It’s not all about Brexit: A year of highs and lows in the North

Top 1000: It may have dominated the headlines but Britain leaving the EU was not the only story in Northern business last year

From a £12 million investment in a new manufacturing facility by Terex Corporation, one of the North's longest-established US inward investors, to ambitious plans by a homegrown success, the MJM Group, to harness Belfast's shipbuilding legacy with a £50 million (€58.3 million) cruise ship refit project, there have been plenty of highlights for the Northern Ireland economy over the last 12 months.

Brexit may have created major uncertainty for Northern Ireland firms, but despite the frustrations it caused, many businesses flourished in the last year, winning new orders thanks in part to the weak pound and creating new jobs which in turn helped boost the North’s employment rate to a record high during 2018 of 70.3 per cent.

The turmoil created by Brexit also failed to dent the appetite for business deals in Northern Ireland according to research from information services company, Experian.

It estimated the total value of mergers and acquisitions in the North hit an all-time high of £2.2 billion (€2.6 billion) last year with 220 deals agreed during the 12 months.


The biggest deal on the table was the sale of one of the North's largest construction materials businesses and a long-time Irish Times Top 1000 stalwart - the Lagan Group.

The AIM listed Breedon Group plc firmly established its presence in Northern Ireland by paying £455 million in a debt and equity funded deal to acquire Lagan and expand its "geographic footprint".

Another significant deal during 2018 was the move by Newry headquartered and Top 1000 company, First Derivatives’ (FD) to secure the remaining shares in the Silicon Valley hi tech, Kx Systems.

FD had already taken a controlling stake in the US hi tech in 2014 but Brian Conlon, the founder and chief executive Officer of FD, says that acquiring 100 per cent in 2018 - for around £48 million - of Kx Systems would give the Newry group "certainty" in the future.

According to Experian manufacturing firms were the most popular businesses to be targeted for a takeover or merger in the North last year.

Out of the total £2.2 billion worth of deals agreed, 26 per cent were in the manufacturing sector.

This is despite the fact that - according to Stephen Kelly, chief executive of the industry group Manufacturing NI, which counts some of the North's biggest employers, including Bombardier Aerospace among its members - it is one of the sectors likely to be most affected if there is a no deal Brexit.

Kelly has no doubt there would be “dire consequences” for the Northern Ireland manufacturing sector, which employs more than 80,000 people, if the UK were to crash out of the EU.

Bombardier Aerospace, which alone accounts for 10 per cent of Northern Ireland’s total exports, like the vast majority of businesses in the North, has repeatedly stressed that it wants to see an “orderly Brexit”.


Even leaving Brexit aside, the last 12 months have been particularly turbulent for the Canadian giant which is one of the North’s biggest private sector employers.

Following a review of its Belfast operations - which was unconnected to Brexit - Bombardier confirmed plans to axe more than 10 per cent of its total workforce which amounts to nearly 500 core jobs in Belfast.

Because of the importance of Bombardier’s supply chain to the North’s economy any move to reduce its workforce by the aerospace group causes ripples of concern far outside its factory gates in east Belfast.

The North’s manufacturing sector in general has had a difficult balancing act to contend with over the last year with some firms using the weak pound to help them land new orders but others suffering the negative effects of buying raw materials from outside the UK at much higher costs.

New opportunities

Despite this Kelly says many manufacturing and engineering firms, large and small, across Northern Ireland have an established track record of seeking out new business opportunities across the globe and continued to do so last year despite the challenges posed by Brexit and an unsettled global economy in 2018.

Businesses for example like Newry’s MJM Group, which sealed an industry first when it won a contract, valued at an estimated £50 million, to carry out one of the first major refits of a cruise liner in a UK dry dock.

It brought the Azamara Pursuit cruise liner to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast for a four-month refit during 2018 and it is hoping that the project could be a “game changer” to help revitalise the ship-building industry in the North for a new era.

Kelly says many successful Northern Ireland manufacturing and engineering companies share two key characteristics in common which are strongly evident among the firms from the North that feature in this year’s Top 1000 companies.

“They’re good at spotting an opportunity - an opening in a market or a sector that they are experts in and they’re also extremely ambitious. Our guys track global markets, this means they are prepared to chase sales and go where the business is and furthermore they’re very, very good at what they do and what they produce,” he says.

Kelly’s assessment is underlined by the growth in the number of manufacturing firms in the North, there are currently more than 5,800 firms which are exporting products and machines to more than 100 countries worldwide.

According to the regional business development agency, Invest NI, the North’s manufacturing sector has grown almost three times faster than the rest of the UK and manufacturing jobs now account for 11 per cent of all employment in Northern Ireland.

Within the North’s engineering and manufacturing sector industry clusters have also emerged which have developed world class reputations in specific areas.


Today, for example, more than 40 per cent of the world’s mobile stone crushing and gravel screening equipment is manufactured in Northern Ireland and the vast majority of companies producing this equipment are based around the mid Ulster region.

This cluster of manufacturers has largely evolved thanks to the presence of one of the North’s longest established US inward investors; Terex Corporation, which first came to Northern Ireland via the acquisition of Dungannon based Powerscreen in 1999.

Since its arrival, Terex has expanded to eight sites across the North and has grown its workforce to nearly 2,000 people. It has also helped to create an extensive supply chain and promoted a flourishing engineering eco-system in Mid-Ulster which has inspired other entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses.

Terex recently announced plans to establish a new £12 million plant in Campsie in Derry which will create 100 jobs.

Kieran Hegarty, president of Terex Materials Processing, believes the new facility will help the American organisation grow a new generation of engineering talent and realise its ambition to become a global leader in the waste management, recycling and mobile conveying sectors.

“Our materials processing division is a good consistent performer in Northern Ireland and we have an established major supplier chain of fabricators, what we have seen is Tyrone become the Silicon Valley for crushing and screening equipment. It has the whole eco system from design to manufacturing,” he says.

“But we’re always looking for new opportunities and we’ve identified that in the waste management, recycling and mobile conveying sectors, particularly in the US. Derry offers us a new population pool, new talent where we will manufacture product lines for Terex Ecotec (waste management and recycling) and Terex Conveying Systems (TCS) (mobile conveying),” Hegarty says.

But Terex is not the only company in Tyrone that has been in expansion mode over the last 12 months.

Cookstown headquartered CDE Global, which designs and manufactures materials washing and classification equipment, also moved into its new £12 million headquarters and established a centre of excellence at its Tyrone base, which now houses one of the largest engineering teams solely dedicated to wet processing technologies.

According to managing director of CDE Global, Brendan McGurgan, the last 12 months have helped the company position itself “to expand and develop our business and our workforce”.

McGurgan says CDE is now preparing to launch the “world’s first all-in-one wet processing system to the global market” at the construction trade fair, Bauma 2019 in Germany next month.

“Our new centre of excellence provides a cutting-edge and collaborative environment that strengthens our commitment to developing sustainable innovations to advance the circular driven economy within a new world of resource,” he adds.

Not too far from CDE Global’s new Cookstown HQ, another Tyrone manufacturing firm is gearing up to grow its market share after 12 months of investment and planning.


Mallaghan Engineering wants to help make commercial air travel easier both for passengers and major aviation firms regardless of what Brexit might bring in 2019.

Like many of the North’s most exciting manufacturing firms, Mallaghan Engineering is a family run business with a decidedly outward focus.

It specialises in manufacturing ground support equipment for the global aviation industry from passenger stairs, to high lift trucks for catering and baggage conveyors and has many of the world’s biggest airlines including Aer Lingus, easyJet and Qantas and leading ground handling companies throughout the world on its client list.

Last year the Dungannon based firm embarked on a multi-million pound investment project to expand its Tyrone factory and recruit more than 200 additional staff.

The company is also developing its first airport apron bus which it hopes is going to boost its export sales this year.

According to Ronan Mallaghan, CEO of Mallaghan Engineering, like other ambitious Tyrone manufacturing companies, while Northern Ireland may be at the heart of their operations, export sales are crucial to grow the business.

It has strong ambitions and has its sights set on landing new business opportunities in the US and China this year.


But it was not just the North’s manufacturing sector that flourished last year despite the overhang of Brexit, 2018 also proved to be another vibrant year for Northern Ireland’s tourism industry.

Hotels in the North reported record demand in relation to bed and room sales with more than 3.7 million guests enjoying a hotel sleepover last year in Northern Ireland.

It was also one of the busiest years on record for new hotel openings in Belfast as six major hotel projects opened their doors for business including the Hastings Group’s new £53 million Grand Central in the heart of the city.

In total more than 1,200 new hotel rooms came on stream in Belfast last year increasing the room stock by about 30 per cent, according to John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI. McGrillen believes this will help to underpin Northern Ireland’s growing reputation as a business conference and event destination.

But it was not just business tourism that enjoyed the spotlight last year as a key economic driver.

The continuing global popularity of the hit television series Game of Thrones (GoT) also helped to attract a record number of screen tourists to visit Northern Ireland during 2018. According to latest industry figures from Tourism NI one in every six out of state visitors who travelled to Northern Ireland last year came specifically because of their love of GoT.

Early estimates suggest that a record 350,000 GoT fans from all over the world including India, North America, China, Australia and across Europe visited the North last year and spent in the region of £50 million during their trips.

McGrillen says the success of GoT has been a “game changer” for Northern Ireland both in terms of how it has changed the perception of the North as a tourist destination but also because of the “legacy” that it has created for the tourism sector.

“It has been a phenomenal success and it has been fantastic for Northern Ireland to be associated with this worldwide success over the last 10 years. Game of Thrones has been hugely beneficial for Northern Ireland. Fans of the show are very engaged and very motivated to travel,” he says.

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business