On a mission to fund local success in business
BELFAST BRIEFING:MARK ENNIS is on a mission to give away money in Northern Ireland. In this case, it’s not his but rather cash from Invest NI, the North’s business development agency.
Ennis, who just six months ago took up the post of chairman of the agency, is unhappy about how difficult it is for businesses to get their hands on state funding. He wants to cut out some of the red tape and make it easier for Invest NI – within the bounds of its remit – to provide finance to help companies grow and create jobs.
Ennis sees the endless hoops through which companies have to jump before they can qualify for financial support as just one more obstacle businesses simply do not need these days.
Earlier this year, the agency returned £21.6 million (€26.9 million) to the North’s Executive because it was unable to spend it – not something the chairman wants to repeat.
Ennis, who took up the post in January, is more than aware that many companies are struggling to access finance at the moment. It is one of an ever growing list of issues he has had to worry about in the last six months.
“Six or nine months ago, we were in a better place. That has been primarily driven by the continuing economic climate and the problems we have been having with the euro.
“It has a big impact on confidence generally in terms of increased pressure on our financial institutions and challenges for our exporting business – so the environment hasn’t improved since I became chairman,” he says.
He had concerns about people’s expectations before he agreed to take the job, not least those of the Executive whose programme for government outlines ambitions to create 25,000 new jobs and secure £300 million in foreign direct investments by 2015.
There are currently about 700 foreign investors in the North and it falls chiefly on Invest NI to attract more.
Ennis’s game plan for his three-year term is to “manage expectations while pushing for maximum performance”. His current “day” job as executive chairman of SSE Ireland, the third largest energy utility in Ireland, provides plenty of opportunity to put this into practice.
Ennis is keen to highlight that, even before he came on board, Invest NI had been hitting its targets.
Results for the year to March 2012 show the agency provided more than £89 million in support to companies in the previous 12 months, supporting the creation of 6,485 jobs and total investment commitments of £452 million.
A closer look shows that the majority of the jobs created were in locally-owned companies. Ennis believes this is one in the eye for critics who have said that the agency has been too focused on supporting inward investors at the expense of local firms.
“In the last three years, more than 90 per cent of our activity has actually been with indigenous businesses ... and what is really good from my perspective is that 75 per cent of those indigenous investments have continued to grow above their original expectations,” Ennis adds.
Although he believes there is lots of potential, particularly in university spin-offs, he admits to a certain despondency about the “dearth” of large companies.
As a member of the North’s business aristocracy, large companies is something that Ennis knows a thing about.
His family was the driving force behind the listed Boxmore International.
Founded by his father, Harold Ennis, the packaging company was a major success until its acquisition by US group Chesapeake Corporation for £191 million.
“We did not want to sell our business,” Ennis says but, at the end of the day, the deal was driven by the stock market.
He believes one of the biggest challenges for companies who want to emulate Boxmore’s success is to get the right finance in place to grow.
“Once businesses get to a certain size, it is difficult for them to get the right financial support to take the next step.
“We’re good at providing early stage but then what?. And our guys here don’t like venture capitalists.
“We know Northern Ireland is now very much on the radar for larger acquisition-hungry companies; what I want to do is make sure that any company has the best support it can have to grow.”