Posted on Wednesday 8 February 2012 by Ulster Business

Into the danger zone  or just out of the comfort zone?

Northern Ireland companies are winning contracts and undertaking projects in high-risk countries with ever-greater frequency. Ulster Business asked three different sorts of businesses about their experiences of working in political hotspots.

While exporting is something more and more Northern Ireland companies are sharpening their focus on, few have so far ventured into countries perceived as high security risks.

That may not be surprising when the only news we in the West hear about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the like are reports of terrorist attacks, bomb blasts and civil unrest.

But scratch just a little below the surface and it is possible to find Northern Irish businesses who have been operating in these so-called “danger zones” for years and who have built strong relationships with local governments and business communities.

Cookstown-based CDE Global, which sells a range of equipment to the construction, mineral processing and waste water treatment industries, has been operating internationally for some time in the Middle East, India, Africa, Latin America and Russia.

Sales manager Peter Craven says “nothing is out of bounds” for the firm in terms of geographical location and its horizons had been expanding overseas even before the recession hit.

He believes a lot of the reluctance other local firms have is down to a lack of understanding.

“A lot of it is perception. Once you’ve been doing it a while, once you’ve done your first trip to a place, you realise the fear factor comes from a lack of knowledge,” he says.

“Obviously there are places in every city or town where you don’t go, but that is the same whether you’re in Birmingham or Lahore. But so long as you make sure you have good local knowledge and the appropriate insurance in place you are generally fine,” he adds.

“I would say businesses should not make knee-jerk decisions to go somewhere – you have to carefully weigh up the benefits against the risks of doing business in an area. But with our equipment we are often following the disasters and destruction, so we are in Iraq, Haiti, New Zealand, etc because of the rebuilding efforts that are happening in those countries.”

He says Iraq is probably the most dangerous environment CDE’s employees have worked in, but adds that it is often on Government-led trade missions, where firms are accompanied by high level politicians, when the need for tight security is most important.

“If you are on an ad hoc business trip on your own you can generally slip under the radar. The security is needed when you are on an organised trade mission and there is publicity because politicians are there,” he adds.

Craven notes there are other costs that come with operating in global trouble spots, such as higher insurance and freight costs, but says with few sales expected in markets close to home this is now seen as a necessary cost of doing business.

“Yes you need to make sure there is adequate security, but there are big opportunities in the reconstruction of countries,” he says.

“I am more than sure there are companies in Ireland that want to export but have a fear factor because they think it is risky. But actually it is not as risky as they might think so long as they put the preparation in and do the ground work before they go anywhere.”

Specialist plastics components manufacturer Boomer Industries, based in Lisburn, has undertaken business activities in Afghanistan, Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq and Libya in recent years.

David Robinson, its GCC sales manager, says it took the decision to look at higher risk business destinations because demand slowed in the UK and Europe, which had been at the core of its distribution, and because it wanted to diversify its geographic reach for the future.

As a global exporter for forty years he says Boomer had an established knowledge base to help it ensure there was an effective supply chain when considering these markets.

But even with that experience, the company takes no chances with the safety of its employees.

“Safety is of course our paramount concern when travelling to high-risk destinations, and common sense is the first rule – there is no room for a macho attitude. Very simply, when in these locations, keeping travel movements to a minimum is critical; and always staying in a group, preferably with a security expert familiar with local knowledge and customs,” explains David.

In 2011 Boomer supplied products to Helmand Province in Afghanistan that were used as part of rebuilding efforts by the military. Working with trusted partners in such areas was key, says Robinson.

“Working in a high security military base, with very strict security clearance procedures, requires advance liaison on the ground. Help co-ordinating with the planning is essential. Local knowledge in such places is invaluable and having a trusted business partner to work with makes travelling to a difficult location much easier, and more effective,” he notes.

He says contractors working in the country had to remain alert to what was happening around them.

“When the military are continually moving, day and night, it’s then that you are fully aware that you are in an area of conflict, with explosions detonating in the background, and wounded personnel being flown into the base. At first it is un-nerving but it becomes a sort of strange normality after some time,” he adds.

Robinson agrees that there the opportunities for strong business and good margins are definitely there for Northern Ireland companies prepared to go off the beaten track.

“It’s about taking that first step, a well-prepared first step, but being decisive with your intent. It is true, these are not pleasant places to visit, but some of the best business ethics and some of the finest people I dealt with work in these conflict areas. So don’t hold back, take the first step, but be bold in your preparation too.”

Someone helping businesses, politicians and third sector organisations to navigate their way into very different cultures is Ryan Gawn, who heads up Belfast-based public affairs consultancy Stratagem’s overseas arm.

Originally from Bangor he has been in Islamabad in Pakistan for the past five months working for Stratagem International and has also spent time in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

While he agrees Western visitors to such conflict areas need to be streetwise about where they go, he says building any meaningful presence requires strong and trusted local contacts, a firm appreciation of the politics and culture of that country, as well as knowledge of who in the political establishment to talk to and how to talk to them.

“I am comfortable coming out to places like this because we have really really good contacts who understand the dynamics and the environment, be it political or in terms of security. They know the people to speak to. They are personal contacts so we are at times entrusting our lives to them, but it is that local knowledge that is key, and also opens doors which wouldn’t necessarily be opened,” he explains.

A large part of Strategem’s work in helping its clients position themselves for a Pakistani audience, which means Ryan spends a lot of his time meeting community leaders who are close to the ground to ensure he understands all the nuances. He says being from Northern Ireland is actually a bonus is this situation.

“The fact that we are from Northern Ireland, that we have got both the Irish and British side of things, is a real asset. We have also come from a place that has had conflict and divided communities and segregation, so we do get it much more than our competitors in the UK because we’ve lived it. People here appreciate that,” he says.

First time visitors can find somewhere like Pakistan quite daunting but as the administrative capital Ryan notes that much of life is unaffected by security concerns and he is able to drive around the city, visit restaurants and shops, go horse riding and walk in the hills.

“You find that you get used to the protocols,” he says. “Checkpoints and seeing AK47s become normal. Protests every Friday afternoon become normal and you just avoid them. It becomes very normal once you understand where you should be going and how you should react.

“In Afghanistan I went to work with a bullet- proof jacket and had armed guards. For my own personal security here I check under the car in the morning and keep up to date with what’s happening through my contacts in the embassies, the UN and my NGO friends who often know what is going on and when to stay away from certain areas of the city.”

Ryan adds one other important comment: “The thing that makes people so wary about these types of places is that all they’ve heard in the news is bad. If we look back 20 years to the news coming out of Northern Ireland, you’d know that there was so much more to Northern Ireland than the Troubles.

“So it is about being prepared to step outside your comfort zone whenever we go to these places and not wrapping ourselves in cotton wool.”

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