Posted on Wednesday 4 September 2013 by Ulster Business

Eddie O Gorman

Looking back, it seems like another world. Which in many ways, it was. It's easy, a quarter of a century later, to forget just how much has changed.

In the first place, doing business in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s was a difficult and sometimes hazardous process. Simply going from A to B could be a frustrating experience. On the main roads, it often meant joining long queues of vehicles at hastily-erected security checkpoints. Delays were common, and so, in consequence, were missed appointments and disrupted delivery schedules. And in the days when only a very few people had a mobile phone (and we thought they were poseurs), if somebody was late for an appointment, there was no way of knowing when they would arrive, or, indeed, if they would arrive at all.

Shopping was not a simple matter either. Out-of-town shopping centres were a relatively new phenomenon in those days (Sprucefield only opened in 1989), and delivery drivers heading for town centres had to contend with a daily obstacle course of no parking zones and security barriers. It wasn't much fun for the ordinary shopper, either, with many of the major stores, nervous of possible incendiary devices, employing security personnel to carry out random searches at the door.

For business people, this was all part of the tedious daily routine. It was a routine broken from time to time by bomb attacks, or hoax bomb attacks, which in Belfast in particular, could, and often did, cause huge gridlocks in and around the city centre.

Those were also the days when, if the first rule of business was to make a profit, then the second, at least in Northern Ireland, was to keep your head down while you did it. So, from a journalistic point of view, while there were plenty of good business stories to be told, there were precious few people willing to tell them. It was only very gradually that companies began to open up, to the extent that in late 1988, a year after its launch, the decision was taken to compile the first Ulster Business list of Top 100 companies, which was then published in 1989.

Even then, we had to tread carefully. Once we knew their identities, we took the decision to send out letters to the companies involved (there was no such thing as emails in those far-off days). The reason was twofold. For one thing, we wanted companies to have the opportunity to update their figures. But we were also aware that not every company would be keen to draw attention to themselves by appearing in such a list. So we made it clear that if for any reason they didn't want to be mentioned, then we would respect that.

And if that sounds a little odd in these more secure times, it had been demonstrated often enough over the years that the threat of violence, whether against personnel or company premises, was all too real. If they decided that they'd rather not be involved, we didn't feel that it was our place to insist.

In the event, only two companies of that original Top 100 asked not to be included, and of those, only one was in the Top 20.

It is extraordinary to look back at that list now and see how much the economy has changed in the intervening years.

It was a list dominated by manufacturing companies, among them many clothing and textile manufacturers, at a time when Northern Ireland still had a clothing and textile industry. There are shirt-makers such as Peter England, and carpet manufacturers, and clothing companies like Desmond and Sons, which at one time had a dozen or so factories, mainly in the north-west, supplying a range of leisurewear and nightwear exclusively to its sole customer, Marks and Spencer. The eventual fate of Desmond and Sons was sadly emblematic of this sector, with overseas competition forcing it to shut down its Northern Ireland operation and move production instead to low-cost locations in Turkey, Bangladesh and Africa.

Two of Northern Ireland's most iconic companies are prominent on the list, of course. Shorts, two years before its takeover by Bombardier, was still state-owned, and still making its rackety old unpressurised 360s, which flew low enough so that you could wave to people on the ground, and slow enough that they'd have time to wave back.

Harland and Wolff was, like Shorts, in state hands, and, like Shorts, was also suffering from a chronic lack of investment. Ten years after nationalisation, it was a business in slow decline, along, it should be said, with the rest of the UK shipbuilding industry.

Unable to match the competition from newer yards elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Far East and South America, it was struggling to find contracts, and had yet to identify a new role for itself. What would in any case turn out to be only a temporary solution – the buy-out involving Fred Olsen – was at that time still two years away.

Northern Ireland's food retailing sector in 1989 was a homegrown affair. Still awaiting the arrival of Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Asda, several years in the future, the business was dominated by Stewarts and Crazy Prices, which at that time still had the field pretty much to themselves, and whose outlets and retail philosophy seemed stuck somewhere about 1973. To anyone familiar with the supermarket chains in the rest of the UK, Stewarts and Crazy Prices looked quaint and old-fashioned even then, and not in a good way.

Twenty five years on, the Northern Ireland economy, for all its current troubles, is hardly recognisable. The Ulster Business Top 100 of the second decade of the 21st century reflects the growth in importance of the food processing sector (Moy Park, Dale Farm, Fane Valley), and the emergence of the pharmaceuticals sector (Almac, Norbrook, Randox Laboratories). Then there are those areas which hardly existed in 1988, such as computers (Seagate) and contact centres (Firstsource, Teleperformance). At the same time, the intervening decades have seen the virtual disappearance of traditional Northern Ireland industries such as clothing and textiles, reduced now to a handful of specialist manufacturers, and carpet manufacturing, with the notable exception of Ulster Carpet Mills.

A feature of the last quarter of a century has been the transformation in the business climate which followed the peace process. One consequence has been a much greater volume of business between Northern Ireland and the Republic, helped by vast improvements in road access (to the relief of those who remember the tortuous route to Dublin in the late 1980s and the interminable queues at the border checkpoint outside Newry). Another benefit: a sense of confidence reflected in the growing amount of inward investment from companies like Citigroup, NYSE, Allstate and Seagate Technologies, and the continued growth of home-grown companies like Almac, Moy Park, Randox, First Derivatives, Andor Technology, and Wrightbus.

And through it all, Ulster Business has been there to chart the changes, to chronicle the ups and frequent downs of the Northern Ireland economy, the inward investments and the presidential visits, the banking scandals and the bankruptcies, and to bring each year a new Top 100 companies, these days, thankfully, without first having to ask whether or not they want to take part.

The 1989 Top 25

There are some familiar names on the 1989 Top 100 but an equal number that have long since been acquired or gone out of business. Only five local companies had turnover of more than £100m. 

COMPANY                                                  SALES

Northern Ireland Electricity                     £306,600,000

Milk Marketing Board                            £212,884,000

Short Brothers plc                                £191.871,000

Stewarts Supermarkets                         £166,002,000

Wellworth & Co                                   £150,178,000

Lamont Holdings                                  £96,740,000

Cawoods of Northern Ireland                  £95,755,000

Dunnes Stores                                     £89,622,000

CV Carpets                                          £85,950,000

TBF Thompson                                     £82,596,000

Crazy Prices                                        £73,563,000

European Components Corp                   £68,952,000

Harland and Wolff plc                           £67,500,000

McLaughlin & Harvey                             £65,916,000

Moy Park                                             £61,565,000

Irish Bonding Company                         £54,619,000

John Kelly Ltd                                      £54,619,000

Hyster (NI) Ltd                                    £49,322,000

John Thompson & Sons                         £47,814,000

Hughes Tool Company                          £47,077,000

Desmond & Sons                                 £46,586,000

Leckpatrick Co-Op                                £46,571,000

Powerscreen International plc                £44,882,000

Dale Farm Dairies                                 £44,503,000

STC NI Ltd                                          £40,612,000

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