Posted on Monday 17 October 2011 by Ulster Business

Entrepreneurs see the glass as half full in NI

Local finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition believe that despite the economic uncertainty Northern Ireland has much to be positive about when it comes to innovative business people. Symon Ross reports

Entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Northern Ireland.

At least that is the view of two of the seven locally-based business people who have made it through to the final of Ernst & Young’s programme to crown the island of Ireland’s entrepreneur of the year.

While Northern Ireland is often lambasted for its reliance on the public sector and a perceived lack of entrepreneurial spirit, the business people competing in the E&Y competition believe the province is not short of get up and go.

Grainne Kelly, inventor of the Bubblebum inflatable car seat, thinks the harsh economic conditions of recent years have prompted more people to take a chance on starting a business.

“I think people realise that you can’t always do what you’ve always done, because you’re not going to get what you’ve always got. Not in this climate,” said Grainne, noting that lots of people phone her every week looking for advice on starting a business.

“Some people are being left with no option but to do it and it is stretching their horizons. They have got to be more innovative or they’ll just have to sit in the house. Opportunity is not going to walk across the front of your TV screen.”

Grainne started Bubblebum in late 2009 and is now selling her product in 20 countries, including the US, where it launched in July.

While the Derry-based entrepreneur didn’t initially get Invest NI support for her company, she points most of those who call her towards Invest and InterTradeIreland, confident they will direct aspiring business people to the right funding options.

“I think we have got to have a change in mindset and people have got to understand that these bodies are actually there to help and facilitate your business growth. I think in Northern Ireland we’ve been brought up to be very confidential and private about what we’re doing and we don’t like to shout about it, but you’ve got to understand these bodies can help if you go to them.”

Another of the finalists – Patrick Hurst, Managing Director of Bangor-based Munster Simms Engineering – is even more upbeat about the ability of Northern Ireland firms to respond positively to the economic climate.

“I definitely think the economic trading conditions are making people more innovative, more entrepreneurial, because the days of businesses growing because the market is growing are over in my opinion,” he said.

“We are growing because we are taking market share, we have launched a lot of innovative products in the last three years, invested a lot in engineering and R&D when our multinational competitors haven’t been doing that. The success for us has been product diversification, increasing the value to the customer and taking more market share.”

In 2009 Munster Simms employed 90 people. Today is has 150 staff and sells its products in 48 countries.

It reinvests the majority of its profits in the business, spending about 12% of turnover on product development, and has managed to increase its leisure marine business despite that market being 70% smaller than it was four years ago.

Patrick is involved in mentoring several smaller companies and says he is confident other entrepreneurs here will prosper, given the right support from their banks and agencies like Invest NI.

“I’m often amazed just what entrepreneurial small businesses there are in NI – many of them are just under the radar. But there are many talented businesses in this country that with the right help can grow. I just think we need to start to nurture that talent a bit more,” he said.

Cary Wilson, E&Y partner in charge of the Entrepreneur programme in Belfast, says while businesses continue to face difficult challenges – from funding for working capital to finding staff with the right management skills to cope with growth – there is no shortage of entrepreneurs here with the vision to see huge opportunities.

The challenge then, he says, is helping them realise that potential.

“There is more entrepreneurial spirit out there than most people realise. Over the last couple of years since I took this on I have found there are lots of fantastic examples out there. The biggest issue is that most of them try to hide it, to stay below the radar.

I think that’s one of our biggest challenges, that we don’t have enough role models out there. It is not that the entrepreneurs aren’t there, it is that they are not prepared to stand up and tell people about it, it’s not in the Northern Ireland psyche to do that.”

He also noted the high proliferation of exporters among this year’s finalists from Northern Ireland – with four of the eight finalists in the international category from here.

“If you are limiting yourself to the Northern Ireland marketplace you will probably struggle to have a business that will grow year on year, you’ll max out pretty quickly. So it comes with the territory that to be entrepreneurial you have to look beyond these shores,” he added.

The Northern Ireland-based finalists in this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards are Brian McConville, MJM Group; Adrian McCutcheon, Telestack; Patrick Hurst, Munster Simms; Mark McCusker, Texthelp; Mairead Mackle, Homecare Independent Living; Pete Boyle, Argento; and Grainne Kelly, Bubblebum. The overall winner will be announced at a gala event in Dublin on October 20.

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