Posted on Friday 17 August 2018 by Ulster Business
If 1988 (for those who can remember it) seems like another world, it’s because it was. Thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how much has changed, writes Eddie O'Gorman.
Running a company in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s was a difficult and occasionally dangerous business. Even the simple process of getting from A to B could be a frustrating experience. On the main roads it often meant joining long queues of vehicles at random and hastily-erected checkpoints. Delays were common, and so, in consequence, were missed appointments and disrupted delivery schedules.
Retailers, particularly those in the major towns and cities, had their own problems to deal with. Out-of-town shopping centres were a relatively new phenomenon in those days, and delivery drivers heading for town centres had to contend, not only with security checkpoints en route, but with security barriers and no-access zones when they finally arrived.
For the general public, town centre shopping often meant passing through security barriers just to get access to the main shopping area.
Thirty years ago, this was all part of the tedious daily routine, a routine interrupted from time to time by bomb attacks, or by hoax bomb attacks, which, in Belfast in particular, often resulted in a massive gridlock 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. As a result, while there were plenty of good business stories to be told, there were precious few people willing to tell them. However, in 1988/89, a year after its launch, Ulster Business decided to compile the first list of Top 100 Northern Ireland companies.
There were many people who doubted that it could be done. I know this, because I was one of them. Such was the reluctance of companies to divulge even the most basic information, that nobody really knew whether they would be willing to identify themselves as being among the leading companies in the region.
Because, from the outset, we decided that in the climate of the time, it would be unfair to publish even such information as was in the public domain without letting them know that we intended to do so.
Accordingly, we sent out letters to the companies involved, ostensibly with the aim of inviting them to update their information, but also to give them the opportunity to decline to take part. We made it clear that if for any reason they would not wish to be identified, then we would respect that.
It was a concession that could have scuppered the entire process. As a result, we passed some nervous weeks only too aware that with enough objections and withdrawals, the whole exercise would be rendered meaningless.
In the event, and to our great relief, only two companies of that original Top 100 asked not to be included, and only one of them was in the Top 20.
The list of companies that we ended up with is a stark reminder of how much the economy has changed in the intervening decades. It was, for example, a time when Northern Ireland still had a clothing and textile sector. One of the leading companies, Desmond & Sons, had at this time a dozen or so factories, mainly in the north-west, employing a largely female workforce, many of them their family’s main source of income, making a range of leisurewear and nightwear for its sole customer, Marks and Spencer.
Two of Northern Ireland’s most iconic companies were prominent on that original list, of course. Shorts, two years before its takeover by Bombardier, was State-owned, surviving (just) by turning out its rackety old unpressurised 360s, which were said to fly low enough so that you could wave to people on the ground, and slow enough that they had time to wave back.
Harland & Wolff was also in state hands, and like Shorts, was suffering from a chronic lack of investment. Unable to compete with newer yards in the Far East and South America, it was struggling to remain relevant in a fast-changing industry.
Another leading sector in 1988 was food retailing. In those days, some years before the advent of Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Asda, it was very much a home-grown affair, dominated by the local supermarket chains, Stewarts and Crazy Prices.
Thirty years on, and after two decades of relative peace and stability, the Top 100 has a very different look, epitomised by the growth of the food processing sector (Moy Park, Dale Farm, and Fane Valley), and the emergence of a raft of world-class pharmaceuticals companies (Randox Laboratories, Norbrook, and Almac).
Then there are sectors which hardly existed 30 years ago, such as IT firms like Fujitsu, Kainos and First Derivatives, specialist back-office services (Allstate), and call centres.
This year’s Top 100 reflects the transformation which has taken place over the past three decades, and through it all, Ulster Business has been there to record the changes, the highs and lows, the presidential visits, the scandals and the bankruptcies, and to bring out each year a new list of Top 100 companies, these days, thankfully, without first having to ask whether or not they want to take part.