Harbour faces ‘border issues’ but can tackle concerns over UK leaving EU
Port boss admits major firms in talks for future City Quays project
BELFAST Harbour is in talks with major businesses about taking entire buildings in its future City Quays office projects as it’s set to tackle “border difficulties” with Brexit looming, its outgoing boss has said.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Harbour chief executive Roy Adair (60), who now oversees a port and development business worth £400m, says that while “there could be border difficulties” with Brexit, it’s ready to cope with the complexities of leaving the EU.
But he said, while “it’s doable”, the impact of multiple transactions on goods arriving could increase time at the port.
And he’s pressing on with the City Quays scheme, with the 17-storey third building to begin next year, followed by a fourth, and two others, which could be built for one major tenant looking to find a new home.
Mr Adair is stepping down from his top role next year after 12 years at the helm.
And he said that a court battle with Titanic Quarter, which was settled last year, “has been cathartic” and there has never been any “bad blood” between the Harbour and the developers across the water.
“In the Brexit context, the macro perspective is very important... I think what is without any shadow of a doubt is it does depend on how the ball lands, and that’s your uncertainty principle,” he said.
“It almost certainly in most states will generate winners and losers.”
The Harbour deals with millions of tonnes of freight and passenger traffic each year.
“If you take the volume of flow as measured in pound notes, between east and west, versus north and south, in the British Isles, the east/west flows are much important,” Mr Adair said.
“You don’t want to lose anything... there could be border difficulties. A lot of that is about how much preparation time. If it was tomorrow, people aren’t ready. Is it possible to become ready to undertake those transaction? Yes it is.
“Is there the requisition knowledge to handle those transactions? Yes there is.”
Mr Adair said, with goods already coming from outside the EU, the port, and others, are well-versed in dealing with customs issues.
“Stuff comes in a container. If it’s a big boat full of grain, that’s a big homogeneous cargo, and a single customs transaction,” he said. “But if you have a container, how many customs transactions are contained within, and does the necessary manifest information exist? It’s all doable, not for free, it will cost a bit more money.”
In his 12 years at the helm, he’s helped expand and grow the Harbour into a major Northern Ireland developer.
And in that time, the Harbour’s profits have increased from around £13m to around £33m, while the balance sheet value has increased from around £180m to over £400m.
The Harbour is also set to take a fresh look at the ‘masterplan’ for its City Quays office development.
“We have a fairly big masterplan, which is six or seven years old,” Mr Adair said. “Next year, we are very keen to refresh that... and go back, and say, we have made good progress, we are into the first phase of this, it’s doing extraordinarily well, does that mean everything else we thought was right, or do we need to review that? We are about to start kicking the tyres on the original masterplan.”
Roy Adair has helped oversee a tidal wave of change across Belfast Harbour in the last decade, including almost tripling profits to £33m and spending £120m on the ambitious City Quays office project.
The 60-year-old north Belfast man also says the Harbour is braced for Brexit but that there “could be border difficulties”.
And he’s pressing on with the City Quays scheme, with construction of the 17-storey third building to begin next year, followed by a fourth, along with a fifth and sixth, which could be built for one major tenant looking to find a new home.
Roy is stepping down from his top role next year, after 12 years at the helm.
And he says that a court battle with Titanic Quarter, which was settled last year, “has been cathartic” and there has never been any “bad blood” between the Harbour and the developers across the water.
Roy came on board the Harbour as it was examining its own police service, which dates back to 1847.
He took up office in January 2006 and has since helped expand and grow the Harbour into a major Northern Ireland developer.
“Most ports in the British Isles are successful financially. You don’t have to go back that long, but they weren’t always that successful. ... I inherited what was a very robust, healthy, organisation. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that team did one hell of a job... maybe a harder job than we had.
“I have been really lucky, as in my time it has been the same team. There were some who were here before me, and a few more we added very quickly.
“At that point, when I came in, we were clear that job one is to be sure the port functions seamlessly.
“If something goes wrong in this port, Northern Ireland will know about it almost instantaneously.
“One example, if you go to (a supermarket) and there are no sandwiches, that is usually because they come from Scotland.
“If the ferry doesn’t get in, there are no sandwiches. If the port gets it wrong, the economy will see it in an instant.”
When he joined, the ambitious City Quays scheme “wasn’t even a dream”, Roy says.
But then around seven years ago, the Harbour moved into property development. Since then, it’s built City Quays 1 and 2, with a new hotel on the way, and progress on a 17-storey office building and car park.
“All of that success took us to ask, where are you going to go next?” Roy says. “... the challenge is, what are we going to do with it (land not being used)?
“Property development became a very strong option... we saw the need from an economy and societal point of view.
“We have a fairly big masterplan, which is six or seven years old. Next year, we are very keen to refresh that... and go back, and say, we have made good progress, we are into the first phase of this, it’s doing extraordinarily well, does that mean everything else we thought was right, or do we need to review that? We are about to start kicking the tyres on the original masterplan.”
He’s hopeful the largest building, the 17-storey City Quays 3, will break ground early next year and open for occupation by 2020.
Once that is completed, the Harbour will have invested £120m in the project to date.
And he said there remains the high levels of demand for these speculative build offices, which make it easier for Invest NI to attract investors into Northern Ireland.
“There is still a very strong Invest NI pipeline coming through.”
In numbers, the Harbour’s turnover is around £60m a year, and in Roy’s time profits have increased from around £13m to around £33m.
More than 23 million tonnes passed through the Harbour in 2016. And the balance sheet value has increased from around £180m to above £400m.
It employs 140 staff directly, and is about to hire a further 100 for the new AC by Marriott hotel.
Indirectly, the Harbour hosts a workforce of up to 25,000 workers.
Belfast Harbour has also spent £20m on a new film studio.
The City Quays 4 office block is now at the design phase, while the Harbour is in negotiations about securing one single tenant for City Quays 5 and 6.
“We might be able to purpose-build City Quays 5 and 6 for a single customer,” he says.
“We are having conversations... City Quays 3 is in the ground next year. We are working on the design in City Quays 4 to get it into planning, and we are having conversations which may lead us to design and build 5 and 6.
“... we are in the market all the time, and are having conversations with people. It’s someone who is looking to re-home.”
City Quays 2 will already play
We have a fairly big masterplan that’s seven years old ... next year we are keen to refresh that
host to three firms, including UTV and Tullett Prebon, as previously revealed by the Belfast Telegraph.
Turning to the issue of Brexit, Roy says that while the Harbour is prepared for what lies around the corner, complexities and potential difficulties still remain.
“In the Brexit context, the macro perspective is very important... I think what is without any shadow of a doubt is it does depend on how the ball lands, and that’s your uncertainty principle.
“It almost certainly in most states will generate winners and losers.
“If you take the volume of flow as measured in pound notes, between east and west versus north and south, in the British Isles, the east/west flows are important.
“You don’t want to lose anything... there could be border difficulties.
“A lot of that is about how much preparation time (there is). If it was tomorrow, people aren’t ready. Is it possible to become ready to undertake those trans- actions? Yes, it is. Is there the requisition knowledge to handle those transactions? Yes, there is.” He says with goods already coming from outside the EU, the port, and others, are well-versed in dealing with customs issues. “If it’s a big boat full of grain, that’s a big homogeneous cargo and a single customs transaction. “But if you have a container, how many customs transactions are contained within, and does the necessary manifest information exist? “It’s all doable — not for free, it will cost a bit more money.” He says when people are talking about customs costs increasing, there’s exaggeration. “The bigger issue is time. And possibly the bigger issue will become non-tariff barriers.” Roy grew up on the Shankill Road in Belfast, where he lived with mum, Jane, and father, James, who was a “born again entrepreneur” and ran a large taxi firm.
The former Belfast Boys’ Model school pupil began his studies in engineering early on.
He won a scholarship, and was taken on by cigarette firm Rothmans which paid for him to study at Queen’s University, Belfast and he worked in a number of roles for the company over the years.
Later, he was head-hunted and diverted from his engineering roles to help set up the Northern Ireland Quality Centre, now the Centre for Competitiveness.
Roy then took on circuit-board firm, Irlandus Circuits, and helped turn it around. But the company was hit by increasingly cheap products from China.
“We made all the telemetry circuits for the Jordan Formula One cars,” he recalls.
Roy later took up a post with the Harbour for six months, and ended up staying for 12 years.
Earlier this year, he revealed he was stepping down from the role, with a new successor taking over next year.
“I hit the big 60. My decision was made maybe two or three years ago,” he explains.
“I must be challenged... I have to find things that keep me intellectually stimulated. My opinion is, if I let the clock run to 65, then the chances of me being able to keep on being active, in organisational life, is going to become more difficult.”
And Roy says he’s “delighted” that one of the existing team will become his replacement. Joe O’neill, who is currently commercial director, will take over from Roy when he retires in the spring.
Last year, the Harbour and Titanic Quarter were engaged in a now-settled legal fight over the interpretation of its ‘master agreement’.
“The tension came with, what did that agreement really mean?” Roy says.
“The recession hurt big time, all the values. Really, that has been part of it.
“We kind of lanced that boil by moving through the court process. The process has been cathartic.
“That has allowed us to reset the relationship.”
The Harbour is now involved in a joint office project called Olympic House, alongside Titanic Quarter.
“I wouldn’t say it’s let bygones be bygones, because, through all of this, there was never a personal difficulty.
“I could still sit down and have a glass of wine with Pat (Doherty, of Titanic Quarter)... there has never, ever been bad blood.”
Roy has a range of other roles outside his current job as Harbour chief.
That includes deputy chairman of the UK Major Ports Group, being a board member of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre and the Prince’s Trust Council.
Roy is married to Joan, a retired teacher, and they have three children: the eldest, Christopher, works as a mortgage adviser, Jill, an accountant for the civil service, and Kerry, who has a senior role at Citibank.
And his four grandchildren also keep him busy.
“We are the ultimate definition of a close family”, he says.
Golf also keeps Roy busy — he plays at Fortwilliam Golf Club in north Belfast — and he’s also a keen guitar player and enjoys cooking.
“Sunday for me is usually golf, and I normally make a big family tea.
“We always eat together on a Sunday,” he explains.
“I’d also like to learn Portuguese as I own a place in Portugal..
“I’d like to get back to the standard of proficiency I had at the guitar when I was young.”
Roy is also interested in writing a mobile phone app, going back to his interest in computer programming.
I would like to learn Portuguese ... and get back to a good standard of proficiency on guitar
Roy Adair with wife Joan
Roy Adair receives his CBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace and (right) City Quays 2 in Belfast. Far right, Roy enjoying a round of golf
Roy Adair at work in his Belfast Harbour offices