hats I’ll find that each day comes with its own surprises. These will vary from remotely supervising my PhD students, to writing grant applications to driving to Coleraine as I have done today to meet the company building a virtual convenience store. 9.00am I’m travelling to and from Coleraine campus quite frequently at the moment because the virtual store is a key component in the university’s new MSc Food Design & Innovation programme. It will become a teaching tool for the students as well as food producers and retailers who want to learn how to plan, develop and launch new products. When I was lecturing there in recent years this was a journey I would have made daily. Thankfully this commute is reduced to occasional trips as my base is in the Ulster University Business School. I will attend more meetings with students and even lunch time will most likely be given over to work. 1pm Lunch with my colleague Geoff Simons, professor in consumer behaviour, to discuss our joint roles in the new modules we are both teaching. At the moment we are in talks with Invest NI on the possible creation of a food sector PhD in which big data plays a central role. As food professionals it was also our last chance to make the most of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and enjoy a fabulous little lunch in Coleraine’s Lost & Found restaurant. Then, back to the office for another quick meeting before hitting the road once again to Belfast.

the current challenges facing the food industry. I then make a start on reviewing a chapter from one of my PhD students’ research paper before putting on my slippers to run across the road to collect Hugo. 5pm Quality playtime with Hugo and then dinner for him while my partner Robert prepares dinner for us. This is always an experimental time because we run a food blog called DowntheHatchNI to which we post photographs and recipes of our eating experiences. 6.30pm The bed time routine begins and by 7pm Hugo is asleep in his cot. 7.15pm Now the time has come for my domestic goddess act and I clean and tidy up before one last session on the laptop to answer emails.

2.30pm Meet up with my nutrition colleague Dr Ruth Price to discuss a research paper we are drafting on our study of consumer use of meat thermometers funded by Safefood.

9pm And this signals both of us to slip on our gym gear and put Joe Wicks on. We don’t exactly enjoy this but suffering together brings us closer together. If we are not exercising typically we will find our friends drop by for a drink and a chat in which case we will probably stay up until around 10.30pm.

4pm It’s back to Bangor where I check on emails before getting stuck into a webinar I am organising with participation from Mash Direct, the Dairy Council and NI Pork who have kindly formed an industry panel to discuss

11pm Usually its lights out by now but so many things are running through my head it will take me a while to put the head down so Robert and I always chat abouts the peak and pits of our day.


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