2020 – A year of change for NI businesses

Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies

In the 2020 edition of the Belfast Telegraph's "Top 100 Northern Ireland Companies" Kevin Holland comments on how 2020 has been a year of change for NI businesses.

2020 is becoming quite a year for business, one of challenge and change!

This is particularly the case for UK businesses which face changing dynamics on all sides from the impact of COVID-19 to future arrangements with the EU. For Northern Ireland businesses there is the additional consideration of the detailed operations of land and sea borders.

At the start of 2020 businesses were already endeavouring to plan for the practical aspects of Brexit as more details began to emerge from London and Brussels – both looking for opportunities and seeking to minimise risk. For some businesses this has been a difficult and stressful period. Lack of “nuts and bolts” detail on operational issues such border checks, access to labour and import and export tariffs, have made planning difficult but businesses were clear thinking and forward sighted in their approach.

That was, until the COVID-19 pandemic swept from county to county. The human cost has been devastating and the economic shock severe.

We have seen many businesses furlough staff or face the difficult decision to make employees redundant, and some may face an even more difficult decision to close completely. Others are either adapting or completely changing their business model in order to survive. This is just as true for the businesses listed in the Belfast Telegraph Top 100 report as it is for the micro or SME business.

In this world of change and challenge though, Northern Ireland has many unique qualities that will see it through.

I spent much of my time in the initial months as CEO at Invest NI meeting people and visiting businesses. I was already familiar with the expertise of NI companies in the Life & Health Sciences sector through my previous roles, but what my broader visits showed is that there is truly extensive expertise in many sectors here. This is married with an (often quietly spoken) determination, entrepreneurial flair and passion of the business owners and their teams.

There is truly extensive expertise in many sectors here … married with determination, entrepreneurial flair and passion….

I am confident that this determination and passion will help many businesses overcome these current challenges.

I am confident that this determination and passion will help many businesses overcome these current challenges. And Northern Ireland’s unique position and relationship with the US to the west, and Great Britain, Ireland and Europe to the east and south, even Asia only a time zone away will place us in a strong position to rebuild our post-COVID economy.

Which is also where Invest Northern Ireland can play an important role.

Undoubtedly the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and the NI economy is shaping the focus of our work in 2020/2021. So too the preparations for post EU global trade at the end of the year. This sits alongside closing out the final year of our 2017-2021 Business Strategy through “making business happen” activity helping companies innovate, embrace digitisation, seek new markets, and invest in staff so they can improve their overall competitiveness and be at the forefront of their industry.

Specifically, in response to COVID-19 we have been at the front of delivering emergency support, funds and intelligence to businesses and now will be introducing new support schemes to help companies to review their business strategies and address the specific challenges raised as a result of COVID-19. In broad terms there will be investment support, help with moving a business online, and assistance towards providing a safe working environment. I know businesses are seeking this help and we are doing everything we can to test and get the schemes operational as soon as possible…all while maintaining the good governance that use of public money requires.

In relation to post-EU preparations, we will build on the successful activity of last year with workshops and access to consultants for specific advice. And our Brexit Preparation Grant remains open to applications to help businesses towards some of the financial costs associated with preparing for Brexit.

Rising to the challenges ahead of us will take a combined effort, and the Northern Ireland business community has proven itself united and capable of meeting challenges before. Opportunities exist and it will be by embracing change and grasping these opportunities that we can ensure Northern Ireland is amongst the first and the strongest economies in the recovery.