Q&A with Mark Johnston Senior Vice President West Coast of America
Mark Johnston is Invest Northern Ireland’s Senior Vice President for the West Coast of America.
He joined the team eight years ago and has recently taken on responsibility for leading the West Coast team. Mark shares some of his thoughts on why this market is proving so successful for Northern Ireland – for both FDI and export.
1. The San Francisco office was opened in March 2014. What is Invest NI’s strategy for the West Coast?
San Francisco is our base on the West Coast, though in actual fact the team covers from Seattle all the way down the coast and inland to Texas. San Francisco is probably the most dynamic, digitally driven city in the US. When we saw this emerging a number of years ago, we decided that it was an ideal base from which to focus our support for Northern Ireland tech exporters, as well as our efforts to attract new tech investors to Northern Ireland.
2. What have been the office’s major successes over the past 3 years?
Northern Ireland has a global reputation for its skilled people, in particular in the areas of cyber security and other technology sectors such as software development and testing. For example, Belfast is now the #1 international investment location for US cyber security development projects with investors such as Proofpoint, Rapid7, WhiteHat, Black Duck and Anomali all choosing to invest in Northern Ireland over the last number of years.
3. The NI Tech Mission took place in January. What prep work goes into a successful mission and what do you hope will be achieved this year?
This was the fifth year of the NI Tech Mission. It’s proved a great success, providing companies with a platform to showcase and network with leading Californian companies, mentors and venture capitalists. It also allows us to position Northern Ireland as one of the leading innovative and digitally connected locations in Europe.
Work starts right after the previous mission ends. Over the years the mission has grown and now includes a substantial program over the course of a week with dozens of organisations involved, and hundreds of individuals who attend and participate in the various events. The goal is to improve the mission each year and it involves substantial collaboration between ourselves and our colleagues in Northern Ireland.
4. A major part of your role is to promote Northern Ireland on the West Coast. How is Northern Ireland viewed by the companies you speak with? What makes Northern Ireland stand out for software companies considering a new engineering site in Europe?
Northern Ireland has many great selling points. We have good infrastructure, a comparatively low cost base and strong government support for business. But our selling point is our people. This is particularly true in the tech sector where there’s a global squeeze on technology and software engineering talent.
Our two world-class universities, highly skilled graduates, and the Assured Skills scheme developed with the Department for the Economy, provide investors with a secure pipeline of talent. The Assured Skills academies have an 80 per cent success rate of participants progressing into full time employment, so it’s a win-win situation.
We have proven that we can deliver great talent solutions, quickly and cost effectively and the track record we have built up of investors making repeat investments and growing their operations here is proof of that.
5. How do you support Northern Ireland exporters to build market understanding and grow customers in the US?
Invest NI offers a wide range of support, products and services that help companies break into and grow in new markets. From researching a market, support for trade missions and visits, and access to in-market advisors there’s lots of ways we can help companies succeed.
Specific to the NI Tech Mission, we provide companies with one-to-one training to pitch in a style recommended for Silicon Valley. This is extremely beneficial as part of the programme involves companies getting to pitch to key Silicon Valley businesses and influencers at three key events in San Francisco and San Diego.
The US economy is continuing to grow and I am very optimistic and excited about the potential of the next five years.- Mark Johnston
6. 2011-2016 saw more US companies establishing in Northern Ireland than any previous period and a 100% increase in US exports in five years. Do you anticipate 2017-2022 will be better again?
The US economy is continuing to grow and I am very optimistic and excited about the potential of the next five years. However, at the same time, I am not complacent about achieving success.
Our Business Strategy 2017-2021 sets out our focus and target markets for the future. The market is very competitive both for us winning investment projects, and for our Northern Ireland companies exporting. We have to be very proactive to compete; success is not an accident. Given the speed of change, we will be keeping close to customers to understand their needs as they change and ensure we respond at the speed they require.
7. Is Brexit now a factor in your planning and discussions with US clients? Or does Brexit represent an opportunity for US companies?
Potential investors are certainly aware of Brexit. However, as can been seen from recent announcements, it is certainly not stopping them investing in Northern Ireland. Very often first time investors will initially require access to great talent, quickly, and then look to access markets at a later stage. Where those markets are and how investors will access those markets all depends on the type of investor, what business they are in and who their customers are.
8. What will success on the West Coast look like at the end of this next five-year period?
A large part of the success of the past five years has been expanding into new cities such as Portland, Seattle, Houston, Austin. We plan to build on this further and have plans to establish at least one further office on the west coast as part of that.
Building a presence in a new area takes time and hard work, developing networks and establishing a reputation. Typically it can take two to three years from the decision to focus on a city, to getting an initial investment delivered in Northern Ireland.
Our goal is to deliver for customers in these new target cities with the same capabilities we do in San Francisco, Boston, New York and Chicago, so that will require a focused effort over the next 5 years.
9. What is your main focus this month?
We have two main goals: Actively developing FDI opportunities already in our pipeline and we are recruiting for our San Francisco based team right now.
10. What does a regular day look like for Invest NI on the West Coast?
Our team starts early on the west coast because of the limited time overlap with Belfast. We also have offices in Boston, Chicago and New York and there is a lot of collaboration between these teams.
Due to the size of the west coast territory we travel a lot, and commutes are always long in the Bay area so a lot of calls are made and work done on the go!
We spend a lot of time researching potential opportunities, building relationships and meeting with potential investors. It’s a busy, dynamic and fast paced working environment!
11. What is your message to scaling companies considering a go to market strategy in the US?
Having a clear idea of how you can solve a potential customer’s problem better than anyone else is very important. It’s never too early to start that conversation. Maintain that contact with potential and existing customers often, by both phone and in person – follow up visits to the US are very important and can make all the difference.