Posted on Friday 10 May 2013 by Ulster Business
That statement by Belfast Harbour CEO Roy Adair succinctly conveys the essential role that the Port has played, and continues to play, at the heart of the economy in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the wider island of Ireland.
It is a relationship that stretches back 400 years, to the Royal Charter granted to Belfast in 1613 which gave the city the ability to undertake marine activities for the first time, and one which is as important today as it has been at any time in the port's history.
Adair, the Harbour's Chief Executive since 2005, told Ulster Business: "In any port city there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the port and the city. There has always been a very strong relationship between what the economy of the city needed and what the response was by the port. Belfast is a prime example of that."
That it is the province's main link to the outside world and an indispensable economic asset is reflected in the fact that in a deteriorating market across the island of Ireland, Belfast Harbour saw trade volumes increase by 11% to 19.6 million tonnes in 2012.
The harbour was responsible for 67% of all trade to and from Northern Ireland last year, from imports and exports of bulk goods such as grain, coal and aggregates to roll-on-roll-off freight traffic – not to mention a large chunk of tourism income from cruise ship visitors.
"We have a strong track record all the way through the recession of managing our performance in a way that the board thinks is satisfactory," the CEO says modestly.
"When we come round to reporting financial 2012 results you are going to see an improved performance against a market that is likely to see a step back. And with some revenue from the new DONG wind energy terminal coming on stream this year we should see another improvement."
Belfast Harbour's vision is to "connect our customers to the world and act as a catalyst for economic development and regeneration".
It is a vision that acknowledges the important role the Harbour has played in all of those areas in the past, but also the export driven future which both business leaders and politicians are keen to realise for Northern Ireland.
It is a future which has required the Harbour to make a series of large capital investments in recent years – civil engineering project that are made all the more challenging because Belfast Harbour is built around mud-flats.
Recent investments have included land reclamation, dredging, construction of quays and terminals and commercial buildings, as well as the aforementioned £50m renewables facility which the Harbour handed over to Denmark's DONG Energy and ScottishPower Renewables at the start of this year.
The offshore wind terminal, the first purpose-built offshore wind installation and pre-assembly harbour in the UK or Ireland, will be used as a hub to help service a market valued in excess of £100bn and will create up to 300 jobs.
Another major recent project which has contributed significantly to the upward trajectory of its trade figures is the construction of a new ferry terminal for Stena Line which has led to increased Ro-Ro freight traffic through the Port.
"We've bucked the trend because of our business model. It is very heavily capital intensive and it is really all about trying to identify where there are market opportunities and producing a turnkey facility for a counterparty or general use and then bringing in revenue against that facility. We typically invest in a facility and then have someone pay us for it. If we do it properly it benefits our income line," explains Roy Adair.
While the potential to attract further renewables business is still high in the long term, confusion around energy policy at Westminster and the lack of cohesive strategy on wind energy among the Government's coalition partners means that interest from potential investors has cooled slightly. While the Harbour chief expects that to change, he says there are other growth opportunities from both its current offerings and brand new business.
"Last year we won some business away from Scotland to do with coal. Kilroot Power Station was being serviced from Scotland – a large boat would go to Scotland and a smaller boat would then come here. We did some dredging to change the parameters here that allowed the larger boats to come here directly and there are other similar opportunities in the industrial coal space," he said.
"We're also continuing to look at the cruise ship offering. Cruise business has gone from nothing to the current market in ten years. Two years ago we had 32 ships, last year there were 45, this year we have 60 booked, which is fantastic," he adds.
Adair is also confident that in Arlene Foster Northern Ireland has a Minister who understands the importance of the agri-food sector to the economy.
"How the sector performs is obviously affected by worldwide commodity prices. But there are a lot of strengths we have in our indigenous industry that are a shining light versus our competitors," he says.
As one of the biggest land owners in the province, Belfast Harbour is also stepping forward to help with a solution to the lack of Grade A office space in Belfast, which has been identified by many experts as essential to attracting overseas companies to set up in Northern Ireland.
"The risk to Northern Ireland plc is that we don't have what FDI investors want," says Adair. "The Northern Ireland government have identified this as a problem and we have stepped forward with a solution. We are in planning at the moment for a 68,653 sq ft office block right next to the Harbour Commissioners headquarter which would service foreign direct investment."
A GOOD CORPORATE CITIZEN
The Belfast Harbour chief executive is well versed in what international businesses want. His business experience includes senior roles with Rothmans International, Flexibox International, the Northern Ireland Quality Centre and DDL Inc.
Outside of his core commitments at Belfast Harbour, he has also been involved as a non-executive in a range of organisations, which currently include the Prince's Trust, Business in the Community, UK Major Ports Group and Invest Northern Ireland, as well as chairing the new Diaspora initiative NI Connections.
His personal interest in economic development, youth employment and training chimes perfectly with Belfast Harbour's over-riding goal to be a good corporate citizen.
Corporate responsibility as a concept has never had such a high profile as it does today, following the financial crash and lingering recession. But its role in the wider community is one which Belfast Harbour has always taken seriously, adopting a four pillar approach that focuses on Community, Arts, Environment and Education projects that benefit society.
Having recently taken over as Chair of Business in the Community, an organisation he has worked with for more than 20 years, Adair says the philanthropic work Belfast Harbour does is both in the public interest and its own interest.
"We underpin a significant amount of economic activity but if you flip that round then the corollary of that is that the harbour is only as good as the economy. So the harbour has a self interest in doing what it can to make its market bigger and improving the economy. Some of the work we engage in plays into that," he explains.
"If you take the economic development space, for example, I'm privileged to serve on the board of Invest NI and the Diaspora project is very much focused on the economy. The people who are interested in making Diaspora connections, aside from those seeking philanthropic donations, want to do something to help the economy. That clearly fits with our interest. The project is attempting to join up the dots where they are not currently joined up."
Adair says that Belfast Harbour has found Business in the Community a good tool to hone the organisation's approach to corporate citizenship and align its ambitions with the needs that exist.
Much of the conversation at board meetings of Business in the Community and the Prince's Trust, whose council Roy also sits on, are centred on employment for young people – or the lack thereof – and Belfast Harbour has refocused the Education pillar of its corporate responsibility strategy on Young People.
It is providing funding to help deliver the new employment scheme being facilitated by the Prince's Trust for Belfast City Council and working with Belfast Met on a new initiative that aims to help young people overcome the hurdles of getting into apprenticeships. A third strand is a new initiative with Business in the Community focusing on underemployed graduates.
"Much of the focus is on NEETs but there are a lot of people out there who have got work that is not coming close to challenging them or providing them with a career structure or releasing their economic potential. The solution is somewhere in the internship space and we want to help produce a more professional approach to internships," explains Adair.
Belfast Harbour is also investing in areas of society which have less obvious benefits to the economy, such as the arts.
"If your value system is based on profit alone, you wouldn't support arts projects that somewhere down the line might give you an intangible benefit," says Adair.
"But you have to remember that heritage and culture is what interests the Diaspora and the arts are a strong string to the bow of creating an attractive Northern Ireland for tourism and FDI. Anything that gets the attention of the world to Northern Ireland for good reasons is positive, and the arts helps create that positive message."
The CEO says Belfast Harbour is a "red blooded business" like any other and that his job first and foremost is to run a profitable organisation.
But it seems clear that with its commitment to corporate responsibility unrivalled in the local business community, it is much more than that. And while the Port is likely to be at the heart of our economy for years to come, you probably won't hear Roy Adair shouting about it.
"Ireland's ports are all run well and we have created a competitive space to make sure consumers and customers have a choice. But you don't notice a port unless something goes wrong. If a port is working it is invisible and our challenge is to remain invisible!"
The origins of the Belfast Port can be traced back to 1613, when, during the reign of James I, the town was incorporated as a borough by royal charter, with provision for the establishment of a wharf or quay. As a result, a quay was constructed at the confluence of the Rivers Fearset (Farset) and Lagan and the development of Belfast as a Port began.
The first ship built in Belfast was built for the Presbyterian clergy and registered in 1663.
In 1763 the first cut of the River Lagan, from Belfast to Lisburn, was completed. The engineer overseeing the project was Thomas Omer, and some six miles (9.7 km) of river had been made navigable within the first year.
1,190 vessels, gross tonnage of 97,670 tons entered the Harbour in the year 1813; in comparison to 5,458 ship arrivals in 2012, and the gross tonnage of these ships amounted to 103,655,824 tonnes.
The official opening of Herdman Channel, Pollock Dock and Basin took place on 26th October 1933, officiated by His Grace the Duke of Abercorn, accompanied by Her Grace the Duchess of Abercorn.
Praising the Ulster war effort, Sir Winston Churchill made direct reference to the strength of Belfast Port when he wrote; "Only one great channel of entry remained open. That channel remained open only because loyal Ulster gave us the full use of the Northern Irish Ports and Waters, and thus ensured the free working of the Clyde and the Mersey; but for the loyalty of Northern Ireland, and its devotion to what has now become the cause of thirty Governments or Nations, we should have been confronted with slavery and death, and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched."
The Harbour Commissioners completed the modern Victoria Terminal Three at a cost of £32m, providing the biggest container-handling services in Ireland.
Belfast Harbour celebrates its history, and the history of the city, with its commemoration of the Declaration of the 1613 Town Charter issued by King James I.