Posted on Thursday 10 December 2009 by Ulster Business

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The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's Network Facilitator Eamonn Cavlan explains why he believes networking across the island is key to survival

The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce is the ultimate business network designed solely to help members grow their business across the island and beyond. "We believe the best way to win and grow business is by networking, especially in an economy like this," said Chamber Network Facilitator Eamonn Cavlan. "Networking is key to survival because it is the surest and most cost effective way of reaching new customers." Eamonn has been on staff with the Chamber for 18 months and was a consultant to the organisation for seven years before that. His CV includes working with Invest NI, local government enterprise boards and private companies all over Ireland. His experience is multi-sectoral, but he has focused particularly on tradable services, the food industry and engineering. "It's all to do with helping small companies - those employing between five and 40 people - across the island to grow," he explained. "Network Facilitator brings together companies that have products or services to offer with people who want to buy those products or services. "Also, we aim to encourage the development of those companies, often through collaboration with other suppliers within the network - as a crude example, we could put together a company that makes soft drinks, say, with one that makes cans. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's main partners are Invest NI and InterTradeIreland and their initiatives are rolled out through Chamber colleagues in Newry and Derry, as well as those in the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway. In Northern Ireland, the Chamber does a lot of work with bodies like the Central Procurement Division, the Department of Finance, Belfast City Council, BT and Bombardier. Eamonn says that while there have been historical, cultural and political reasons for the slow progress in the formation of networks across the island, business people were always well ahead of the politicians in this regard. "Business people have been waiting for everyone else to catch up," he commented. "We now have new political institutions moving in a new environment, bringing with them new opportunities. I have been helping companies with cross border trade since 2000 and there is fantastic interest in southern companies in the north and vice versa. "The recession has brought its own challenges, of course, and southern companies are finding it particularly hard - they are being hit right, left and centre. There are several reasons for this, but there are three headline issues which are having particular impact. "Firstly, the weakening of the pound is making it extremely hard for southern companies to export into Northern Ireland. Traditionally, southern products were always a bit more expensive, but were always there or thereabouts in cost. Not any more, and that is particularly difficult for small companies. "Also, the cost of doing business in the south is 15-20% more expensive due to an overheated economy and higher charges for light, rent, energy, wages and so on. southern companies coming into the north have to be really competitive and want to build relationships as part of a long term strategy. Having said that, there is a lot of business to be won here for southern companies. "Lastly, northern companies going south are far more competitive because they are able to do things at a better rate, plus Northern Ireland products and services are of a high quality. The problem is that there is not the same amount of business to be won as there was two years ago, for example, public sector tenders in the Republic of Ireland have dropped between 20 and 30% compared to the same time last year." Eamonn believes that the best business opportunities lie in food, which always tends to exhibit stable growth. southern companies have faced issues with multiple retailers, but have overcome this to some extent by producing specialist, artisan and high end products. There are also opportunities in ICT, particularly pertaining to software and training services; biomedicine and specialist research for the knowledge sector; and in the creative industries like the media, especially TV and the internet. He admits that the recession has also brought with it certain sensitivities between north and south. "People have become more sensitive to contracts going elsewhere, but they have to remember that we are in Europe," said Eamonn. "There is no need to get protectionist; when there is an export surplus in the Irish economy I don't think people should be overly concerned about a bit of competition. "Competition can deliver very good value for money and when winning contracts deliver better value for money, they can deliver lower taxes. That is good news for everyone and for the island economy as a whole." There have also been reports recently predicting that the all-island economy will shrink by seven per cent in 2010, but, according to Eamonn, that means there is still 93% to play for. He said: "The all-island infrastructure does need improvements, particularly the Dublin to Belfast corridor, but that's on-plan. I have to say that I don't see any major barriers to cross border trade, simply because there is so much advice and support for companies out there. "I think there is a perception, rather than a reality, of difficulty. Actually, they are more in the nature of issues than barriers. Recently, I was approached by one company which seemed to be having problems, but within eight hours I had all the barriers jumped!" Eamonn works mainly in partnership with InterTradeIreland's Network + Getwork programme, which is a vehicle for small businesses looking to increase their cross-border trade. It is one of the all-island business and trade organisation's big successes, having assisted in delivering £3m of cross-border trade. The programme runs in two-year cycles through local workshops that put an average of 60 suppliers in touch with between five and 10 buyers during pre-arranged, one to one meetings. "In the last six months, we have assisted in bringing in excess of 30 companies from Northern Ireland to a new marketplace and set up many more in potentially lucrative collaborative relationships," said Eamonn. "A lot of preparatory work is done to ensure we are putting the right people together. We are always heavily subscribed - now more than ever due to the ongoing challenges of this tough economic climate. In fact, lately we've had to turn people away!" Three new workshops are planned for 2010: February: Northern suppliers in the Construction, Engineering and Environmental industries will meet buyers in Dublin. April: Construction, Waterfront. May: Public Sector, Newry More information on the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's programmes and services from Eamonn Cavlan at: Tel: 028 9024 4113 Email: Eamonn.Cavlan@northernirelandchamber.com Web: www.ninni.co.uk More information on InterTradeIreland's programme of cross-border trade initiatives and supports from: Tel: 00800 10105454 Email: firststopshop@intertradeireland.com Web: www.intertradeireland.com

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