Top executives in Northern Ireland companies were challenged today by Prof. Fabian Monds, Invest NI Chairman, to help set a new record by pushing exports beyond the current £4 billion mark.

Prof. Monds, launching Invest NI’s new Trade Programme, said the agency aimed to achieve a 10 per cent per annum growth in exports in its first Corporate Plan period for 2002-2005 by helping many more small to medium sized enterprises to secure significant business outside Northern Ireland.

Invest NI, he said, would help ambitious companies succeed overseas by providing more than 40 separate activities in the international marketplace over the next 12 months. Included in the programme are nine trade missions to markets in Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East.

Speaking to over 100 exporters at the programme launch in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Prof. Monds said: “Export success drives economic growth as companies become more competitive, capable and innovative in international markets. Increased global sales, in turn, will mean a stronger, more dynamic and robust economy with greater opportunities for local people.

“To help companies succeed in a marketplace that is offering increasing opportunities through the removal of trade barriers and the growth of e-business but is also becoming intensely competitive, Invest NI has developed a portfolio of practical services.

“Our Principles for Business Support seek to help individual companies, first time exporters as well as those already successful in overseas markets, to achieve sustainable growth through customised business solutions that assist them to enhance capability in exporting, “ he added.

During its first year of operations, Prof Monds said, Invest NI had committed itself to “improving economic development support for companies by putting in place a new development model focused on stimulating and supporting higher levels of entrepreneurial and innovative activity within our economy”.

“Helping companies succeed in export markets is one of our key priorities and with a 133 per cent increase in manufacturing exports over the last 10 years the message that companies must widen their horizons to ensure growth, or even survival, is obviously getting through.

“Despite the problems experienced in recent years, such as the strength of sterling, difficulties in the agriculture and textiles and clothing sectors, and the present global economic uncertainties, local companies, with the help of Invest NI, are winning business in many of the world’s more difficult markets. Some 1,100 companies, for example, have taken part in Invest NI trade activities since last April,” he said.

The most recent survey of exports indicated that exports from Northern Ireland companies increased by 4.6 per cent (£184million) to £4,2 billion, he added.

“Exports now account for 38 per cent of all sales and indeed most manufacturing sectors have continued to experience export growth. As a result, some 76,000 manufacturing jobs are estimated to rely on sales outside Northern Ireland.

“While our export statistics may be impressive there is no room for complacency, because the figures disguise the fact that three large companies currently contribute 21 per cent and 10 companies provide some 50 per cent of exports from Northern Ireland.

“The challenge that we are addressing is the need to encourage and equip more enterprising small to medium sized companies to seek out new business opportunities in overseas markets by creating an innovative, flexible and fully integrated business support structure as proposed in Accelerating Entrepreneurship, the draft strategy for public consultation,” added Prof. Monds.