‘I arrived in 1985 when my father asked me in for six weeks of work’
the 1980s and they all continue to play an active role in the company today.
Gordon continued: “I hadn’t always intended to go into the business but in 1985, my father asked me to give it a go for six weeks and I’m still here today.
“I met my wife while I was working for the business and she was a nurse and we decided to settle down and set up home here and as it turns out the business has done very well.
“As the financial advisor, I’m responsible for purchases, such as when we buy a quarry, it is me who does the work with the Ulster Bank.”
Over the years, W&J Chambers Ltd has purchased a number of different quarries in order to guarantee the future sustainability of the business.
Most recently, they invested in a new site in Coleraine, which has allowed them to offer a wider range of building and concrete products to an expanding customer base.
Gordon said they are always looking at ways of securing the future of the business.
“For example, sand is becoming more and more difficult to find, so its price is going up,” he explained.
“By buying a quarry, we are future-proofing the business.
“It’s not that there is a shortage of sand in Northern Ireland, but by buying a quarry, you don’t have to go through the extremely lengthy planning process to get a site up and running.
“We are securing access to our raw materials.”
The business has also gone from employing a small number of men when Gordon’s grandfather set it up to currently employing 65 people.
Putting in place a good team has been crucial in ensuring the success of the company.
Gordon said they have always made a priority of protecting jobs, even in the face of the recent financial downturn in the construction industry.
He explained: “Your business is only as strong as the people you employ.
“A lot of our employees have been here more than 40 years, I would say about half of them have been here for 15 years.
“It’s very important to me when I get a good employee that we look after that person because we need those people to help us look after our business.
“When the construction industry slowed down, I made a conscious decision to run the business very conservatively and I’m pleased to say that we didn’t pay anyone off. “We survived. We were very conservative with our spending so we ran our lorries longer, we maintained them instead of changing them. “We decided that we wouldn’t panic but that we would hold out and just get through it and since then the business has grown every year.” He added: “As well as that you need to be with a good bank — we’ve been with Ulster Bank since 1935. My grandfather opened an account with them back then and we’ve been with them ever since.
“The current Ulster Bank manager we work with has been fantastic. I’ve needed him a lot, particularly over the last year, and his support has been very important to us.
“You also need a good accountant and a good solicitor so you’re getting good legal advice, while good family support is also crucial.”
Gordon said he hopes that the business will continue to grow and that he and his brothers will be able to pass it down to the next generation.
“We want to keep on doing what we’re already doing as best we can,” he said.
“We hope that we can continue to service the local community.
“As well as that, we try to spend everything and purchase everything locally because our local community is very important to us.”
Next week, the Big Interview speaks to Dr Majella Barkley, director of the Innovation Factory
The annual Northern Ireland Local Government Association conference is upon us. This year, attendees will gather under the banner of discussing the key roles councils can play in shaping the places where we live, driving the economy and thinking about ‘where next?’ I have written previously that, with more powers to influence economic development, our councils have displayed an encouraging ambition and willingness to engage on local economic development. This willingness to engage is welcome, especially as the lack of an Executive leaves a vacuum in policy and delivery that local government is increasingly being looked at to fill.
Our councils are a diverse group, some are industrial, others rely on tourism. Some are enterprising, others are home to high concentrations of public sector workers. With such a focus on councils, their economic performance across a range of key indicators is worth a closer look:
ECONOMIC ACTIVITY Strong employment growth statistics since the global financial crash have not been able to mask a problematic and stubborn economic inactivity rate in Northern Ireland. Latest figures suggest that the NI rate is 27.7%. Coming in well below that rate and leading the council league table is Antrim and Newtownabbey. Less than 20% of working age people in that borough are economically inactive. Belfast has a mid-ranking performance, at 26%. Derry and Strabane and Causeway Coast both have more than one-third of their working age residents economically inactive.
EMPLOYMENT SOURCES Since 2012, employment growth across the councils has been consistently positive. Star performers in terms of growth since the downturn are Mid Ulster and Belfast, where employment has increased by 11% and 10% respectively. At the other end of the scale, Causeway Coast and Glens and Mid and East Antrim have recorded employment growth of 4% and 5% since 2012. The growth in Mid and East Antrim is perhaps more impressive when considering the hammer blows of significant employers such as Michelin and JTI leaving the borough.
The employment mix is interesting at the sub-regional level. Mid Ulster can lay claim to being the industrial heartland, with close to 20% of NI’S manufacturing employment based in the council area. The borough is just pipped at the post for having the most construction workers by Belfast. Each area has approximately 7,500 construction workers. Unsurprisingly, Belfast has the lion’s share of retail employment. 20% of NI’S retail workers are in the city council area. This is twice as many as Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, the largest retail employer outside Belfast. Unsurprisingly, given its capital city status, Belfast accounts for vast swathes of NI jobs in ICT (twothirds of total jobs in NI are based on the sector), financial activities (60%) and public administration (almost half of all NI’S public sector jobs are based in Belfast). While the public sector jobs may be concentrated in Belfast, public servants are seemingly choosing to commute. Ards and North Down has more civil servants per head of population than any other Borough.
SKILLS LEVELS We often read that there is a ‘war for talent’ and that firms are increasingly basing investment decisions on the availability of appropriately skilled staff. It is accepted that education and skills are a key driver of economic prosperity. Unfortunately, there appears to be considerable cause for concern. Four in 10 school leavers in Belfast are leaving school without achieving five or more GCSES at A*- C including English and Maths.
While Belfast is by far the worst performing council area on this metric, only Lisburn and Castlereagh achieves a level below 30% (26.5%).
Taking the skills thread further, four out of 10 working age adults in Derry and Strabane council area have no or low levels of qualifications. This is by no means an outlier, with Mid Ulster, Belfast and Causeway Coast and Glens all posting figures in the high 30s. The best performing council (albeit with figures that can’t be claimed as a success) is Lisburn and Castlereagh where 27.8% of working age adults have no or low qualifications. ENTERPRISING HOTSPOTS As I wrote earlier in the year, The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), an international project by Aston Business School that measures entrepreneurial activity, identifies Mid Ulster as the entrepreneurial capital of NI with just shy of one in 10 adults involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity. Mid Ulster is around three percentage points higher than the NI average, followed by Causeway Coast and Glens, Newry, Mourne and Down, Fermanagh and Omagh and Mid and East Antrim as councils that report entrepreneurial activity above the NI average. Fermanagh and Omagh’s performance is striking as it was languishing at the bottom of the pile in the 2012-14 period.
Derry and Strabane, which had managed to climb above five other councils has returned to the bottom of the league.
HOUSE PRICES The average house price in Northern Ireland is close to £133,000. Five council areas have prices above this level with Lisburn and Castlereagh leading the way at close to £159,000. Value seekers would be best focusing their efforts on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon. Not only does it offer value (with average prices of £118,000), research by Royal Mail concluded that Craigavon is the most desirable place to live when considering schools, access to green spaces, employment prospects, working hours, affordable housing and average commuting times. Our councils are diverse, yet they face many similar challenges — low levels of economic activity, skills issues, ambitions to create more entrepreneurship and attract more employment to their boroughs.
Solving these issues may not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution but there are surely enough common themes and shared challenges to make events such as the NILGA conference an opportunity for even more collaborative thinking.
With the ongoing central government void not likely to be resolved anytime soon, such collaborative thinking, driven by people closer to the local issues, may generate solutions to these challenges and play a key role in ensuring NI moves forward economically, rather than falls further behind.
The average house price in Northern Ireland is close to £133,000