Posted on Thursday 23 September 2010 byUlster Business
Ahead of the US/NI investment conference next month, Symon Ross talked to US special economic envoy to Northern Ireland Declan Kelly about his first year in the job and his hopes for the future
It is fair to say that not too many people in the Northern Ireland business community would have known who Declan Kelly was a year ago.
But since his appointment as the US government’s special economic envoy to Northern Ireland on September 11, 2009, the former journalist and public relations executive has quickly become a familiar face, and a positive force in the promotion of the province in the US.
Mr Kelly’s “mission”, as he refers to it, is to help foster trade and investment links between America and Northern Ireland by bringing what the province has to offer to the attention of US companies. As well as involvement in high profile events such as the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Derry City of Culture bid, the envoy has established more than a dozen programmes, formed economic working groups on both sides of the Atlantic, and undertaken activities in hard-to-reach communities.
“In terms of things going according to plan I think we are ahead of the plan. But I’m always impatient to do more. I’m pleased that we’ve been able to make a contribution and that we’ve achieved as much as we have,” Mr Kelly told Ulster Business from his office in Washington DC.
Much of his time is now being occupied by the organisation of the US/NI investment conference, which is due to take place on October 19 in Washington and will be hosted by Secretary Clinton. Former President Bill Clinton will visit Northern Ireland this month ahead of the event raising its profile even further.
But unlike some of the large-scale, trumpet blowing conferences that have taken place in recent years, only a select group of companies and executives – mostly from the Fortune 500 - have been invited to this event to discuss business in Northern Ireland with US executives whose companies have already invested here – including Allstate, Liberty Mutual and the New York Stock Exchange.
Mr Kelly says the goal is to create an environment that is conducive to real investment taking place.
“I think it will be a very different conference from the types that have been tried in the past. We’re trying to make sure there’s plenty of time for real substantive discussion. Many of the potential investors we have already brought on visits to Northern Ireland and the next step is for them to get down to talking turkey,” Mr Kelly said.
“We have a lot of sessions planned around the individual sectors and we have some outside participants coming in that I think will surprise people because they were willing to give up their time,” he added.
One of those is US business journalist Maria Bartiromo, a household name in the US through her appearances on CNBC and well respected by CEOs. She will chair part of the event.
“I’m optimistic. We’re pushing very hard to make it as deep a dive as possible. More than anything else we’re making sure there’s enough time for everyone in the room to have a meaningful look at what we’re selling here. It’s a big thing for a CEO of a public company in America to take one day out of his organisation to come to Washington and spend the day talking about Northern Ireland. It’s never been done this way before,” he adds.
Sectors being targeted include financial services, business services, emerging technologies and creative media, all important to Invest NI. A handful of individuals that don’t sit in any one category but who have an interest in investing in the region and have significant buying power have also been invited.
Mrs Clinton, who appointed Mr Kelly, will, he says, be “completely engaged in the conference” as will the business people who have worked as part of the envoy’s Northern Ireland and US working groups.
The envoy’s own role is for the duration of the Obama administration and he is not planning beyond it yet, saying he has “put no timeframe on how long I would like to do the job”.
Mr Kelly does however, have specific targets for each of the programmes his office runs.
He is keen to expand the US/NI mentoring programme - which was launched this summer in partnership with the Northern Ireland Science Park and is designed to give recent graduates a chance to work in a high profile US corporation for a year. The first intake will mostly be based in New York but Kelly wants to widen this out to several cities around the US.
“We had massive interest and a lot of high quality applications. We’ve exceeded our numbers and I’ve no doubt that it will be bigger next year. It could have a long term lifespan which would be very exciting,” he said.
In his work with Invest NI the envoy is hopefully that some of the potential inward investors he has been talking can be “brought across the line” and commit to creating jobs in the Province. After the US state elections he is also aiming to get some US state governors from state’s with industries relevant to the local skills base to come on a trade mission to Northern Ireland.
While acknowledging the ongoing economic difficulties both globally and at home, the Tipperary-born Mr Kelly takes the view that it is his job to focus on the positives and the assets Northern Ireland has as there are “enough people focusing on the problems”.
He reserves praise for First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and the other politicians who have visited the US to bang the drum for Northern Ireland.
“The politicians here, when they go outside Northern Ireland they do a phenomenal job of promoting it and do work very hard,” he says. “We have had dozens and dozens of conversations with many many companies and a lot of them are now involved in very serious dialogue with Invest NI.”
Though nobody is kidding themselves that the next few years will be easy for the local economy, Mr Kelly remains convinced that Northern Ireland has a lot going for it.
“I am wholly realistic and have my eyes wide open to the situation we are dealing with. I think everybody will know that there are tough times ahead. But that’s a picture that you get in many countries around the world, and actually on the evidence of what’s been achieved in the last 12 months, when the chips are down, Northern Ireland does punch above its weight.”
The US/NI investment conference takes place on October 19 in Washington DC, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A dozen specially invited, high-powered US executives will meet with their counterparts from fellow US corporations that are already in Northern Ireland and politicians to discuss the practical benefits of making an investment in the province and establishing operations here.