‘I ar­rived in 1985 when my fa­ther asked me in for six weeks of work’

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - News - by An­drew webb, di­rec­tor at bake rt illy mooney moore @an­drewjudewebb In next week’s Econ­omy Watch, we hear from Paul Macflynn of Neri

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

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