Invest Northern Ireland
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Invest Northern Ireland
This content was paid for by Invest Northern Ireland and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.

“Our door is open”: Northern Ireland, the place to go for growth

A few short months ago, Northern Ireland topped yet another poll placing it as the happiest region in the UK. In its annual Happiness Index, Lloyds Banking Group found that, even in the face of the pandemic, contentment amongst Northern Ireland’s people had increased almost six per cent on 2019, while the UK as a whole reported a negligible rise of just 0.4%. 

Surveys like these tend to represent a mere snapshot of a larger population, yet, this result must bear some truth. Yes, this past year has presented its challenges, but it’s also been a time of great opportunity for many of Northern Ireland’s key industries, academic institutions and, of course, the people behind them.

Stories of resilience abound. The professional services workforce, for example, has adapted with ease to homeworking, with businesses like regtech firm FinTrU celebrating several successes this year, including new client wins and its best quarter to date, after taking swift action to adopt remote working for all 450 staff. 

Likewise, neither the pandemic, nor exit from EU have had any negative impact on the flow of investment from either indigenous companies or new inward investors. Quite the opposite, actually. The total number of businesses operating in Northern Ireland, for instance, has increased each year since the referendum. There are now 6,000 more companies registered in Northern Ireland today than there were in 2016 and inward investors continue to set up operations. At the heart of this is the supportive environment our people, businesses, academia and public sector partners have cultivated together over recent years. 

As the regional business development agency for Northern Ireland, we see every day how this focus on collaboration has created the perfect conditions for ideas, innovation and growth that looks both inwards and out. Our goal now is to build on this success story.

Northern Ireland is, after all, unique. Despite being the smallest region of the UK with only 1.8 million people, companies large and small look to us for growth.

Let’s take a closer look.

Talent in abundance

Northern Ireland is known for the quality education offered by its schools, colleges and universities. Nearly a fifth of public expenditure is on education, and Northern Ireland consistently outperforms all other UK regions in academic qualifications at GCSE and A-Level. We also have a hunger for knowledge and personal development, and currently around 4,000 people graduate with business qualifications each year, with tech being a specific area of focus, alongside finance and other professional services. 

As such, Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of qualified IT professionals in the UK, which also demonstrates our ambition to shape the industries of the future – in fact, one in 11 people in Northern Ireland is employed in the knowledge economy today. 

Our demographic also works in our favour when it comes to talent. We have one of the youngest populations in Europe - over 50 per cent are aged under 40 – as well as one of the most loyal workforces, with acknowledged low labour turnover rates. 

It’ll be no surprise then, that access to talent brings many businesses to our shores. 

A good example is leading UK-wide legal practice Gateley, which recently became a new investor to Northern Ireland with plans to establish a legal and professional services team with the creation of over 70 new jobs. 

Talent was a major factor in their decision making, citing our vast pool of qualified legal professionals and graduates:

 “Our staff are one of our biggest assets and when we were considering expansion, it was important that it was a location that would offer us not only a competitive cost base but the right type of talent.

“We are delighted to have chosen Northern Ireland; it is a vibrant exciting place with skilled legal professionals and boasts excellent universities which generate first class graduates. We very much look forward to expanding and investing in a team in Northern Ireland.” Michael Ward, Partner, Gateley

Finally, if our existing talent isn’t enough, there’s another route. 

When a company is interested in creating jobs in Northern Ireland, Assured Skills provides the necessary support to source a high quality workforce through bespoke training and recruitment. 

Fully funded by the Department for the Economy, the programme typically works by facilitating the development, recruitment and delivery of a six to eight week pre-employment Assured Skills Academy with a college or university partner. Candidates are of a high calibre, and minimum entry level qualifications, such as a bachelor’s degree, can be set. 

The Academy Model is flexible and versatile, and has been used to help companies recruit new staff in a variety of areas – from data analytics, software development and cyber security to business, financial and legal services and even welding.

A recent example is Microsoft, which, in January last year, announced plans to create 85 new jobs at its cyber security centre in Belfast. 

“We were looking for people with strong empathy and analytical skills, as well as the aptitude to quickly absorb new pieces of information and apply it… We looked to hire people from varied backgrounds and we’ve been reaping the benefits since we opened the operations here just over a year ago.” Darren Dillon, CTO for Azure Cloud, Microsoft Consulting Services

An environment that helps you get ahead

The evidence speaks for itself. In spite of our small stature, more than 1,100 international companies currently operate in Northern Ireland, including major US companies like Microsoft, Allstate, Aflac and Seagate. And when they come, they tend to stay, with over 70 per cent of new investors choosing to re-invest in the region further down the line. That’s precisely why we still hold the accolade for attracting more FDI jobs per head than any other region in the UK.

But beyond talent, what’s the pull? 

Firstly, the competitive cost of doing business and the renowned quality of life in Northern Ireland are clear benefits for employees and employers alike. Property costs, for instance, are around 75 per cent lower than they are in London and 60 per cent lower than Dublin, and, in line with lower living costs and the associated high living standards, salaries can be around 30% and 20% lower compared with London and Dublin respectively. 

Secondly, digital connectivity is of significant importance to investors, even more so now as our world moves increasingly online. With over 400Km of fibre networks beneath our streets, Northern Ireland benefits from quality connectivity throughout. And, thanks to its fibre foundations, Belfast is to be one of first cities in the UK to benefit from a city-wide roll out of 5G.

“Without the correct infrastructure, it would not have been possible for businesses such as FinTrU to adapt to a situation like COVID-19. This robust connectivity and investment in technology will be a very important consideration for any company when investing in a new market.” Darragh McCarthy, Founder and CEO, FinTrU

In terms of other forms of support, Northern Ireland also offers powerful networks of the non-digital kind. Collaboration is rich and well embedded across all sectors, and this ability for public, private and academic communities to work together has been instrumental in our success. 

In the coming years, this approach is set to unlock an anticipated £1 billion in fresh investment through a host of City Deals. One deal has already been struck for the Belfast City Region, and heads of terms have been signed for the Derry~Londonderry and Strabane Region City Deal, marking significant progress. These City Deals are set to supercharge growth in areas of strength, thus helping to unlock new innovations and R&D paths.

One of the major areas of strength the City Deals seek to leverage is technology, and this will build on the cluster of business and academic expertise that’s already growing at pace in Northern Ireland.

Fintech, in particular, is an area of significant opportunity, which is why Northern Ireland native John Harkin, Director and Founder of Alchemy Technology Services, returned to his hometown of Derry-Londonderry to set up his firm’s European Centre of Excellence in 2018. Its aim is to provide software implementation and technology consultancy to the UK and European insurance sector, and working with Invest NI, the centre was established and will create over 250 new roles. 

“I am originally from Derry, and have made frequent visits here in recent months as we assessed different locations for this investment. I have met with the colleges and university, and numerous students and have been impressed. I am confident that this is the right place to set up our business and find the talent we need.” John Harkin, Director and Founder of Alchemy Technology Services

Finally, our unique international links mean that Northern Ireland can continue to prove itself as a hotbed for investment, particularly in R&D. Now, for companies looking to serve both UK and EU markets, for example, we are the ideal location for trialling, manufacturing, and commercialising products for both markets from the same place. For those seeking information on market access, a fact sheet is available on our website.

A sector hub with pull factor

With its long industrial and shipbuilding heritage, Northern Ireland is often associated with more traditional sectors. In recent decades, however, it has established leadership in some of the world’s most important and cutting edge industries including digital transformation, cyber security and data analytics. 

At the same time, more established industries have evolved. Manufacturing, for example, remains a significant player in our economic mix, and the flair for innovation at the core of the Northern Irish sector has been a key factor in demonstrating our ability to pivot during this challenging time. 

Likewise, professional and business services, including legal and finance, are now very mature in terms of both access to talent and reputation. Indeed, Northern Ireland is home to some of the biggest names globally, including EY, Deloitte, PwC, KPMG, TPIcap, Citi, Allstate, and Aflac. 

These hubs of expertise are a major pull for both talent and investment, feeding innovation, discovery and growth. There are many great examples. One of the UK’s most significant clusters of cyber security businesses has formed around CSIT, the UK’s Innovation and Knowledge Centre for Cybersecurity at Queen’s University, for instance, with representation from Allstate, Citi and IBM. For this very reason, Belfast has become the number one international location for US cyber security development projects in recent years. 

With this, legal has leapt into the 21st Century. Through its strong links to academia teamed with the region’s world leading strengths in cyber security, data analytics and risk, the sector established the UK’s first Legal Innovation Centre Ulster University with the support of Allen & Overy and Baker McKenzie in 2016.

A more recent major investment also builds on Northern Ireland’s longstanding strengths in finance. An entire ecosystem of home-grown and international players has now formed around this sector, with players including Datactics, Funds-Axis, FSCom, Kx Systems and FinTrU all working in global banking, asset management and payments on Northern Irish soil. 

Industry giants are also part of the mix, including top four accounting firms, KPMG, which has just announced an investment of £14million in its Belfast operation. The investment will establish a new Centre of Excellence in the city, which will deliver new digital consultancy services in major growth areas including cyber security, applied intelligence (AI) and digital transformation. 

“The case for building the team here was made easy by the depth of talent on offer in the digital technology space and the assistance of Invest NI. This investment cements our commitment to NI and we look forward to establishing a world-class team.” Johnny Hanna, Partner in Charge of KPMG in Northern Ireland

Finally, new tech disciplines are finding a home in Northern Ireland too. A recent investor is London-based ed-tech firm, Firefly, which was attracted by the region’s IT talent, lower living costs and overall appeal as a destination. The business, which provides a software platform that connects students, teachers and parents, plans to recruit 52 people over the next few years as part of an expansion into the city.

“We were attracted to Northern Ireland by the quality and availability of talent; that has not changed. We are very committed to our investment in Northern Ireland and are actively looking to recruit a mix of UX Developers, UX Researchers, designers, and back end and mobile app developers with experience in technologies such as Microsoft, JavaScript, IOS and Android.” Simon Hay, Co-founder, Firefly

As you can see, Northern Ireland has a lot to offer as a place to live, work and do business. We’re excited about the future and the opportunities our changing world will bring and we’re eager to support like-minded businesses with their sights set on growth. 

Our door is open and we’re here to help you succeed. 

Invest Northern Ireland is the region’s business development organisation. Its role is to grow the local economy by helping new and existing businesses to compete internationally, and by attracting new investment to Northern Ireland.

Find out more about how we can work together with you and your business