Posted on Wednesday 22 January 2014 by Ulster Business

NI Connections

John Speers has been away from Northern Ireland for 26 years, but he still calls Belfast "home".

Like many before and after him, John decided to leave the province during the Troubles to seek a better life overseas – in his case, in Canada.

Having worked for Northern Bank for 14 years in Belfast John says he had also reached a point where his career was not progressing as quickly as he wanted. So with his wife Kim and two young children Jonathan and Karen he decided to emigrate in July 1987.

"I didn't see an opportunity to advance quickly so I decided to apply for emigration status. We came to Canada and I walked up and down Bay Street in Toronto's financial district, which is the equivalent of Wall Street, and banged on doors until somebody gave me a job," he says.

That somebody was Canada's oldest bank, the Bank of Montreal (BMO). He first worked in Treasury and Bank Credit before joining its International Financial Institutions group in 1991. Then in 2004, he was appointed Managing Director of Developed Markets with International Financial Institutions and three years ago he accepted a role leading a team managing the Capital Markets Trading and Sales relationships with the bank's Top 50 clients globally.

While his career was progressing John never forgot his roots. He became a director of the Ireland Fund of Canada and a member of the advisory board of Enterprise Ireland Canada, which also led him to do pro bono work for Invest NI.

"Because of my role in the bank I am pretty well known so if something happens related to Ireland I'm often dragged into the conversation," he says.

"My attitude is that anywhere I can help I will. If I hear of any Canadian companies that are looking at Europe or the UK I'll let Invest NI know. On the other side of that if Invest NI or a company is coming to Canada or they need to find a way into a sector or a company, I've been here 26 years so I normally know someone who can help. It's about getting them through the door so they get the chance to pitch the Northern Ireland story to people at the highest level."

While Toronto had a heavy Ulster influence in the first half of the 20th century that connection is less strong now and Speers believes the Irish government's strong marketing of Ireland has put it ahead of Northern Ireland in the public consciousness.

He would like to see more Northern Irish trade missions coming to Canada, noting that if a company has the right product there's a market of 34 million people easily accessible.

"Canadians do business in a different way to the US. The US is a big market to deal with, there are probably seven or eight different regions. But you can come into Canada, to Toronto or Montreal, and talk to the head of a Canada-wide company. If you can sell to them and deliver a great product, Canadian companies are good at paying on delivery," he said.

"Businesses in Northern Ireland, if they want to export, they immediately look to mainland UK. At the moment it's a struggling economy, so why wouldn't you try to export into a booming economy. It's got the English language, it's got the historical connections. It's across the Atlantic but it's probably just as cheap to sell to Toronto as it is to Birmingham. You've got to do a bit of legwork, spend a bit of money, but there are opportunities."

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