Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

Ann McGregor

The CEO of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce has won many plaudits over the last few years, but feels there's a lot more the business organisation can do to help boost the local economy.

It says a lot about Ann McGregor that she'd rather talk about an award won by her team at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce than the MBE she received last year.

She was thrilled to be awarded the MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in recognition of her service to Small Business Development and Enterprise, an award that bridges her current role and her former position as CEO of Enterprise NI.

But Limavady-born Ann is equally proud of her organisation being named Chamber of the Year by the British Chambers of Commerce, beating 53 others from around the UK to the title.

The win should come as no surprise given that, since Ann's arrival in 2008, the Chamber has seen membership grow by 138% and member retention rise to 85%.

"I run this place like a business," said Ann. "Previously this place would have been run as a nice to be in club where you'd do something for your members but there was no clear customer focus.

"When myself and Bro McFerran (as President) came in, we did a business assessment and what you had was a brand that was strong, but behind it there wasn't a customer service mentality and there wasn't a strategy for growth. It had been coasting for quite a while," she added.

"We had got very involved in delivering government programmes and not really delivering services to our members, so we went back to basics. We put in place a three year plan to double membership and get a member retention level of 80%, but also to deliver a quality service."

It seems clear the objectives have been achieved with paid membership rising to 1,200 from 410 when she started and turnover increasing from £0.5m to £1m, none of which comes from government programmes.

Staff have become involved in making improvements to strategy, systems and processes and the Chamber also has aboard of high profile business leaders who expect KPI reports to accurately track progress. In line with its new image the business organisation will move to new premises early this year.

"I would say that any business organisation should be run like a business, because you're dealing with people who operate that way. We've now got the respect of our members because they can see what we're doing," said Ann.

The Chamber CEO began her career in the private sector working in production/materials management with Roche Manufacturing, Schering Plough and Bird's General Foods before moving into local economic development with the Local Enterprise Agency network, specialising in small business development and support. That experience has served her well in her current role for an organisation that has many short term and long term initiatives in the pipeline.

"I was in production management in my early days, so I know how to get something done. I know how to deliver on a project," added Ann.

However, she believes little has changed in Northern Ireland since her Enterprise NI days, when the focus was on addressing low levels of business start-ups and low export levels – a state of affairs she believes reflects the low levels of confidence in the economy at present.

The Chamber last year launched its successful Export First initiative, which aimed to give companies keen on exporting a chance to hear from those who already did – such as Wrightbus and Andor Technology.

Now, on the back of NICC's experience bidding to bring the World Chambers' Congress to Northern Ireland, it plans to focus in 2013 on the internationalisation of the Northern Ireland Chamber, while also continuing the rebranded Danske Bank Export First programme.

"We're focusing on growing export but also this year we have joined the international chambers of commerce network, and although we didn't succeed in our bid to host the global congress, 52 chamber presidents all over the world know who we are. What we want to do in this next stage of development is help our members to grow exports through those connections in the Chamber network," said Ann.

"The numbers show there are only 1,500 companies actively exporting in Northern Ireland. We really need to get more of them doing that."

Proving its commitment the Chamber is hoping to pull off an international export conference in Northern Ireland this September although it remains at the planning stage.

The CEO notes that the main challenge for many Northern Ireland businesses is that they are small and don't have the resources to research export markets, with many businesses having no employees at all. Among the Chamber's membership only 15% have over 250 employees, and 30% have less than nine staff.

While there was some talk that Invest NI thought the Export First programme was stepping on its toes, Ann doesn't believe this is the case and hopes the Chamber will be able to work more closely with Invest NI on exports under some kind of formalised relationship.

"There is a continuum of support for small businesses here but not a lot of people know how to access it. There's still a sense of mystery around it. We want to be one of the organisations helping businesses navigate the system," said Ann.

"Our role, as I see it, is to help businesses do business and to grow their business."

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