Posted on Wednesday 17 April 2019 by Ulster Business

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It may be the big firms which often make the headlines, but John Mulgrew looks at the SMEs, and some of which have grown considerably bigger, many multi-generational, and help prop up our economy

Just taking a quick scan through the Ulster Business Next 200 list, it’s quite clear just how crucial many of the companies are to Northern Ireland and its prosperity.

While some of those are ultimately owned by larger, international parent firms, the majority of those firms with turnovers between £20m and £72m are still Northern Ireland-based companies, employing thousands of people across the region.

Some of those which have witnessed a surge in turnover in the last year include builders merchants Haldane Fisher.

The company has witnessed turnover rising almost 20%, to £70.7m for the year ending 2017.

Elsewhere, Fermanagh firm Ready Egg Products saw its turnover rising by £22m to £64m. The egg processing business includes big names such as Marks and Spencer and McDonald’s among its customers.

Frylite, which started life when Eamon McCay opened a cooking oil business at a small Strabane premises, has seen its turnover increase to £40m, with pre-tax profits sitting at £1.5m. He’s now grown Frylite from a small family operation to an Ireland-wide firm with more than 240 staff.

And helping highlight the firms which are still based in Northern Ireland and retain ownership here, accountancy firm Harbinson Mulholland hosted its inaugural HM Homegrown event in Belfast.

Showcasing the top 50 SMEs here, it highlighted that Northern Ireland boasts more homegrown businesses per head of population than Wales, Scotland and all regions across the north of England.

And almost 75% of them operate in just three sectors – manufacturing, construction and wholesale/retail.

Of the list, 21 are based in Co Antrim, 10 in Co Down, nine in Co Tyrone, eight in Armagh and one each in Co Londonderry and Fermanagh.

The firms earned just over £100m in operating profit in their last reporting year on a turnover of £1.6bn, while almost £170m in wages and salaries was paid out to 5,700 employees. 32 out of the 50 businesses are family-controlled.

Professor Mark Durkin, executive dean of Ulster University Business School, which carried out the research, says the economic impact of the 50 companies “is considerable generating as they do £1.5bn in revenues and wages of almost £200m”.

“These companies act as key enablers of Northern Ireland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, an ecosystem that Ulster University Business School is proud to be part of. The results of this research demonstrate that just because businesses are local in origin does not imply, they are not global in ambition; that because they are from traditional sectors does not mean they are not modern in outlook. Indeed, local homegrown businesses have a sense of place and origin that can really create competitive advantage.

“Northern Ireland has demonstrated its ability to sell its agri-food, manufacturing and construction products and services overseas, but internationally successful companies tend not to emerge in isolation.
“Domestic competition drives innovation, efficiency and productivity improvements, which in turn develop businesses which can take on any competitor across the world. As a result, there is merit in Government identifying the most appropriate ways to support the continued growth of successful clusters to help power the economy into the future.”

And Darren McDowell, senior partner of Harbinson Mullholland said that homegrown businesses were the backbone of the practice’s client base.

“The Top 50 list underlines the vibrancy of this group of companies and the spending power they give to local communities through employment.

“Attention is often focused on other sectors, but this research demonstrates the continued importance of traditional businesses and industries to the local economy and the extent to which they can be successful.”

There’s also a raft of multi-generational businesses here, which have kept both ownership and control

One of those is food giant Henderson. It’s now in its fourth generation of the Agnew family, and is undergoing further expansion at its Mallusk headquarters. But while it’s very much a family affair, the company is now the sixth largest Northern Ireland business, according to last year’s Ulster Business Top 100 – with turnover of £759m.

Martin Agnew told Ulster Business: “It’s important for us as a family to continue to run our business with the same values on which Henderson Group was established by my great-grandfather, John Henderson. We’re also proud that we have built a sustainable business which continues to proactively develop and expand, and provides employment for over 3,400 people in Northern Ireland.”    

More than 120 years ago, John Henderson set up a stall selling butter, eggs and cheese – he was a well-known figure and frequently was a judge of cheese and butter at the annual Balmoral Show.

That subsequently progressed into a stall at St George’s Market in Belfast, and then in 1923, the business was incorporated as a limited company.

In 1929, William Agnew married John Henderson’s daughter, and in 1940 William joined the company as a salesman, taking a controlling interest when John Henderson retired three years later. A few years later in 1947 John Henderson, founder of the company died at the age of 82.

Now, the company owns a range of brands – notably SPAR and Vivo – and has spent millions in the last few years expanding its operations.

Operating out of its head office in Mallusk, it employs 3,387 people across Northern Ireland.


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